An Emotional Affair Meets Financial Infidelity: Part 3. Establishing Boundaries to Protect Ourselves & Our Partners
Part 3: Boundaries enable you to protect yourself and your partner physically, sexually, and emotionally when you talk
“We need to discuss boundaries,” I said. It was the start our next meeting. “How you establish and maintain them.”
“Boundaries sound like putting up fences,” Steve said. “I thought we’re working to get closer?”
“It’s paradoxical,” I responded. “Robert Frost said it well: ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’”
“I think I’d feel safer with walls,” Carey said sarcastically.
Steve rolled his eyes. “Oh God, here we go again.”
“Walls give you complete protection, but they disconnect you from your partner.” Boundaries, by comparison, give you measured protection and enable you to have a safe relationship. Boundaries changed my life.”
“What do you mean by boundaries?” Steve leaned forward, his eyes inquisitive..
“Have you ever had someone stand too close to you, or touch you without your permission?” I asked. “Did you feel queasy?”
Both nodded in unison.
“Your discomfort tells you when your boundaries are crossed. We have three sets of boundaries: physical, sexual, and internal, regarding talking and listening. You set your physical boundary by asserting: I have the right to determine how close I let you stand to me, and whether I let you touch me. You have the same rights with me.”
Steve frowned. “So I’d say to the person who’s touching me, I’d appreciate your not touching me without my permission?”
“Exactly, and the same for standing too close. Our boundaries express our energy, like a bell-shaped jar over us.” I raised my hands over my head and brought them down slowly in the shape of bell. “The boundary extends further behind us, where we can’t see
“When do you apply them?” Carey asked.
“The minute you feel they’re being overstepped. We have to assert our boundaries; we can’t expect other people to know them. They change in different countries. You stand closer in Italy than you would in Japan. We often make the mistake of allowing them to be violated for fear of offending or hurting someone’s feelings.”
“I know I do that,” exclaimed Carey. “I need to take better care of myself.”
“Do my boundaries protect my partner, too?” Steve asked.
“Yes. Our boundaries are double-sided. One side pushes outward to protect us.” I gestured by pushing my palm away from my chest. “The other side contains us to protect others.” I brought my outstretched palm back toward my chest.
“What if I want to stand closer than Carey does,” Steve asked, “or I want to hug and she doesn’t?”
“The more distant boundary has to be respected,” I answered. “Otherwise you’re violating her space.”
Steve winced. “What are other examples of violations?”
“Our most personal possessions are like extensions of our bodies.” I gave them each a copy of the list of common physical boundary violations from which I read: “Getting into a person’s purse, wallet, mail, or closet, listening to personal and telephone conversations without permission, invading a person’s privacy, smoking in a non-smoking area, and exposing others to your contagious disease.”
“I’ve checked his cell phone at times,” Carey confessed.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Steve replied with a sneer. “I tell you when I talk with Vanessa.” He paused. “At times I’ve looked into your purse,” he admitted as he blushed.
“Oh my God!” Carey exclaimed. “What in hell were you looking for?”
“I’ve looked at your checkbook. They’re times when we’ve had less in our bank account than I expected so I’ve looked to see what you’ve spent.”
“And what’ve you found?” she asked. Her tone was strident as she glared at him.
“A couple times you’ve written checks I didn’t know about. I keep reminding you to tell me.”
“You’re right, Carey nodded. “I have forgotten at times.”
“To maintain good boundaries is a challenge,” I said.
“What about our sexual boundaries?” asked Carey. “How do we protect ourselves sexually?”
“You set your sexual boundaries with this statement: ‘I have the right to determine with whom, when, where, and how I will be sexual, and you have the same right with me.’ If you want to have sex with someone, you need to ask their permission. If they agree, you then discuss when, where, and how. We need to check even with our spouses.”
“But she’s my wife,” Steve objected, “we’re supposed to have sex. That’s why we married.”
“At times, Steve wants sex when I don’t,” Carey shook her head.
“Steve needs to respect your limits. For example, my wife usually wants me a bit more space than I do. If I stand closer, I violate her boundary even though I’m comfortable.”
“It seems like the partner who wants more distance always wins.” Steve knitted his eyebrows.
“Not really. Before my wife and I learned about boundaries, she used to go along with me to make love whenever I wanted. But when she went against herself, it didn’t work well. Instead of feeling closer, she felt resentful. When I realized that was happening, I told her I didn’t want to make love when she wasn’t in the mood. Instead of bringing us together it pushed us apart.
“Didn’t you feel rejected, or like you lost?” Steve asked.
