Photo by Markus Winkler / Unsplash

Boundaries demand respect. Are you willing to set and protect your spaces with those you love?

It's a beautiful, cool June day here in Oregon. I've finally gotten to the point where I walk, clumsily, but hey. I'm walking. After two huge surgeries on these feet, I've got a lot of months ahead just managing how to stay upright again.

The boundary I've set with myself is that I will NOT push myself too hard. At seventy, I have plenty of experience with my badassery, and the cost of it.

These days, not because of age per se but because I really want to get back to my sports, I've set some boundaries which- with luck- will protect me from those parts which have a tendency to go headlong into life without respect for my physical bits.

That's new for me. It's lovely, too, for what those choices have unleashed.

But that's a different article. This is about emotional boundaries.

This morning I had a long, long talk with a dear friend who is having a hard time in his romantic relationship. For the last five years-or more-he's been joined at the hip with someone who cannot let go of her grown boys/men. They are 20 and 24; neither has left home, and they suffer from her inability to let them live their own lives.

They are boys because she won't let them grow up.

She is so identified with being a mother that she calls and texts them constantly, never allowing them a moment of peace. Or Tony for that matter, for all time with his partner is punctuated by calls and texts.

Worse, one of the boys is extremely toxic. That seeps over into this romance in ways that has exhausted both Tony and myself, for we have discussed this since the beginning. Today it sounded as though he'd hit a real point of no return.

Tony and and I have both been there before with partners, and we have both made many of the same mistakes. Most of us have, hence this article.

What's particularly important about Tony's romance is that back in 2018 when they first met, they both swore they would never "settle."

All righty then. Let's talk.

Tony's been good at many boundaries, but as he's aged into his seventies it's clear to him that his romantic choices are narrowing. There's a lot invested in this woman, but increasingly he's seeing that even as his partner's young men- not boys- talk about getting a job or moving away, they won't.

His partner, Dania, won't let them.

The message to Tony is that he isn't worth her full attention. While Dania tells Tony how much she loves him, blah blah blah, her actions speak otherwise.

I'll bet this sounds familiar.

All these years, Tony and I  have discussed boundaries. There is much about Dania that is good, or else he wouldn't have stayed. I can say the exact same thing about a certain man in my life, who has been around twice as long and then some. He now lives four states away. I'm the one that moved, and he was a big reason why.

However, increasingly, as Tony has set harder boundaries about these boys-not-men, he's realizing that things won't change. Dania will still be tracking their phones - as she does now- as they evolve into some stunted kind of adulthood.

Imagine one of those sons being married with two kids, closing in on forty, say, and their mother still tracks their phone and texts constantly. That is precisely where Dania is headed.

Let's not even discuss how dysfunctional that is. There's more to that but this isn't that article.

Dania wants to move in with Tony and take over his life and home, and in effect bring the boys/men with her. Tony is having none of it because first, he loves his space. Second, Dania doesn't show up alone. The boys come with her because she's constantly calling them.

Every time Dania makes the slightest bit of progress with letting go, she shows up at Tony's house unannounced, plunks her suitcase in the hall and settles in. The hackles on the back of my neck stand up when he tells me she's done it again.

If she could do this without texting the boys constantly, Tony might not mind as much.

Because there's this:

The boys don't like Tony. The younger one is openly hostile. Tony wants none of that in his life. He loves Dania, but he needs distance from the boys, who perceive him as a threat to their cash cow of a mother. They expect Dania to co-sign on their apartments and cars and all the rest. That's a financial disaster waiting to happen, because neither has held down a job, and both are irresponsible around money.

They learned that from their mother. You can see where I'm going with this.

So Tony has had to settle. Dania gets what she wants, but Tony doesn't. I'll bet that sounds familiar.

Here's the big nut: Tony is happy to establish "girlfriend weekend," so that he can spend time only with Dania. He wants to give her his full attention for eight days a month. The rest of the time he has work and he wants to see his friends.

He has scads of friends, Dania does not. Tony wants time with them during the week, and he wants to have two days a week with Dania, unfettered.

But Dania is terribly jealous of his time with others. She wants Tony to choose her over his friends, and she wants to be able to call her kids all the time so she's not present for Tony either. See a pattern here?

This is what Tony wants to require of Dania for the weekends:

No phone. The boys/men can learn to handle their own emergencies or call a different family member. There's a considerable family presence to deal with a true emergency (Calling mommy about how to cook a potato in the microwave is NOT an emergency) and besides, when are these men going to learn how to juggle life on their own?

The risk of course is that by setting this boundary, and by sticking to it if and when the transgression happens, he might kill the relationship.  Dania wants an enabler like many of us with addictions. So if Tony sets a clear boundary and sticks to it for once, Dania is going to have to choose.

For all the mothers out there who love their kids, let's be clear: Tony just wants time away with Dania for two days a week, time where he and Dania can bike and play golf and any one of a hundred things they enjoy. He's not demanding she stop being a mother; he's only asking her to show up with him on weekends, and let those young men begin to grow up.

