Relationships

relationships and the space around us

“Sorry, babe, but I need some space.”

“Needing space” has become a clichéd reason for stepping back from a relationship, a generic phrase that basically equates to: “I want to give you less time and/or intimacy,” and possibly even “you have too many demands/expectations.” It lives right alongside the classic lines “it’s not you, it’s me” (=”I don’t want to be with you”) and “I’m just not ready” (=”I’m not interested in continuing this or moving forward”). Another glib excuse to break up that really means nothing at all.

But the more time I spend thinking about conscious dating, it’s become clear that space has actually mattered a lot in my relationships. Not just a safe and comfortable physical space, but a safe, comfortable and expansive mental and emotional space. Like having healthy boundaries, having healthy space just wasn’t anything I valued or even really noticed before.

A depressingly apt is example is that during the two-plus years I was involved with a toxic and manipulative partner, I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking for space. I was heavily attached to him, while most of the time he was distant and withdrawn from me, even if he was sitting in bed beside me. It was a very lonely feeling. As far as I was concerned, I needed more from him, not less—more quality time, more affection, more everything.

I was wrong, though. Because the truth is, I had absolutely no emotional space with him. He crowded that from the moment he began love-bombing me, overwhelming my better instincts, zoning in on my vulnerability and kindness to achieve his own ends. And I allowed it. My gut told me that things were moving too fast, but I couldn’t seem to say no, even though nothing felt right. When I was able to take some kind of stock, I was already unbelievably entangled and had few boundaries left standing.

Added to that, my home wasn’t a safe space when we were dating. He moved in “temporarily” two months after we met, and temporarily turned into two years. Even when he wasn’t present, my apartment wasn’t mine. When he was there, I never knew what sort of mood he’d be in, if I’d find him in an icy rage or self-pitying funk, or if I’d accidentally set off the cycles of emotional abuse, crisis and seduction he excelled at. Home just wasn’t a comfortable place to be.

I was always uneasy, always watchful, always struggling against tides that I didn’t understand. I didn’t recognize that I was being crowded, suffocated and besieged, even though that’s exactly how I felt. Finally the tides shifted, circumstances began to change, I started to pay some attention to that strangled feeling and push back in small ways, and he cut his losses and agreed that it wasn’t going to work.

The day he moved out, I felt utterly, wildly free. I felt like myself. Suddenly there was space around me, all the space I could ever want. Emotional space to feel everything I needed without the exhausting burden of attachment or anxiety over his moods and drama. Mental space to clearly understand what had been going on, identify, process, evaluate. My home was a place of comfort and safety again, where I had full control over the emotional climate. I couldn’t imagine how I’d been surviving for all those unhappy months, or why I’d believed that he was worth everything I gave.

I relished my space. I dove into it and found peace. I was giddy with the freedom it offered. Space to grieve, to think through, to repair. To forgive myself. To imagine new possibilities.

Only when mine was restored did I start to understand how important space is, and begin to really notice and value it. It’s central to personal freedom and self-empowerment. It allows for true intimacy, creativity, growth, mental clarity and emotional well-being. It doesn’t stop us from being close to others, but does stop us from getting entangled with them in unhealthy ways.

Any relationship can push into our space if we allow it. When we feel like we just don’t quite have enough psychological “room” for ourselves, enough time to consider each choice, enough detachment from emotional burdens or expectations, or a safe enough environment, it’s much harder, if not impossible, to live an authentic life and be aligned to what matters most to us. We can feel trapped and smothered, anxious and exhausted, painfully aware that something just isn’t right.

Whether the crowding is innocent or intentional, whether we allowed it or inherited it, it’s not an easy thing to change. Recognizing the issue is probably the hardest part, since we almost never seem to value our space until it’s opened back up around us. Like all challenges in relationships and life, nothing changes until we do, until we’re ready to make the hard choices and take the hard steps.

Space matters more than I ever imagined it could, especially space between us and those we hold most dear. If we feel as though we’re emotionally stifled and entangled and have no room to breathe, desperate for some time alone or away to recharge and reset, that’s a pretty glaring red flag that our space has been compromised and we probably need to step back from the person or relationship, even just internally. It doesn’t have to mean the relationship is doomed or the person isn’t good for us, but only that we don’t have the space we need to thrive.

