By Grace Cooper
To listen while reading, “Don’t Wait Too Long” by Madeleine Peyroux.
BOUNDARIES, like fences, make for better relationships, or so relationship experts assure us is true. Healthy boundaries in our closest relationships, perhaps counterintuitively, bring us closer to one another ultimately.
Recently my beau and I spent a week visiting one of my favorite cousins and her husband in their spa-likeTucson home. The men were off together one morning, working on their “bromance,” bonding over a shared love of snarky humor and the inanity of world politics. My cousin and I were deep into a discussion of our favorite topic—intimate relationships.
Long married, my sweet, quiet cousin was filling me in on the state of her 40-year union with her gregarious and garrulous French-born husband.
“It was rough at the start,” she said, shaking her head. L wanted to argue about everything, even in public. I hate arguing and am intensely private. I was sure it meant he did not love me and we were headed for an early divorce. But then one of his French relatives gave me a book (Cultural Misunderstandings: The French-American Experience by Raymonde Carroll) to read about French couples and how they relate best to one another.”
Cultural differences—in this case the French tendency to argue with loved ones—is considered a sign of devotion to one’s union. The rationale is that when you’re secure in your love for one another, you are empowered to freely hash out the day-to-day marital irritations that, swept under the rug, will fester and grow. What’s more, arguing in public is a demonstration to others that you are a secure duo.
I’ll admit that in my own 28-year marriage, no complaint of mine could be voiced gingerly enough that it wouldn’t send my husband into a furious tizzy, followed by three days of the “silent treatment.” How splendid it would be to safely speak my mind, I used to think, and have a respectful resolution to our issues. Even when in year 20, after our marital counselor advised me to leave him immediately, it was still another seven years before I could pull the trigger on a divorce. I’d grown accustomed to stony silence akin to the uneasy détente between two countries sitting on an arsenal of nuclear weaponry.
And so eventually divorced, I set about learning a new way of relating in all my closest relationships. Eight years of psychotherapy later, I found my voice and can’t imagine being silenced ever again. Similarly, my beau of one year was previously in a long marriage of similar unspoken agony. He told me a story recently, of the gradual, yet obvious symptoms of a marriage in a death spiral. “Did you two ever question why?” I inquired.
“No, we never talked so it wasn’t discussed,” was his rueful reply.
I get it, but that also might explain his wide-eyed shock on all the occasions I let him know, in real time, and in great detail, all the little ways he might step up his game, or retreat gracefully, if he really wants to please me, as he claims he does.
For instance, he’s messy and spontaneous, and a bit manic in a scattered way. I’m borderline OCD and deliberate. He’s into unsyncopated jazz. I like indie folk with meaningful lyrics. I’m the kind who can’t leave for one of his many suggested out-of-town adventures until I’ve paid my bills, cleaned my house, ironed everything in the basket and changed the sheets. He’d prefer spontaneity. I like to come home to a peaceful, tidy space . . . is that so bad?
Recently, during a long drive home from another week away, I outlined a plan that might give each of us a peaceful way to negotiate our differences—boundaries. Immediately he protested the terminology.
‘’What an awful word. It sounds hostile and makes me think of what countries go to war to maintain!” he opined.
Still I persisted. (Thank you, RBG).
Healthy boundaries means that you value your own needs enough that you won’t overcommit to each other in a way that breeds resentment . . . and exhaustion.
“Give me an example,” he requested.
“A few days all to myself,” I suggested.
“Are you mad at me about something?” he inquired, his voice rising with anxiety.
I was not yet angry with anyone other than myself for always agreeing to “the fun stuff’,”even to the point that I was often losing myself in this relationship. Been there, done that, can’t do it again.
So, I reassured him that I needed time to prepare my overdue taxes, pay my bills, write, read a bit, enjoy a night out the girlfriends . . . or simply experience the serenity of my own tidy and quiet home . . . alone with my thoughts.
He said he was disappointed, but he would honor my boundary—until 12 hours later when he suggested he come over that evening with takeout so together we could watch the coronation concert on my TV. 🙈
I need to work on my boundary communication skills with him, it seems.
Back to my sweet cousin and another story she told me. She and her husband were in the hot tub one evening, laughing and enjoying being together until suddenly she had an intrusive thought: “We aren’t laughing about the same things. We may never have been on the same page. We are doomed!”
She quickly pulled herself out of that dark mood, yet the doubt about his devotion to her remained. But on a subsequent vacation in Hawaii a few months later, something happened that changed all that. Hiking along a narrow mountain trail, my cousin stepped aside to the edge of the trail to let another hiker pass her. Suddenly the ground broke away and she found herself falling over the side. Clinging for dear life to vines, fearing that any second she might fall into the ravine, she locked eyes with her husband as he scrambled to pull her back to safety.
“He looked terrified,” she said. “In that brief moment I knew he really did love me! And that has made all the difference.”
A few moments later, a bit shaken, they continued down the trail to their destination.
Relationships are tricky and communication is often hard, but the alternative is a slow erosion of faith that ultimately you’ll reach that place of love we all need to survive and thrive together.
—Grace Cooper (a nom de plume) left her long marriage more than a decade ago, and with it went all sense of her identity—but not for long. Now 68, she has begun chronicling her tales of looking for love in all the wrong places, and unexpectedly finding herself.
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