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Making Threats or Setting Boundaries

In the midst of replaying a painful pattern between you and your partner, it can be difficult to tell the difference between making a threat and setting a boundary.   I have frequently heard couples confuse the two.  Let's look at what gets confused with an example from Gustav and Inez.

Last night Gustav got drunk and communicated in some ways that didn't meet Inez's needs for respect and caring. Inez could find no way to connect with Gustav in his drunken state. She decided the only thing she could do is take care of herself by leaving the house and spending the night elsewhere if it happens again. She expressed this decision to Gustav.  Hearing this, Gustav accused her of threatening him.

Gustav thinks Inez is threatening him for three reasons.  One, he recognizes that Inez has made a decision to behave a certain way based on his actions.  This idea of behavior dependent response is part of what defines a threat, but by itself does not typically imply threat.  For example, if Gustav began visiting his brother on Friday nights, Inez might say something like, "If you are going to visit your brother on Friday, I am going to go out with Susan."  This has the same element of behavior dependent response, but would not likely be heard as a threat.

The second reason Gustav thinks Inez is threatening him is that he interprets Inez's plan as an intention to hurt and punish him, not just to take care of herself.  The intention to hurt or punish another based on their behavior is what defines a threat.

The third reason, is that Inez's plan to leave the house and spend the night elsewhere means they will both lose out on any connection that might be possible under those circumstances.  Gustav experiences this lost opportunity as a punishment.

So how can Gustav and Inez avoid this merry-go-round of misunderstanding and pain?

Rather than just expressing her plan of action, Inez would have more luck with revealing her feelings and needs first.  It might sound like this:

Inez:  "Gustav, last night when you were drunk and talking to me in the way you did, I was feeling scared and hurt.  I needed safety and respect.  So I am wanting to take care of myself better the next time you are as intoxicated as you were last night.  I am thinking it might be best for me, if I just spend the night at my sister's if it happens again.  What do you think would be best?"

In this way Inez can open a dialogue around how she not only can take care of herself but also how the two of them may come up with strategies to care for each other and the relationship.

However, in some cases, negotiations have been made again and again around a particular need-costing behavior and there has been no change.  At this point, one partner may simply reach a tolerance limit.  That is, if Inez and Gustav have worked out various ways to handle this situation but despite their efforts it has ended in pain for them both, Inez may set a boundary by making a unilateral decision to take care of herself by leaving the house, with the intention to save them both from pain.  This kind of decision making can meet needs for structure and clarity in the relationship providing a clear message about what is not workable in the relationship.

Part of creating healthy relationships is recognizing the difference between what you are willing to work on in a relationship and what you are not.  You get to choose what you give your energy to.  When you communicate this clearly to others, they get to choose how to respond to you. 

Where in your relationships are you "putting up with something" you would rather not give your energy to?  Where in your relationships would you like to work on a change and haven't yet expressed your observations, feelings, needs, and requests?  Take a moment now to answer each of these questions for yourself and identify your feelings and needs in the situations you named.

***click here for a list of feelings and universal needs

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