For the sake of brevity I have left out years and years of details. This is whittled down to the primary points for the sake of this article.

Tony and I know how this is likely to work.

Dania is likely to agree to the Girlfriend Weekend, which is the visible agreement. She will also agree that if she breaks the agreement, there are consequences, and they need to be significant.

Those consequences have to happen on the first offense. Immediately, no negotiation. One and done, the girlfriend weekend is over, they part ways then and there and Tony stops seeing her for a good long time. No phone calls, no texts, nothing. Blocked.

Since Tony has caved in the past, as have I, Dania expects to get her way. So this:

Secretly Dania will bring the phone and suddenly find excuses to go to the toilet or see a tree or wander off a path or need to be alone....all weekend long, for you-know-what. In other words, Dania will promise and do what she does anyway, regardless of the pain it causes Tony.

Since I used to do precisely the same thing when I had eating disorders, please. We protect our addictions and we lie, then we cry and come up with excuses when we're caught.

Tony will catch her in the act, and here's where it gets rough. She will pull out the the waterworks  because it's always worked before. Tony needs to show her the door.

If Tony doesn't enforce the agreement the first time she texts her boys/men, then the real and lasting agreement - the contract- continues as before.

That's the invisible, binding, indivisible agreement.

Dania always get what she wants and Tony settles. It's gone on for five years.

The world turns on invisible agreements.  

My last relationship ran, badly, on toxic invisible agreements.

I met a girl in the coffee shop in Yogyakarta
Photo by Arif Riyanto / Unsplash

Stated boundaries are visible agreements. The real agreement is what we allow to happen anyway.  It's out of integrity on both sides.

We all have them. We all live by them. They are hard to enforce because we risk ending our relationships. The downside, of course, is that those agreements cost us. What you and I have to decide is whether the cost is worth it, or whether cleaning up those agreements and being in alignment with our best selves is worth more.

Today I told Tony, recognizing that I was of course speaking to myself, that the real contract isn't with others, it's with us. When we allow disrespectful and dysfunctional behavior in our lives, that's a statement of our worth.

Creating healthy boundaries is just the first step. When they are negotiated with people who have real problems, you and I have to be willing to take the big risk that enforcing the agreement entails.

Dania might realize, finally, that she has to make a choice between Tony and her boys/men even if it's only for a weekend. If Tony refuses to be available weekdays, then that's all she gets. But she gets all of him for two full days a week, ONLY if she shows up without the phone.

If she simply cannot abide by the rules even for just two days, then Tony has a terribly hard decision to make. Is he willing to take action and walk away from her?

Boundaries require bravery.

I've got close friends who, like me, experienced incest. When you're a child and have your body agency erased, it can take a lifetime to learn how to establish healthy boundaries. Some part of us believes that in order to be loved we have to let people stomp all over us.

Boundaries are hard personal labor, and they are also hard to maintain when other people who have issues setting boundaries stomp all over ours for the same reason.

My hand is way up here.

Good, healthy boundaries establish fair and equitable rules for all those involved. I've glossed over years of details. Suffice it to say that our challenges can be whittled down to the choices that people make to be fully present, or not, in a relationship they claim is the most important in their lives.

The relationship is first with ourselves, and then the self we offer to others.

Tony and I have willingly twisted ourselves into pretzels to accommodate people we love. We've taught them that we're willing to erase the line and move it again. Years of that. My guess is that most of us have done this at some point, usually in the name of love, or friendship, or work. It's costly.

If Tony doesn't impose the consequence, he pays the price with his integrity, and nothing changes. If he does impose the consequence, he may pay the price of losing Dania.

There is also the chance for a major change on both sides. Transformation is always available. It takes hard work not only to start but also maintain.

Each of us has invisible agreements with partners, spouses, kids, bosses, employees, neighbors. We all do. The annoying neighbor who borrows our tools and promises to return them and doesn't. The friend who promises lunch and never shows up. The parent who promises time but work is always more important.

All these agreements begin with us.

The hard part is to look unflinchingly at those agreements which damage us, and ask whether or not they need to be renegotiated.

There's only one challenge:

If we renegotiate a powerful invisible agreement and then do not hew to the new standards, we further lock the behaviors in place until they eventually are immutable.

It gets harder and harder each time.

So Tony has a choice to make. At seventy, is he worth the time and attention he wants from someone he loves? Is he willing to finally lay down the law? Is he willing to risk losing Dania, who is involved in a very dysfunctional dance with herself and her children?

I don't know. When the stakes are high, many of us just avoid the risk. The way I see it, that's costly because I've lived the risk avoidance. These days I'd rather have the integrity, but that's just me. I've broken too many agreements with myself and lived with the consequences.

I've lost important friendships when I stuck to my guns. My father wrote me out of the will when I set a boundry about his ugly, abusive tongue. Boundaries can cost, but they also teach us who will walk the hard way with us.

That, ultimately, is the point. Our agreements are with our sacred selves. When we keep them, we live in a different kind of harmony.

I think it's worth it.

Photo by Dario Valenzuela / Unsplash

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