One of the most positive, empowering things about my current relationship is all the space I continue to feel around me. From the start I had unlimited room to react, analyze, process and make decisions that were right for me. It was beyond reassuring to feel that we could take our time and explore the possibilities freely and joyfully. Not once have I felt rushed or invalidated or anxious. I’m deeply attached to my partner, but that attachment has never put pressure on my emotional space.

I believe successful relationships have their foundations in profound respect: respecting the other person as a whole, unique being separate from us. Respecting their time, privacy, belongings and money, as well as their thoughts, beliefs, perspective, experience and opinions. I respect my partner’s emotions and feel empathy without taking on his feelings or worries as my own. When we disagree or muddy the waters, there’s always space to communicate, listen, forgive and compromise.

Space to ourselves is also one of the biggest benefits of singlehood, something I took for granted in the past. As I’ve written about previously, consciously being single is incredibly empowering and revealing, giving us one of the best chances we’ll ever have to recognize and prioritize the things that matter most to us, the places we need to grow and wounds we need to heal. Having no romantic entanglements, or only casual ones, allows us to fully appreciate the space we need and ensure that we keep it in every new relationship.

Right up there with healthy boundaries and knowing what you want, noticing and valuing our need for space makes it possible for us to develop stronger, deeper connections with others and a more empowered, authentic self. And that’s definitely worth paying attention to.

 

dating advice: the balance of power

Dear Stumbling Toward Truth,

I don’t know what shifts, or what happens, and suddenly my boyfriend is in a horrible mood. Whether he’s angry with me, or simply in a dark place, it’s difficult for me to tell. I feel defensive and strained, as if all the joy has been taken from our relationship, and that makes me afraid. I don’t know what to do.

We’ve been together almost two years. I met him just when I was starting the process of divorcing my husband of 9 years, but I’d been separated for about 10 months before that. I’d dated a couple of people, nobody seriously, and then I met this man. He was incredibly charming and sexy and so into me. He completely swept me off my feet. I was attached to him right away, and felt so thrilled about the relationship it seemed to make me more anxious. Like I was almost desperately afraid to lose him from the start. I don’t even remember how things got to this place. He asked if he could live with me part-time a few months after we started dating, and now it seems like we’re settled in this pattern. He says he hates living off of me, it causes a lot of tension between us, but he’s always borrowing money from me and never pays me back when he says he will, which I find upsetting but don’t know what to do about it. His two daughters, from different marriages, come and stay with us every weekend. I like them, but I don’t feel very close to them and something is stopping me from moving forward.

His moods are causing me to be constantly on edge, like I have to second-guess everything I say and do. Texts from him during the day make my stomach knot up because they mostly are asking for something and I know I’m going to have to carefully craft my response. I love him so much and he says he loves me. He tells me all the time how he couldn’t do without me, how much I mean to him. He usually says he’s sorry after we fight, if it’s gone to the extreme that I’m not responding to him. Most of our communication is through text and sometimes email. I’m afraid to talk to him in person because he’s blown up so many times. When I say something that upsets him, and even when I don’t and he senses how I feel, and sometimes for no reason at all. I also find I’m often paranoid about what he’s doing when he’s not with me, especially on late-night drives, but the few times I’ve questioned him he’s gotten very angry. It’s hard not to feel hijacked in my own home, but I’m not sure where he would go or what he would do if he wasn’t with me.

I’m so tired of feeling afraid all of the time. I feel like every move I make could be WRONG move and could lead to WRONG interpretations, but sometimes I’m just too tired to keep up a super-sensitive, super-positive front and make sure I don’t do anything wrong or say the wrong thing or give him the wrong impression. Because if I do, there’s fallout for days. I’m tired of it. I’m trying to be my authentic self and I keep getting tripped up in my own conditioning and also in his sensitivity. Between the two of us it can be a minefield, but I always end up being the one blown up emotionally while he gets to get righteous and angry and punish me.