“I was disappointed at times. However, I learned that no partner in an intimate relationship can win at the other’s expense. You either win together or lose together. I chose to win because I didn’t like the feeling when we lost. Like when she went along with me just to please me.”
“You’re right, I don’t like it either,” Steve said. “You’re helping me understand what’s gone wrong with our love-making.”
“Is pornography a boundary violation?” Carey asked as she read from the hand-out.
“Yes, when you expose people to porn who don’t want to see it, or who shouldn’t see it,” I replied.
Carey sat back her eyes wide open. My father showed me pictures when he was drunk.” Tears came to her eyes. “I was only eight.”
“That’s inexcusable! No father should treat his child like that!” I said. My eyes connected with Carey’s. “You do need walls when someone violates your boundaries like your father did.”
Steve sat forward. “Did he try to touch you,” he asked. His cheeks turned pale.
“Fortunately not! I ran to my room. He left me alone.” One corner of her mouth turned down.
“He abused you sexually and violated your boundaries,” I said. “Did you tell your mother?”
“I did. She wouldn’t believe me.”
“That’s more pain,” I said. She committed passive abuse, your father active abuse. He abused you directly and she refused to intervene. It makes me sad for you.”
Steve put his hand to his forehead as if to cover his eyes.
Carey sat straighter to pull herself together. “Are there other sexual violations?” she asked.
I read the list: “Touching a person sexually without permission, not negotiating when, where, and how to engage in sexual activity, demanding unsafe sexual practices, exposing yourself to others without their consent, staring lustily without permission, and exposing your sexual activities visually or auditorily to others without their consent.”
“Nobody taught me anything about sexual boundaries,” Steve exclaimed. “I can see how I’ve strained our marriage by expecting Carey to have sex with me because she’s my wife.”
“I’ve learned our expectations of others are premeditated resentments,” I responded. “And women need to feel cherished in order to want sex.”
“That’s right on for me,” said Carey. “Steve wants an X-rated movie. I want a romance novel.”
“That’s very common,” I responded. “Libido keeps our species alive. Men plant the seed and women bear the child and nurture it. A wise woman discerns who she wants to father her child.”
“I want to improve our love making,” Steve said. “What do I need to do?”
“Help Carey feel prized by you so she’ll feel like making love. Respect her limits. Remember she was abused and that makes it more difficult for her to trust.”
“Can keeping boundaries really help?” Steve asked.
“Yes. Our boundaries make us safe when we’re intimate–whether we’re making love, being affectionate, sharing our thoughts, or sharing our feelings.”
“When I feel safe I get romantic when we talk,” Carey said. What can I do to feel safe?”
“Establish and maintain your internal boundary to process what Steve says. Don’t take through your talking and listening filter statements that aren’t true for you.”
“How do I do that?”
“When you’re talking, say to yourself, ‘I’ve created what I am saying. I’m the only person responsible for my thoughts and feelings.’”
“That protects Steve and stops me from blaming him. I get that. But how do I protect myself?”
“When Steve is talking, remind yourself that he’s totally responsible for creating what he’s thinking, feeling, and saying. Picture your internal boundary like a flak jacket with holes in it that work like a filter. You control the filter. Take through the holes only what’s valid for you. His reality is valid for him, but that doesn’t necessarily make it valid for you. If it’s not your reality, drop it outside your boundary. That’s how you listen and protect yourself.”
“What if I don’t know whether it is valid?” Carey asked.
“Just gather more information until you can decide. Then, either take it in or drop it out.”
“If I decide what Carey says is valid and take it through my filter, then what?” asked Steve.
“You feel your feelings and deal with them.”
“What if my insides are jumping up and down?” he asked. His lips tightened.
I smiled. “My insides grumbled for years until I learned to accept that my wife’s reality is true for her, but not automatically true for me. I saw, as well, that my reality wasn’t necessarily valid for her. Once I gave myself permission to use my filter, I could begin to listen to her with objectivity. I stopped taking everything personally and respected my own reality.”
“Can you give an example?” Carey asked.
“When my wife spoke of my ‘loving look’ at her while we were dancing, that was valid. On the other hand, her belief that I wanted to start making love right then was not my truth. We were dancing together, but each in our own dance.”
“You could’ve taken offense,” Steve responded, “when she accused you of starting to make love.”
“I could have, but there’s no virtue in that. To take offense is a choice. Keeping good boundaries and striving to empathize with others helps us not take offense. I could easily understand my wife’s discomfort with the eyes of all her family on us as we danced.”
“But you were hurt and even shamed when she stopped dancing and didn’t return your look,” Carey said.
