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Setting Healthy Boundaries: A Hypothetical Scenario

Last night, I hosted a livestream Q&A on Facebook on the topic of “Setting Healthy Boundaries” (here's the link to the full video).

There seems to be a lot of interest these days in learning how to set (and maintain) healthy boundaries, so I wanted to share a hypothetical scenario we discussed last night & how we might approach setting a healthy boundary.

So, let’s talk about a scenario that we’ve all likely experienced before… telling someone we’re not interested in a romantic connection with them, whether that’s because we simply don’t feel an attraction or because there’s a mismatch of values, relationships goals, or how we expect to be treated in a partnership.

To make this hypothetical example as specific as possible, I want to take an idea from David Richo’s book How To Be An Adult In Relationships. In that book, he offers a list of important qualities we should be on the look-out for in the early stages of getting to know someone romantically. And one thing he brings up that could be a deal-breaker in a potential new relationship is “distracting ties that make true commitment impossible, such as another relationship in progress, an old relationship unfinished, a divorce pending,” or similar situations.

Let’s say you’re getting to know someone and you come to learn that they have a past relationship that isn’t FULLY over yet. Maybe they broke up with someone VERY recently. The emotions are still fresh and they are still frequently in touch with this ex, working through their feelings together. Maybe they have indicated that this ex is begging for the two of them to get back together. Let’s take it even one step further and consider that this break-up was the end of a marriage. The divorce process is extremely messy and is taking up a lot of their emotion and mental energy. There’s obviously a lot of grief around the ending of the marriage that the person is working through. Maybe there’s not a clear timeline on when they will be legally divorced & officially single. Let’s assume this situation has come up in several conversations now and you have a clear sense that this is simply where this person is in their life right now, for better or for worse.

The above situation is one in which you have the right to decide that this isn’t a dynamic you want to be part of, even if you think the person you’re getting to know has many great qualities and might be a great romantic partner someday. Key word: someday. But not right now.

You decide you want to say No to this connection. But how? How might you approach setting this boundary in a healthy way?

The healthiest boundaries in my mind are one where we focus on informing the other person about what’s coming up for us, what our needs and expectations are, and what actions we will be taking moving forward.

(*Be sure to read the postscript below on how the situation may be different if you’re dealing with a highly abusive person. You don’t owe an abusive person an explanation for your boundaries.)

The art of setting boundaries is ultimately not about telling another person that they are wrong or telling them what they SHOULD be doing.

We are speaking up about the choices WE are making about our own actions based on our own needs and expectations.

So, setting a boundary in this situation could sound something like: “One thing that’s incredibly important to me in a relationship is that both people are really ready to make a commitment to each other. And one important sign of that for me is that we’ve both moved on from ex’s and past relationships. Your current dynamic with your ex just isn’t the kind of romantic situation I’m looking for right now. So as long as that’s the dynamic in your life, I need to make the choice for me not to pursue this relationship any further. I hope you will respect my decision & understand that this is the healthiest choice for me.”

A few things to notice.

I didn’t tell the person that they are bad for having this complicated relationship with an ex. I’m not telling them that they are wrong. And I’m not trying to control their behavior or manipulate them into doing what I want. I’m not saying “You need to block your ex right now to show how much you really love me.”

What I’m focusing on is: Here’s what I’m feeling. Here are my needs and expectations. And here’s what I’m choosing to do moving forward.

And that gives them the freedom and autonomy to respond however they choose to respond, based on their own current level of self-awareness (which you, by the way, don’t really have any control over… nor is it your job to try to change their level of awareness).

If they reply saying “You’re being completely unreasonable. This is totally unfair. My ex doesn’t mean anything to me. You’re being crazy…” then they’ve just given you further proof that they are not the one for you. Goodbye.

Now, they could reply by saying, “I hear you and I respect your choice.” That’s showing respect for your boundaries. And let’s say you hear from them three months later, saying “I took the time to really bring a close to that past relationship. The divorce is finalized. I’ve deleted their number. I’ve put it behind me and I really feel ready to prioritize a relationship with you if you’re still available for that.” If that is the case, then you have the option to revisit your boundary due to the new situation. If they respect your boundary and then actually change their behavior BECAUSE THEY CHOOSE TO, you might be in a place of reconsidering the relationship.

But you didn’t force them into that changed behavior. You didn’t guilt-trip them or shame them. You stated your needs. You held your ground. You stated your boundaries. And then you let them make the choice they want to make. And then you respond accordingly.

In my experience, this is an example of setting a balanced, healthy boundary.

- Matthew Robertson


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