I’m feeling so lost and strange, I don’t know how to describe it. I feel like I fell into a black hole. As if I’m not heard at all. I say things and make requests and they get swallowed up and ignored and eaten and turned to dust. It confuses and hurts me, and it makes me doubt my own strength and ability to assert my needs and feelings.

I don’t know how not to care about him. I don’t know how to let go. And I don’t know how to do this anymore.

-Lost in a Black Hole*

 

* This is a composite letter from myself. I wrote most of these things while I was in my last relationship with a toxic and abusive man. I put the broken fragments together and thought about the advice I really needed at that time. I might not have taken it, but it’s the best advice I can give to anyone in a similar situation with hindsight and perspective.


Dearest Lost,

Reading your letter, I feel such sadness and empathy for you. I’m so very sorry, Lost. I can relate to everything you’re going through, and my heart aches for the pain and anxiety you’re experiencing. It’s so real—all of it, the love you feel, the conflict, the fear, the frustration.

It sounds as though after many months of strain and very hard work on your part, you’re reaching a crisis point both internally and in your external relationship. The paradigms that were set when you started dating—and it’s extremely telling that you don’t remember exactly how these paradigms or boundaries were set, don’t really feel you agreed to all of these patterns, yet here you are, living with them—were not necessarily in your best interest.

From the viewpoint of someone on the outside looking in, they were entirely in your boyfriend’s best interest, and not in yours at all.

There are a lot of things you don’t talk about in your letter, like how the two of you interact, how intimate you are. But from everything you said about how he makes you feel, the answer is: unsafe. Something in you is telling you not to trust him, and you’re trying to convince that thing that it’s wrong.

But that thing is your intuition, and it’s never going to be wrong.

I wish I could tell you that if you just find a way to honestly communicate with him, everything would be fine. That’s what I’m sure you want to hear, what you keep telling yourself. If you can somehow push past these ongoing issues, solve your internal struggle, stop being so afraid, he’ll be the man you believe him capable of being. The man you wanted him to be when you met, when he swept you so completely off your feet. I’m guessing that you were feeling very vulnerable when you began dating. Ending a marriage is no small loss; the grief is real and intense, no matter the situation. It’s a process that can take many years to heal from.

Just as you were starting this process, you met a man who made you feel extraordinary. He was charming and attractive and—most appealing of all—very interested in you. In his intense courtship, you said you became quickly attached, to the point where you were “almost desperately afraid” of losing him, this person you barely knew. And now, two years later, you’re living in a black hole of confusion and hurt, feeling like you’re not heard or respected, deeply attached to someone who makes you feel unsafe. Between his rages and your distrust of him, you don’t feel like you can be yourself around him—no matter how hard you’ve tried, or how much you want to.

This feeling you describe is powerlessness. The dizzying swings between fear and frustration, gratification and longing. Always waiting for the other person to dictate how things will go, even though you don’t remember agreeing to that. Finding through painful experience that you can’t direct the conversation, change the dynamic, even ask for change at all—or if you do ask, you won’t be heard and honored. These are signs of a massive power imbalance, impossible to fix unless both people are wholly invested in balancing it. Most of the time that’s just not going to happen.

This man has all the power in your relationship. All of it. The only power you hold is financial, in that you’re supporting him. And yet even in that, he’s taken the power from you—he makes demands for money, you have to say “yes” or he becomes angry, and no matter what he doesn’t pay you back when he says he will. That’s a horrible position to be in with anyone. Giving a loan to someone with the understanding that they’ll pay you back, and then finding that they have no intention of doing so, leaves us all feeling powerless and angry and confused.

Your situation is not a happy or simple one, Lost. The way this man treats you is not OK, and you know it isn’t OK. I’m sure your friends and family tell you the same and you find it very hard to hear. His behavior certainly sounds emotionally abusive, not to mention exploitative and manipulative. You excuse it, you slip away from what you know is true, you don’t want to face it.