“Because I took it personally and made it about me. I chose to feel rejected and be a victim.”
“So when I take Steve’s judgments about how I talk to him to heart,” Carey responded, “I’m really failing to keep my boundary so I feel like a victim.”
“And what if I can’t get Carey to talk about the topics that interest me?” Steve asked.
I chortled. “I remember when I was training in Boston in psychiatry and my wife worked as an assistant at the obstetrics hospital. We had one car. When we drove home together, she shared her excitement about her patients who had just had a baby. I told her my news about the Red Sox and the Celtics. I was in my own separate world. I finally realized how important a baby is when we had our first child. I took too long to learn to join our worlds.”
“I am too controlling at times about what Carey shares with me and how she does it,” Steve responded. “Like you, I’ve made it personal. If she doesn’t take a real interest in my work, I make myself feel ignored and rejected.”
“And do you feel guilty for blaming Carey?”
“Yeah, now that I see it. Do I need to apologize?”
“Yes, and you might make an amends too.”
“How?” He leaned back.
“After you apologize, commit to stop directing what topics she discusses.”
Carey asked, “Are there internal boundary violations like you gave us for our physical and sexual boundaries?”
“Yep, there are.” I read from the list: “Yelling and screaming, name calling, ridiculing, lying, breaking a commitment, patronizing, negative control by telling someone who they should be and what they should do, being sarcastic, and shaming a person. These violations can destroy a marriage.”
“Well, clearly I’m guilty of breaking my commitment to Carey by getting together with Vanessa,” Steve said. He winced.
“It’s not just you,” Carey responded. “I act superior and patronizing when I ignore you because you criticize me.” She sighed. “It’s going to be hard to keep good boundaries.”
“You’re so right,” I agreed. “Developing boundaries is a process. It says easy but it does hard, and it doesn’t happen all at once.”
“How’d you do it?” Carey asked.
“My wife and I started working on boundaries a few months before our dance at the wedding. We had completed a week-long workshop on Co-Dependence with Pia Mellody at The Meadows in Wickenburg, Arizona. Pia explained boundaries to us, as I am to you. I had no boundaries. When I felt hurt by something my wife said, I put up walls of fear, anger, or silence. I walled my wife out, meaning right now I’m not interested in your thoughts or feelings. I walled myself in, meaning I’m not sharing with you my thoughts or feelings. I even did both at once. Basically, I bounced between having no boundaries and walls.”
“I do that,” Steve said. “How’d you change it?”
I raised my hands over my head and slowly brought them down. “I visualized my bell jar boundary over me to maintain a comfortable distance and not be touched without my permission. I pictured myself wearing my flak jacket and working its filter. I repeated to myself every time we talked that I’m creating what I think and feel and my wife is too.”
“Did it help?” Carey asked.
“You bet, but it took time. I started listening to my wife without my insides jumping up and down. Before that, I usually blamed myself for whatever she said and couldn’t wait to blame her back. What’s more, I specialized in justifying myself and my feelings. I didn’t grow up in a lawyer’s family for nothing.”
“What do you mean when you say you made yourself feel blamed?” Steve asked.
“My life was transformed when I realized that I create everything I make myself feel, including feeling blamed. Before that I was stuck in the blame game. I blamed her for what I made myself think and feel, and I blamed myself for what she made herself think and feel. That’s exactly what I did at the dance.”
“I wish we could stop our blaming,” Carey responded looking at Steve. He nodded.
“I’ve had many slips with my boundaries and at times I still do,” I said. “I remind myself that my goal is progress not perfection. I had a boundary failure at the dance. I had no boundary, and then a wall of silence, and then anger when I told my wife to go to hell. My intact boundary turned into an intermittent boundary. Sometimes it was there, and other times it wasn’t.”
“Is that what you mean by a boundary failure?” Carey asked.
“Yes. My boundary failed when my wife said she was uncomfortable. I felt criticized and let it through my filter, and I had a shame attack.”
“What’s that?” asked Carey, tapping her foot.
“In a shame attack you feel worth-less. My self-esteem was down around my ankles. I didn’t want to be seen, and I would’ve disappeared if I could’ve. Instead, I continued to dance by going through the motions. But I avoided eye contact with everyone. I felt humiliated and unworthy.”
“Did your wife feel responsible for shaming you?” Steve asked.
“Fortunately not. If she had, she would’ve joined me in the blame game. I blamed her for what I made myself feel when she said she felt uncomfortable. She did not blame herself for my feelings. I created them by interpreting what she said as a criticism.”
