Setting boundaries means getting clear on what behaviours are okay and what's not okay. Integrity is key to this commitment because it's how we set those boundaries and ultimately hold ourselves and others accountable for respecting them.... Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them."
~Brené Brown, from Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution.
Ooooh boy. Boundaries. What a confusing concept for so many of us trying to figure out what the hell happened in our marriage and just how we can begin to feel safe again. If there's anything that will bring our boundaries (or lack of) into sharp focus, it's being betrayed.
Pre-betrayal, my boundaries, if I'd known enough to pay attention to them, were telling me in a hundred different ways that my marriage felt unfair. My anger and resentment were clear cues that my feelings and my actions did not match up. What did I do? I tried to talk myself out of my feelings: I was probably expecting too much. Why couldn't I ever just be happy? After all, he was better than a lot of husbands I knew.
Big mistake. By ignoring my own boundaries, I was disrespecting myself, which gave everyone else permission to do the same. Good old Elle! She won't mind!
But when my husband cheated on me and didn't walk out but rather begged me to try and rebuild our marriage, I realized that the old marriage was not an option. If I was going to stay and work through this shitstorm that he'd created, I was going to darn well get something good out of it. Not just him but a new improved him and a new improved me and a new improved marriage in which I was not doing everything for everyone and hiding behind a bitter smile.
I hadn't a clue what they were and why I needed them. I had considered myself something of a badass independent woman. I ran marathons. I ran my own business. I had friends, men and women, of my own. I travelled solo all over the world. Plus...I was nice. Nice is good, right?
Turns out, not so much. Nice is good when you have clear boundaries and the ability to state your needs unequivocally. Nice is good when it doesn't stop you from being not-nice when your boundaries are getting trampled on.
For me, nice was a way of paying for others' positive attention with my self-worth.
The baby's crying at 3 a.m. and I'm exhausted? Oh well, honey, you sleep. I'm awake anyway.
You need to work late again and I'm on deadline? That's okay. I'll just work when the kids are asleep.
This wasn't about compromise. This was about me playing the martyr. This was about acquiescence and total disrespect for myself. I was so invested in being a good sport, in being that great supportive wife who never really asks for anything because, well, whatever you want to give me is probably swell.
Being nice (which is a "nice" way of saying "pleasing people) often gets in the way of having and enforcing boundaries.
Post betrayal? Screw nice. I want to be heard. And respected. And so...boundaries.
(What's especially interesting for me is that I'm able to be far nicer now that I respect my own boundaries. It's impossible to be kind when resentment is seeping out of your pores. Your words might sound "nice" but your actions will be passive-aggressive.)
So, let's outline what boundaries are...and are not. Boundaries are basically your rules for your life. Brené Brown calls them an act of compassion for yourself. They're about respecting what you need to be able to be your best self. To feel safe. To feel valued. To feel heard.
Boundaries are not about controlling others. It's not a boundary to say, "I think eating meat is cruel so everybody around me must eat vegetarian." It IS a boundary to say "I think eating meat is cruel so when I prepare a meal, I will only prepare vegetarian." In the first, you're trying to control what others do. In the second, you're simply controlling what you do.
But boundaries in the wake of betrayal get a bit blurry because we're asking for our partners to really respect what we need...and it might look a lot different than what we need in a healthy relationship that hasn't been marked by infidelity. A healthy post-betrayal boundary is: Your dishonesty has made me feel unsafe in this relationship. I need to know that you are where you say you are and you are with whom you say you are in order to begin rebuilding trust. This is why many of us implement a system of checks in order to confirm our partner's whereabouts or contacts.
In a faithful relationship, I think monitoring each others' whereabouts is controlling and creepy. Post-betrayal, however, it's a way to rebuild trust. As time goes on, the vigilance should decrease. Again, it's about respecting your need for safety and assurance, not controlling your partner.
But this aspect of control can become problematic. And I hear often on this site about partners who've cheated becoming angry at being "controlled" by these post-betrayal boundaries. I get it. It must suck to be monitored. It must feel humiliating to have to come home right after work instead of stopping for a beer with friends. But the way I see it, a partner who's cheated has a lot to make up for. This isn't about paying penance, it's about supporting a loyal partner who's been deeply hurt and whose boundaries take priority right now. Not always...but right now. Compromise and negotiation can come later. Right now, it's about healing.
Here's the thing: I believe that those of us who've been betrayed should get to set the rules for reconciliation. My heartbreak, my rules. That's boundaries. But while we're still getting our feet wet regarding boundaries, many of us aren't so likely to enforce those rules. So it's important to establish boundaries early on that set us up for success, not failure.
What I mean by this is, establish boundaries that empower you. And give a lot of careful thought to what the consequences are if those boundaries are violated.
There's been some talk on another thread of this site around wanting partners to read certain books. And the partners haven't done it. Rather than feeling empowered by stating boundaries, the betrayed wives are feeling resentful. They stated their boundary (I need you to build empathy for my experience by reading this book) and their partners are being wishy-washy or outright refusing to.
If boundaries are new to you, you're going to get pushback. So you might need to practice a few times in the mirror. When you won't _______, I feel _______. And then...nothing.
Boundaries aren't about controlling him, they're about taking care of yourself. If he won't support you in your healing, then find support anywhere else you can. Therapy. Web sites. Books. Trusted friends.
No matter how anyone else in the world responds to your suffering right now, you can respect your own feelings. You can tell yourself that you matter. You can orchestrate your healing.
If he wants to join you and support you, that's wonderful. He can start by respecting your boundaries.
But – and this is important – if he's refusing or reluctant to support you in your healing, then perhaps he's telling you loud and clear that you don't matter. You can't make someone respect you. But you can show him what respect and compassion looks like by giving it to yourself.