The problem is, even if you can rationalize away what others think, it’s very hard to do the same for our own inner voice, requiring exhaustive effort. Even then, it only works for a while before the internal conflict starts to take its toll on us. There’s a reason you haven’t connected with his daughters—your instincts are holding you back.

After two years of this, dear Lost, you’re at a breaking point. Nothing will be easy going forward, but I promise you: it will be worth it. The pain of stepping back from this relationship, though searing and seeming impossible, is nothing to the pain you are experiencing while in it.

I know it’s hard to hear, but I believe the only way you’ll be free of this pain, the only way you won’t feel lost anymore, is if you leave the relationship, temporarily or forever. At the very least, allow yourself a chance to take a breath and get some perspective. Maybe it could work with him in the future, if he’s able to own his abusive behavior, perhaps get help for it, and you’re able to redraw all boundaries and establish new agreements.

But those are big ifs, Lost. You know they are.

My advice to you is this: stage an intervention for yourself. Just as you would for anyone you care deeply about who’s stuck in an unhappy place, reach out and get help.

Tell your most trusted friends everything you’ve told me and more. Right now, as soon as possible. Whether it’s one person or three, parent, sibling or friend, choose the people who are the least judgmental and most supportive in your life and call them. Ask them to hear you out without judgment, then ask them to support you through the scene of telling this man you need him to leave your home immediately. Figure out with your friends exactly what you need to say to explain why you’re choosing this, and have them come over when you know he’s going to be there to support you as you say it.

There will be no right time for this. It will always feel like the most horrible and unimaginable thing to do, now or in the future. I say do it now.

Have your friends wait with you while your boyfriend packs a bag of essentials and you agree on a time when he’ll come to pick up the rest of his belongings—also with your friends present. It’s not up to you where he goes. He’s a grownup. He’ll have to figure that out without your help. Believe me when I say: you have done enough.

Ask him for his key, then and there, and ask him not to contact you. You can tell him your phone will be off—and then turn it off or block his number. If he wants to talk, and if you’re open to it, tell him you’ll consider scheduling a neutral lunch in the next few weeks, but that this is your decision for now and he needs to respect it.

Give yourself time to figure out what you really want and need without his presence clouding the issues. Give yourself a chance to see things from outside of the black hole.

It will hurt like hell, Lost. He may be very angry and sad, he may say he’s blindsided, he may be ready to promise you anything to stay. This is why your friend or friends being there will be crucial. You need them to stand beside you—not in another room, pretending not to listen, not inside while he pulls you outside to talk. But right there, having your back, listening and silently supporting you. The words and actions are yours, but they’ll be there to help, while you talk to him and after he leaves. They won’t let you be bullied or punished or sweet-talked into anything. They’re witnesses and deterrents to his behavior who will keep you strong and centered.

Once your friends go home, that night or any other, please don’t even consider opening the door if he knocks. You’ve asked him to leave your home. He needs to respect that. Period.

This may seem extreme to readers. It probably does to you as well, Lost, and I know you can talk yourself out of it if you try. But this man is not bringing you anything good. He has taken everything possible from you and left you feeling empty, lonely, hurt and totally powerless in the relationship. He doesn’t honor anything you ask for, or even allow you to feel like you can ask. You say his frequent rages take all the joy out of your relationship—and I assume that means that occasionally he puts joy into it, maybe just enough to keep you wanting more. Enough to keep reminding you of how exciting and wonderful and good it was at the beginning. But it isn’t that way now, and it isn’t making you happy or fulfilled. It’s making you desperately unhappy, exhausted and anxious.

He isn’t the man you want him to be or believe him to be. Whether or not he’s capable of respecting you, honoring your needs, living up to his promises and sharing the power is up to him—but in two years of accepting your loving and seemingly unconditional support, he doesn’t seem too interested in changing.

Lost, you know you deserve better than this.

If letting go feels impossible, if even talking openly to him is terrifying, don’t do it alone. It isn’t cowardly, it’s the bravest thing you can do to ask for support in this. You chose to say “yes” to him at the beginning, and “yes” to his continued presence in your life—and now you have the power to say “no.”