“What if she had meant to criticize or shame you?” Steve inquired. He glanced at Carey.
“Then she would be responsible for violating my boundary by shaming me, but I would still be responsible for what I made myself feel. Just because someone attacks you doesn’t mean you have to take it through your filter. I’ve learned with time that I don’t have to join a fight just because I’m provoked.”
“What happens when you develop an intact boundary?” Carey asked. “What’s it look like?”
“You maintain your physical and sexual boundaries and your filter is working full time. You process what others say to take into yourself only what’s true for you. Then you deal with your feelings. You make apologies when you’ve been an offender, and you even make amends.”
“You make it sound easy,” Carey said, “but I don’t think it is.”
“You’re right. I still have boundary failures. What’s painful is they’re usually with the people I love most. They’re the people who hurt me more readily because I feel most vulnerable with them.”
“Aren’t they also the hardest people to tell you’re not comfortable doing something they ask you to do?” Carey asked.
“That too. I don’t want to disappoint people I love. However, I’ve learned even with them to say no when I feel uncomfortable or resentful over a request.”
“I feel guilty when I say ‘no’ or feel resentful,” Carey responded. “Like it’s not ok.”
“I know what you mean. I used to feel guilty for feeling resentment,” I responded. “Now I’ve learned to take it as a valuable signal to set a limit. If I carry out a request that causes me resentment, my good deed has failed. Instead of bringing us closer, it has created distance in our relationship.”
“Don’t we make ourselves feel guilty and selfish if we say no to a request?” asked Steve.
“Yes. We’ve been taught to think we’re selfish and bad if we take care of ourselves, and we’re virtuous and good if we take care of someone else. The airlines, however, have it right. When the oxygen mask drops, put your own on first before you help anyone else, including a child. Without oxygen, you’ll quickly become a casualty and someone else will have to rescue you. Good self-care isn’t selfish. In fact, it enables you to help others. Taking care of yourself emotionally enables you to give to others, just like saving money does.”
“Do you stop worrying about what other people think of you?” Steve asked.
“Yeah, because you know your self-evaluation and your self-respect control your life. You cannot do anything that violates how you see yourself. Henry Ford said: ‘If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you can’t. Either way, you’re right.’ In short, you are the product of your self-image.”
“But doesn’t what your spouse and your friends think of you control your life?” asked Carey.
“If you put what someone else thinks of you ahead of your self-evaluation, who are you living for, them or yourself?”
“I see what you mean,” Carey replied. “But what makes it so hard to keep our boundaries? What causes us to lose them?”
“Good boundaries require unceasing vigilance. That’s especially difficult when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or using substances like alcohol or drugs. I use the acronym: HALTS. The S stands for substances.”
“When I’m using pot I’m calmer,” Steve said, “but I don’t pay close attention to what’s being said.”
“One glass of wine numbs me and makes me less aware,” Carey added, “not just of my own feelings but other peoples’ too.”
She sat forward. “Isn’t Steve crossing boundaries when he goes on his rides with Vanessa?”
“Yes. He’s breaking his commitment to you and triangulating his marriage.”
“But Vanessa’s my friend,” Steve protested. “I can go for a ride and still love my wife!” He folded his arms across his chest.
“When we marry, we vow to put our spouse first,” I responded, “even ahead of our parents, siblings, children, and friends.”
“But my friend is important,” Steve said. “She even helps at my job.” He shook his head.
“Do you have both feet in your marriage? Or, do you have one foot out?” I asked. “When you create a triangle with Vanessa you threaten your marriage.”
Steve unfolded his arms. “We’re just talking, but I do have one foot out.”
I looked directly into his eyes. “Do you share matters with her that you don’t with Carey?”
He nodded. “But I don’t touch her or flirt with her.”
“Steve,” I responded, “you’re having an emotional affair. By sharing more with Vanessa, you’re committing emotional infidelity. Most sexual affairs start because we want closeness, someone to share with. The emotional closeness often leads to sex. You’ve let Vanessa become closer to you than your wife.”
Steve glanced out the window, then back at me.
I leaned forward toward Steve. My words were like arrows. “This is the truth: if you want to save your marriage, you must end this affair.”
Steve sat back and averted his gaze. His cheeks reddened and his head drooped.
Our appointment was about to end. Carey scooched close to Steve and locked eyes with him. “He’s right.” Her voice choked. “I will never get closer to you until you end your involvement with her.” Tears filled her eyes. One spilled down her cheek. Steve put his arm around her. I gave them a hand to rise from the sofa. They left the session walking hand in hand.