Communicating Boundaries

Concerned Citizen:

“You said in your Togetherness Project presentation (Fall 2014) that men should be able to understand and follow a woman’s boundaries without a woman needing to say them. While this would be wonderful, we feel it is essential that women are taught that they have the right and responsibility to speak up about their boundaries and should not expect men to read their minds.”

My reply:

I am sad that in my presentation I made it sound like I did not believe that women have the right and responsibility to speak up.  Let me start with a little background.

Most of the couples I work with have experienced a great deal of trauma before I meet them.  Almost all of the cases I work with involve the wife being traumatized by the husband.  Most, if not all of these women have worked hard to understand the concept of boundaries and they have worked hard to attempt to communicate those boundaries to their husbands.  Unfortunately, in almost every case, part of the compounding problem is that the husband does not listen carefully, invalidates, disagrees with and/or ignores the attempts made by the woman to communicate her boundaries.  I have observed that when a woman works very hard to clarify and communicate her boundaries, only to have the man respond this way, adds more to her trauma and betrayal.

Perhaps what I should have said is, “Until a man is invested in understanding and validating your boundaries, you are probably going to be hurt even more if you try to verbalize them to him.  I have found that men who are invested in understanding and validating a woman’s boundaries are usually smart enough and motivated enough to observe her boundaries without her having to verbalize them.  To the ladies, if you find yourself repeating yourself, then you are probably dealing with a man who is not going to respect your boundaries.  I recommend you withdraw to a safe distance.  These means something different in every case.  If a man is hurting you over and over again, due to a flaw in his thinking and/or behaviors, then please do not put yourself in a place where you can be hurt.”

Yes, I believe a woman has the right to communicate her boundaries.  She also has the right to cross the street in the crosswalk with the appropriate signal, but if she is wise, she will watch for irresponsible drivers who might run her over anyway.  She had the right to walk across the street at that time, but she is still the one in the hospital with significant injury.

I believe women have the responsibility to know their boundaries.  This can be a complex and evolving exploration.  In my experience, most women prefer to have as few boundaries as possible because they prefer psychologically and emotionally intimate relationships, and the more boundaries, the more limitations there are on these intimacies.  Most women are not trained in their developmental years how to respond to trauma and betrayal, so they are very amateur in the awareness of and enforcement of their boundaries.   Also, because the behavior of the spouse has an impact on the boundaries (trustworthy behavior brings thins boundaries, untrustworthy behavior thickens boundaries), the boundaries can change from day to day.  This can be as aggravating to the woman as it is to the man.  And, to make things more complicated, translating boundaries into something describable in English from a woman’s processing style to man’s understanding style can be rather challenging.  If a man is invested in understanding and validating a woman, and the trauma has not been too extensive, I hold the woman responsible to try.

Because this boundary fluctuation can be day to day, and because translation into a language that makes sense to him can be limited, I expect a man who wants to fix his relationship to be anxiously engaged in understanding her boundaries via observation more than conversation. If he reaches for her shoulder and she flinches, she shouldn’t have to explain that she is not ready to be touched.

Situational communication can help, “Would it be helpful to you if I came in the house and did the dishes while the kids get ready to go out with me for the weekend?”  “Would you like access to my email account?”  A healthy man who is working hard will not be bothered or overwhelmed that “the rules” can change almost every day, as she works through her own recovery from the trauma and betrayal.

In summary, highly traumatized marriages will need a highly invested man to learn how to care deeply for an respect his wife’s boundaries.  Those boundaries will change as trust increases.  It is hard work for the woman to understand and clarify her boundaries.  If he is not invested in understanding and validating those boundaries, even as they evolve, it is wise for her to use actions instead of words to communicate her boundaries.

About Maurice W. Harker, LPC

Director of Life Changing Services, Director of Sons of Helaman, Facilitator of the WORTH group, Consultant for the Daughters of Light program.