You deserve to feel at home in your own home, Lost, not hijacked. You deserve to feel safe and authentic in your own life. You deserve to feel empowered to make decisions and to feel that you’re respected, listened to and honored by those who you trust and love. You deserve to always have a choice.

Talk to your friends now. Make a plan with them for moving forward. And through it all, keep writing about it.

Write everything down—all the sadness and fear and upset you feel. All the unfairness and anger and resentment. Write letters to him, to yourself, to your ex-husband, letters that you won’t send. Write a letter or a paragraph or a poem a day, exploring how you feel in going through this hard and complicated thing.

There are wonderful books on breakups that will help ease you through this painful time, not to mention on emotional abuse and manipulation. Buy yourself one, ask your friends to recommend one, and start reading today.

I believe in you, and I believe you’re strong enough to let go. It’s time to come out of the black hole of loneliness and fear, to feel the warm sun and breathe free air again. It’s time to take your life back.

Love,
Stumbling Toward Truth

i don’t wish you ill, exactly…

I recently read an article in which the writer, very thoughtfully and beautifully, wished 10 good things for her exes. Love, laughter, happiness, success… It was lovely. I can completely relate to these feelings, because I want only the best for my ex-husband, who I still sometimes miss and always wish well.

My ex-boyfriend, however… that’s another story. While I certainly don’t wish anything bad to happen to him, and while I do in a neutral way wish him well, I honestly don’t feel the same uplifting desire for blessings to fall upon his head. My divorce was longer ago, but not all that much longer ago. The difference isn’t in that I’ve had more time to heal, it’s in the relationships themselves, and the men themselves.

My ex-husband is a good person. He made some poor choices, but so did I. We failed each other, we fell apart, but were never anything but kind through it all. He never meant to hurt me, nor I him. Our breakup happened as a result of much bigger things, with only goodwill on either side.

That was not the case with the man I dated next. I’ll call him Shnook. He did NOT mean well. He was NOT kind or loving, not even when we were together. And the hurts he perpetrated on me weren’t a result of much bigger things, but were all part of a deliberate and ruthless agenda of manipulation, conditioning and abuse. If this sounds extreme, it is. Those who have had a sociopath as a partner and come out of it by the skin of their teeth will know that this isn’t an exaggeration. He was not good to me. I chose him, and I chose to stay with him, a truth almost harder to face after our relationship ended than his multitude of betrayals. I was ashamed and heartbroken and had to work very hard to forgive myself, while I also worked to forgive him, taking full accountability for my choices. At the same time, I was relieved beyond expression—am still relieved to this day—that I’m free of the toxic nightmare that was Shnook.

Now that I’ve forgiven Shnook and my life has moved on, immeasurably better than it was with him in it, I still can’t pretend to wish him “all good things.” I do, however, have a few wishes for him.

1) I hope that someday, in some way, you understand the sickening pain and heartbreak you put me and other women through. This doesn’t mean I hope he’s mistreated or taken advantage of, because I truly don’t. I just hope he can understand it, comprehending and feeling empathy for the kind of pain he inflicted. According to the sources I’ve read, sociopaths simply don’t feel empathy, that shared human compassion for others. If I could I’d give him this gift, Shnook might understand the boundaries he crossed and hurts he inflicted in a deeply personal and transformational way, and be a better person for it.

2) I hope you develop a conscience, and feel true regret for what you’ve done. People with covert manipulative personalities, narcissism, psychopathy or a variety of personality disorders don’t have consciences. They know right from wrong, they just don’t care. The rules don’t apply. So if Shnook felt true regret, and started experiencing the sting of a conscience the way the rest of us do, it would have undoubtedly painful but ultimately extremely positive consequences for his character—and be a reprieve for the people he might hurt in the future.

3) I hope that your actions have appropriate consequences. This isn’t about karma, though I do believe in it as it relates to universal balance. Less in the abstract, I would like Shnook’s actions to have real, tangible consequences that he can’t wriggle away from. I want him to be accountable. You steal, you get caught and prosecuted, or you make reparations. You betray, you have to own the betrayal and not make a single excuse for it. You abuse, the person you abuse presses charges or immediately drops you. I’d like him to stop getting away with everything—the opposite of the way I let him get away with so much when we were together.

