Love And Boundaries
We tend to think of love as an all encompassing, overwhelming, positive feeling. We say, “I love you” and think that solves all our conflicts and arguments with our partner. During the initial stages of love, often referred to as an infatuation phase, boundaries are melted and dissolve away. We enter into the realms of the other person’s reality. We merge together. Our life becomes theirs, theirs ours. We lose ourselves. We become one. It’s a wonderful, marvelous feeling. For a while. At some point, we want ourselves back. We begin to erect some boundaries. The relationship appears to be pulling apart. Arguments and conflicts occur. We say “I love you” in hopes of remaining merged with the other person.
Love is not a static state. It is a process. There are stages. For love to endure between a couple, each person needs to maintain their individuality. The merging and melting of individuality in the initial stages is certainly important for bonding and building attachment. However, subsequent stages of love require each person to develop as an individual. When a love relationship smothers individuality, it becomes toxic. A healthy adult love relationship that has passed the infatuation stage will come to acknowledge, honor and respect the individuality of the partner. That individuality will, by definition, have a set of boundaries. Individuality and boundaries go together like a designated territory and fences. Of course, that territory has gateways in and out. It is not a secluded territory. But, it is a sovereign territory.
There are many examples wherein love and boundaries co-exist quite well. Parents love their children by establishing clear boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Children feel this love as consistency, structure and safety. Husband and wife may show their love of each other through respecting their partner’s idiosyncrasies, without trying to bend or alter them to meet their own needs. Teachers, managers, parents, friends, therapists and other roles we may take, can show love through boundaries in what is referred to as ‘tough love.’
Tough love is simply firmness. Too often love can be wimpy, weak, wishy- washy. Tough love is direct, clear, and concise. Tough love sets specific boundaries of behavior. Tough love is not violent, nor based in anger. Tough love is based on genuine caring. When a parent expresses tough love through vehement exhortations about not running into the street, it is based on the welfare of the child. When two lovers absolutely insist on no telephone contact during work hours for professional reasons, that is based on the welfare of the relationship. It is okay to be tough and firm when establishing and maintaining boundaries, if needed. An enduring love relationship without boundaries is like a glass of water without the glass….there is no shape, no form, no container. Love needs boundaries to have definition in much the same way children need structure to feel safe.
Unfortunately, as children our boundaries are often violated. Later in life we may have little or no respect for boundaries. A child who is spanked repeatedly while being told ‘this is for you own good; I’m only doing this because I love you’ will develop a belief that love = violation of boundaries or love = pain. When two people who have such beliefs get together, domestic violence is not uncommon. There may be expectations to violate boundaries as a way of demonstrating love. One or both partners may provoke such behaviors to verify that there is ‘love.’
Love takes many forms from the romantic and erotic to the familial and filial to the spiritual and altruistic. In every case, individual boundaries are going to play some role, more or less. Even if they are exceedingly minimized during some period, long standing, enduring love between two people will accept, honor and respect individual boundaries which themselves are not fixed in stone, do adjust over time and can be one of the more important considerations in a love relationship.