Note:  This is the first of a two-part series.

Dear Neil:  Why do I always seem to choose distant and withdrawn men who cheat on me?  This is my third straight relationship where chronic infidelity and too much distance have ruined things.  Am I doing something wrong?

Confused and Angry, New York City

Dear Confused and Angry:  Perhaps you are not setting effective boundaries in your relationships with men.  A boundary is a limit or edge that defines you as separate from others.

Our skin marks the limit of our physical self, but we have other boundaries as well—emotional, spiritual, sexual and relational.  If I let someone abuse me, or repeatedly act mean and hostile to me, or repeatedly cheat on me, I have not communicated what I will and will not tolerate effectively enough—or I am letting my boundaries get overrun.

We teach others where our boundaries are by the way we let them treat us.  Most people will respect our boundaries if we indicate where they are.  With some people, however, we must actively defend them.

Where are your boundaries?  Do you know?  What does your mate do to warn you away from private emotional territory?  What do you do to communicate what is and is not acceptable in your relationship?

I set my emotional boundaries by choosing how I will let people treat me.  One way I do this is by setting limits on what people can say to me.  Another way is to limit their ability to control how I think, believe or feel.  Setting emotional boundaries include deciding what relationships I’ll foster and continue, and what people I’ll back away from because I can’t trust them.

To be healthy we must have clear physical and emotional boundaries.  We must be able to defend ourselves physically by setting limits on how close we let people get, who touches us and how we are touched.

A person can set boundaries a great distance from his/her inner self.  When this is the case, s/he will be isolated, have difficulty expressing confidences, and may have difficulty connecting with a spouse.  S/he may have poor contact with inner feelings—and be unable to communicate them. S/he may interpret affection as intrusive, and interest as prying.  S/he may feel easily smothered, and may be difficult to bond with.

Of course, a person with very close boundaries can marry someone with very distant boundaries.  The power struggles between the efforts to draw the other closer—and the other’s efforts to resist being drawn closer—become the central issue in the relationship.

A partner’s whose boundaries are too flexible can be irritating at the least, and untrustworthy at the extreme.  An inability to set limits can lead, for one thing, to inappropriate affection outside the relationship.  A healthy boundary—clearly communicated—tells us that certain behaviors are inappropriate in the context of our relationships.

A whole person maintains a separate identity with boundaries rather than defenses.  If we don’t have boundaries, we need defenses—such as withdrawal, control, sidetracking, blaming, rationalizing, intellectualizing, name calling, black-white thinking, threats, coldness, anger—all are handy ways to avoid feelings and to avoid truly communicating what you want.  The healthy alternative is to state your true feelings, preferences and needs.

I will continue this discussion in next week’s column.

Source:  Boundaries by Anne Katherine (Fireside).

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