4) I hope you get your act together for your kids’ sake. I’m not sure how he’d do this, because I never saw any indication of progress in this area, but if Shnook could possibly pull it together long enough to take responsibility for his actions and his life, then his daughters—by other women, not me—might have a dad they could be proud of. (Fortunately both of them have really great stepfathers, as this doesn’t seem likely.)

5) I hope that I never, ever, ever have to deal with you ever again. I know he’ll keep falling flat on his face and keep managing to somehow get back on his feet. Shnook is a survivor, an intelligent, perceptive one who can be charming and witty and even sweet. He’s going to manipulate more women after me, just as he manipulated many women before me. Since we have acquaintances and friends in common in a relatively small community, I’ll probably run across him at some point. I won’t panic and hide if that happens, I just have zero desire to connect with him in any way. I’m in no danger of getting caught up for one second in his drama and lies, but I’d rather not even have a conversation. It would actually give me a heady and twisted rush of pleasure to SHUT HIM DOWN if he tried to sell me a sob story, much less use me again, so this could be my most generous wish yet.

There is a middle ground in looking back at our exes, the ones who didn’t treat us as well as they could. We don’t have to hate them and dream of revenge—which is giving them way more power than they deserve, anyway. But even if we’ve forgiven them their trespasses and moved on, even if we’re good people with compassionate hearts, we don’t need to send a single gleam of light and love their way, either. Because I damn sure won’t be doing so anytime soon.

ignoring the red flags

My boundaries were crossed recently by someone I trusted, and uncomfortable as it was to go through, I’ve learned a lot from the experience. I’m still learning: as I’ve gotten some distance from the situation, I know that the person who crossed the line didn’t do it out of nowhere. She was, in the words of Charlie Murphy, “a habitual line-stepper.”

I just didn’t see it—or rather, I DID see it, I just didn’t allow myself to recognize her actions as red flags. This realization really surprised me, because I’ve been extremely wary and aware of red flags in dating since my terrible relationship with a narcissist ended. After it was over, I reviewed all the zillions of bright flashing neon red flags he waved at me, from our first conversation on. It was beyond mortifying, all the ways I compromised myself to be with this guy who showed me he was bad news from the start, but it was also really valuable. I took the time to define what was acceptable and unacceptable for me, and carried that with me like a magic talisman on every date, in every email exchange and conversation with a man.

And it worked. I could trust my intuition to tell me exactly what I needed to know in order to navigate through dating again. There were kind, smart, successful guys I knew just weren’t right for me—and there were charming, attractive guys who I could tell were toxic. I got so good at it, when someone really incredible crossed my path, I knew before we even spoke, just by reading his energy and trusting my instincts, that he was someone worth meeting.

I got pretty smug about it, thinking, “hey, I’ve really got this ‘gut’ thing dialed in! I’ll never trust the wrong people ever again!”

But no.

When a line was crossed, it felt like a punch in the stomach. My friend did something I never would’ve imagined I’d need to worry about a friend doing, making me so uncomfortable I was anxious and sick over it. I had no idea how to react, second-guessing myself, hoping it didn’t really happen. But it did.

After a few days of writing, thinking, and talking to other friends about it, I brought it up to her. I believed she had no idea, that she didn’t mean harm, and I needed her to know where my boundaries lay. Rather than listening with an open mind, respecting my feelings and working to clarify any misunderstanding, she went a very different route—angrily denying the whole thing, turning it around on me, calling me insecure and threatened, calling it “bullshit,” bringing up things I did wrong in the past, suggesting ways I could work on my psychological and personality issues… Your basic recipe for authentic, home-cooked crazy-making. It really stunned me; I’d encountered that kind of reaction from my toxic ex, but had never experienced it from her. Her response went so far as to tell me she knew what she was doing: her boundary-busting behavior was intentional, she just didn’t like me calling her on it.

I believed that she was a good friend, someone I could trust. I ignored a lot of red flags.

As a result, I was blindsided by something that was actually right in line with who she was.

