Boundaries and Bridges: The Basis of Self-Care in Relationship
by David A. Yeats LCSW
When we first meet, we can’t take our eyes off each other. Like a “tractor beam,” we are locked on each other, and there is very little else to the world. We find it miraculous that almost everything about our partner is so similar to us! Or, if we notice any differences, we feel oh-so-comfortable with those differences. This is the honeymoon stage of relationship, where the “Urge to Merge” is dominant.
It is a delightful, incredibly pleasurable stage, and we imagine it can feel this way forever. Our bond is forged: we will travel together, and nothing can tear us apart.
Until it changes.
Sooner or later, one or the other of us starts to feel a bit constrained. We may get irritated with our partner for simple quirks that, a while back, made us smile with joy. We notice a desire to reconnect with friends or some project or hobby in our lives that has been set aside. We are starting to separate, to reclaim the parts of ourselves that are different and unique from our partner. This is the differentiation stage of relationship, the “Urge to Diverge.”
It is at this point in the course of our relationship where our bond with each other is in danger. Though we want to be with our partner, we don’t want to be with our partner all the time. We want to spend time alone, time away, with others, doing other things, you know: being ourselves, like we used to be.
Here we learn to appreciate that relationships that work are made up of two co-equal parts: Connection and Separateness. Too much of one or too much of the other leads to clinginess on the one hand or isolation on the other, and neither of those can nurture a healthy relationship. Usually, in order to find the balance, we will go through a painful period of power struggles, as we negotiate a balance that works for both of us.
Often, unresolved or problematic patterns we learned as kids in our families, with our friends, and at school, are the patterns we bring to the relationship. Perhaps one always pursues, and the other always distances. Perhaps I have learned to be pushy and bossy, or have to have my way because I’m afraid if I’m not in control. Perhaps I’ve learned to always defer to others, or to men or women. Perhaps I’ve learned it’s best to be quiet and fly under the radar. Perhaps I have learned the best strategy is to fight or to flee or to freeze.
Many of the communication styles and patterns we experienced early in life are not healthy or balanced. But we have learned them, just as we have learned to read and speak English: we don’t naturally think in another language. But that is the work: to learn a new language that is balanced, mutual, respectful, collaborative.
Although there are potentially abundant aspects of this new, healthy language of relating that we may need to learn, a core skill and awareness that can help us move to a more honoring and more joyful outcome together has to do with Boundaries and Bridges.
Connection and Separateness need to co-exist in a working relationship, and finding that balance means both setting Boundaries and building Bridges with our partner (as well as others—for example, with other family members).
A key (external) Boundary is that the couple need to prioritize their relationship over almost everything and everyone. Thriving couples put their relationship first over other family members, social life, work, hobbies, even kids. This doesn’t mean these other aspects of life are unimportant, but they all need to be in balance. If the couple is not collaborating and negotiating these aspects of life together, they will feel less connected and less satisfied in their relationship.
Most of the important Boundaries that need to be honored in a relationship are the Boundaries between the two partners.The Three Gardens of Relationship (described elsewhere on this site) suggests the playing field and the rules that work. Taking permission to set a Boundary is an important skill, as is honoring the Boundaries that a partner sets.
Boundaries often have to do with establishing agreements about fair communication, such as avoiding “you” messages or case-building, avoiding judging each other, using the past to criticize in the present, talking about more than one issue at a time. Good communication involves using time-outs, honoring separate truths, one person talking at a time, and many other skills. (See Satisfying Communication elsewhere on this site).
What about Bridges? Every time we set a limit or establish a boundary, the person listening will have an emotional reaction, particularly if both are in a committed relationship with each other. That reaction tends to be protective,* because at an emotional level, to set a Boundary suggests we are separate from each other, not connected. (An early researcher on trauma, Eric Lindemann, suggested that trauma was essentially a rupture of emotional bonds between people, and Boundary setting (along with rageful responses and a host of other unfair communication forms) is experienced by the receiver as a kind of rupture of connection. So it’s not surprising that setting a Boundary can be difficult for both the one setting the Boundary, as well as the one on whom a Boundary is set).
Bridges, on the other hand, are bond-builders. They are reassuring and reiterate and remind us of our connection. Yet, if we only pay attention to building Bridges with our partner, we will eventually feel engulfed, lost, merged with them. So, balancing Boundaries and Bridges is the art form that allows a relationship to succeed.
When I set a Boundary, I will be much more likely to have it heard and honored if I build a Bridge at the same time. For example, “I am going hiking with my friend (Boundary), but I’m looking forward to seeing you tonight (Bridge). Or the reverse, if my partner sets a Boundary, I will tend to feel more valued and seen if my partner builds a Bridge as well. For example: “It’s not ok for you to tell me what to do (Boundary), but I do want to hear what you feel. (Bridge)”
If we can both get good at understanding and using Boundaries and Bridges, and we can see together that we are able to feel more connection as well as more freedom by our honest expressions of both, we will begin to feel we are a team, that we work together as equals, that we have each other’s back, that we can say and hear truth from each other, and we have reached the stage of true partnership—the “Urge to Converge.”
This is where life can be really rewarding, regardless of the bumps in the road we encounter. Now we can look forward, build dreams, and dance together as we co-create, in the last, richest, and potentially enduring stage of learning, loving, and becoming in relationship—the “Urge to Emerge!”
*Some may want to use the word “defensive” rather than “protective.” I use the word “protective, “because it suggests more clearly what our intention is. Some protect by “getting defensive” (although there are lots of other ways to protect ourselves), but “defensive” suggests something bad or unhelpful or unfair—and that may or may not be so. Being “protective,” though, is a good thing: if we can’t protect ourselves, we will be compromised.