Now, looking back at the three years we’ve known each other, I see she was showing me that all along. All the times she cancelled plans last-minute or left me waiting or stranded; her lack of self-awareness; the ways she taught me not to count on her; her ambiguous comments to and about me; her actions, lifestyle and choices—these were red flags, speaking volumes about her priorities and our differing values. She isn’t wrong, I’m not right—but I see that our closeness came from convenience and proximity when I desperately needed someone to turn to, rather than genuine compatibility. Something always felt off. I just wasn’t letting myself notice, disregarding my instincts like I had in the past.

Because of how she chose to act and respond, because she so clearly had no respect for me, and because I’ve learned not to accept what’s unacceptable, I chose to walk away from the friendship. I’m sincerely grateful for her friendship and support during a hard time in my life. Ultimately, though, what I believed about our relationship, and about her, wasn’t really true.

I don’t regret anything I said or did, but I’m not feeling especially proud of the blinders that got me here. For all my hyper-awareness of red flags in dating, I’ve ignored the fact that they can exist in any type of relationship, and ended up being hurt and disappointed by my own laziness and lack of perception. By believing what I wanted to believe and holding onto that.

The truth is, eventually everyone shows you who they really are. It’s up to us to choose whether or not we pay attention.

life with boundaries

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the past few weeks reading blogs and articles about boundaries. A lot of those writers speak to the issue of boundaries a whole lot better than I do, but thought I’d add my own experiences of how crucial boundaries are.

I first became aware of my boundaries in a toxic relationship with someone who trampled and dismissed any and all that got in his way. I didn’t really have defined boundaries at that time—nor had I ever stopped to consider what my core values were. I only knew that in this two-year relationship, I felt invaded, taken advantage of, disrespected and devalued, and I blamed myself for all of it. I felt totally unable to validate much less even begin to enforce my own sense of OK/not OK, I could just feel my trust being violated over and over again. It’s an experience that doesn’t get easier over time. My stomach still turns a little at the memory.

When I was finally able to surface and tear myself free of my user of an ex, I began to read books on break ups, narcissistic and covert manipulative personalities, self-forgiveness, codependency and healthy boundaries. One led me to the next, which led to the next. It was startling and mortifying to understand how accountable I was for allowing my values and self-respect to be compromised—I wasn’t responsible for my ex’s choices and behavior, but I was responsible for allowing it to be imposed on me. And not once, but over and over again. My continued acceptance of and belief in him was my tacit acceptance of his disrespect.

I realized it’s up to me to define what is and is not acceptable, to learn to read what my gut/instincts tell me and to act accordingly without second-guessing or rationalizing or ignoring. Looking back, I knew from the first date with my ex that he was dangerous and wrong for me. I saw big flashing red flags. Rather than trusting in my instincts, I managed to convince myself that I was crazy—and to nearly go crazy in the process of surviving the conflict between what I knew in my very bones to be true, and what I wanted to believe.

Emerging from that two-year struggle to deny myself was like coming out of a dirty, stuffy, smoke-filled room into clean fresh air. “I can breathe again,” I found myself thinking. “I’m me again.” I knew I’d never make those same choices again—but wanted to take some time to understand why I’d chosen to be with him in the first place, what I’d been looking for inside that toxic black hole. And what I learned was how to live by new rules, to understand and maintain my own boundaries, to define my core values, and to explore what in me had led me to desperately seek love and validation from a person who inspired me to feel only anxiety, fear and pain.

It would have been really easy to go too far with my boundaries after that, to create huge fortified walls to keep me safe from ever being violated again. I took a year-long break from dating, allowing myself that time to recover and discover some truths. When I did start to date again, I was extremely controlled and wary, having to consciously push myself to say “yes,” learning to listen to my gut over the voices of fear or lack. Boundaries require flexibility and commitment, awareness and adaptation. They need to be strong enough to protect us and supple enough to move with the changes in our lives and ourselves. They relate to our core values as people—how we’ve defined what’s most important to us through upbringing and experience. For me, integrity, loving-kindness, respect of others, personal accountability, self-expression, optimism and gratitude are all core values. That doesn’t mean I always live up to them, but my intention is to do so, and these are what help define my boundaries.

Recently I had the upsetting and disruptive experience of someone I trust—a friend of three years—crossing a very real line for me. I didn’t believe this person meant to do it, but it was disturbing all the same. I took a few days to figure out what was really bothering me, listen to my gut and confide in a few other close friends, and finally decided to talk to her about it. This wasn’t about my friend behaving in a way that was “wrong” or a chance to blame or condemn her, it was about the fact that her actions had violated a boundary, and because she mattered to me, I wanted to give her the opportunity to know that, to hear her response, and to find a solution that felt good for both of us. I needed to feel that my boundaries would be respected going forward, and was prepared to respect her wishes if she chose not to be my friend anymore. Unfortunately, rather than trying to empathize or understand what I was asking, she got angry and defensive and went on the attack. I was wrong for bringing it up and wrong about my reading of her behavior, and at the same time, I was insecure and threatened by that same behavior. After an uncomfortable and circular discussion, we left it there. Two days later she sent an email that ended our friendship.

It was extremely hard to read—offensive, condescending and dismissive. What she chose to write to me violated my trust even more by attacking my character and judgment, telling me my issues, and continuing to defend and excuse the original line-crossing, all in the name of friendship. I know it was written in anger, and we can all get hotly defensive when we feel unfairly (or even fairly) accused. The problem isn’t that she felt hurt and annoyed, the problem is she sent the email. She felt entitled to openly judge and demean me, to explain my situation and expose what she considered to be my insecurities, taking no accountability for the fact that her actions had affected me.

Many books and blogs discuss conflict in friendship, and recommend speaking openly to your friend about what bothers you, using only “I” messages, so they have the chance to understand, own and modify their behavior. Most of the articles stop there, with a vague nod to “if the friendship is worth it, you’ll forgive each other and move forward together, trust will be rebuilt, good friends are rare, etc.” Very few go into what happens when the friend doesn’t own his or her own part in it, but decides instead to tell you exactly what your problems are, and that you need to just get over it. My friend made it clear that she would continue to behave the same way she had previously, because this was my issue to fix, and I had no right to draw this line. Even had she sincerely believed I was overreacting, and even had my other honest confidantes agreed with her, that isn’t the point. The damage had been done in the way she chose to respond.

The last time a friend lashed out at me that way, we were in the 4th grade. I’ve walked away from very few close friendships over the last 20 years. I’ve had friends pull away or stop talking to me without an explanation, and had others tell me that I hurt them by something I said or did. But never as an adult have I experienced the disrespect of feelings and betrayal of confidence that this woman felt was appropriate. It isn’t about forgiving her; I can forgive what happened. But I don’t see my way to ever trusting her again, and I really don’t want to try. This first conflict has shown me that our values are wildly different, as is our interpretation of friendship. So in the words of Natalie Lue, I “pushed my mental flush handle” and moved on.

It’s pretty horrible to be in the position of having to actively enforce our boundaries with those we care about, to have no choice but admit to ourselves that someone we trust has trampled over our feelings, intentionally or unintentionally. The thing is, the only other option—allowing it—is immeasurably worse, even if we’d rather chew staples than take a stand. So much of our experience is open to interpretation involving different perspectives and opinions, my intention in all of this was never to be righteous or play the wounded victim. I’ve crossed lines both knowingly and unknowingly and felt awful afterward; we all fail and flounder at times. If I hadn’t learned my lesson the hard way, I’d have avoided a confrontation entirely, believing that my friend meant well and deserved the benefit of the doubt, suppressing my anxiety and disappointment.

But that’s not enough. It doesn’t work to close our eyes tight and hope for the best. It only tells people that we’re willing to negotiate on what matters most to us, that we aren’t truly committed to honoring ourselves or our feelings.

And I’m no longer prepared to compromise my values or my self-respect by allowing anyone, no matter who or in what context, to violate my boundaries. It’s my responsibility to draw the line for myself, whether or not others decide to respect it.