It’s never okay for the person we are considering teaming up with for the rest of our lives to hurt us.
Puzzle pieces are cool because they sort of police themselves. Even though several pieces might look like they’ll fit together, they usually don’t, and even if they do, it’s easy to spot the problem and fix it. Try to think of having strong, healthy personal boundaries just like that. When you identify your boundaries, and you enforce them, crappy incompatible puzzle pieces don’t get misplaced and mess everything up. Healthy boundaries take the mystery out of dating and good relationships.
Either you fail fast, and avoid a horrible relationship, OR you progress in mostly pleasant, functional ways with a romantic partner who is a great match for the long haul. The people who are still around after you enforce your boundaries like a boss? They’re the keepers.
You’re not going to like this, but you probably shouldn’t marry your girlfriend or boyfriend.
You know how it feels safe to eat bacon cheeseburgers, drink milkshakes, or maybe even smoke something without the fear of imminently dropping dead of a heart attack or developing lung cancer?
You feel that way because you have several years ahead of you, which is awesome.
But, you’re also intellectually aware that eating bacon cheeseburgers and milkshakes for every meal and smoking a pack a day will end with you being a VERY unhealthy adult and will almost certainly rob you of several years of life.
I’m asking you to please think of your dating life in that same way.
Things that feel like no big deal right now will WRECK you in your thirties and forties. Big-time suckage.
And the only person who can protect you from those future shitty things is you. On this particular matter, you’re all you’ve got.
Because I’m capable of not concerning myself with three days from now in the interest of enjoying today, I promise that I understand that some or all of you will dismiss this friendly warning.
I think maybe most people have to learn life’s most important lessons on their own. That’s how I am too. Every important lesson that stuck with me was learned the hard way.
The reason I’m even talking about this is because I got divorced about five years ago, and it was a WAY bigger deal than I ever realized divorce could be. And I say that as a child of divorced parents who lived about 400 miles apart through my formative years which made me cry a lot when I was a little kid.
Divorce was VERY hard, and I think most people don’t talk about it because they’re ashamed, or because it’s such an awkward and uncomfortable conversation to be on either side of. Divorce is COMMON. Thousands of divorces happen every day.
And common things seem NORMAL. Regular. Not weird.
And things that we think of as normal, regular and not weird don’t scare us. So we don’t protect or prepare ourselves because it never occurs to us that we should.
This is me trying to convince you that you should.
According to a couple of researchers who studied the health impact of major life events on human beings, divorce is the #2 most-stressful life event a person will ever experience.
According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, divorce ranks ahead of things like going to prison, the death of a parent or child, and losing a body part in a horrific accident.
And I’m here to tell you that Holmes and Rahe weren’t playing.
You don’t want any part of it.
So when I say things that offend you a little and make both of us uncomfortable like: Your boyfriend or girlfriend who you currently feel super-in-love with is statistically likely to be your life’s greatest threat at the moment, I want you to understand why.
Let that sink in for a minute before we talk about what you can do about it.
The Boring Word You MUST Prioritize to Avoid a Crappy Adult Life
When I was growing up, if someone tried to talk to me about boundaries, I would have tuned them out like when my gym teacher tried to stress the importance of stretching and eating vegetables.
I’m 17 and can do 25 more chin-ups than you, dude.
And it would make sense to me if you thought I was an asshole for disparaging your relationship that has always felt like a really good and healthy thing, and that it all seems pretty hypocritical coming from some divorced guy.
But I’m totally right about this, so I hope you’ll begrudgingly come along anyway.
Your future non-crying children who enjoy having both mom and dad living in the same house will really appreciate it.
What Boundaries Are and Why They’re Your Best Defense Against Divorce
Your parents aren’t going to like me using this example, but I think it’s probably the quickest way to cut through the bullshit, so I hope they’ll get over it.
I want you to think about being a girl in high school. A junior. Sweet 16.
I want you to imagine walking through the busy, locker-lined hallway, and as you walk by a group of guys, you hear one of them say about you: “Check out the ass on her. Oh man, I would love to tap that.”
You feel embarrassed, but you just keep moving. You kind of know who the guy is. He’s a cliché high school jock that you know is dating one of the cheerleaders. You know that he routinely harasses some of the less-popular kids in the hallway. He’s a jerk and a bully.
His comment made you feel gross, but it’s not as if you’ve never heard things like that before or even heard your guy friends say them about other girls. So, you leave it alone.
I want you to imagine that you have three rules for dating:
You don’t go out with guys who have girlfriends.
You don’t go out with guys whose only objective is to have sex with you.
You don’t go out with cocky dickbags who intentionally bully other kids for a cheap laugh.
And now, I want you to imagine that the new semester has started and that same guy is in one of your classes. He approaches you after class one day. He smiles and asks you if you’d like to hang out sometime. At first, you’re like ewww, but you don’t say anything right away.
You look him in the eyes, studying them. You think he’s cute, and you secretly feel flattered that a popular kid wants to go out with you.
He seems nice right now. He’s so different when his friends aren’t around. Maybe I should give him a chance.
So, you say “Sure. Why not? Let’s get together soon.”
Fast-forward to your first date.
You went to the movies, or grabbed dinner somewhere. Maybe you went to a house party where someone’s parents were out of town.
And somewhere along the way, he kisses you. You like it. You kiss him back. Everything is great.
But then his hands start going to places you didn’t want them to go. “Oh man, I would love to tap that” is on repeat in your head. All of the sudden you don’t want to be there anymore.
You tell him to stop.
He finally does, but he’s got a surprised look on his face as if you’ve wronged him somehow.
“I thought we were having a good time,” he whines.
You make it clear that there’s no way that’s happening tonight.
Now he looks wounded. You’ve bruised his ego. What you don’t know is that he told a few of his friends he was going to get into your clothes tonight.
He doesn’t want to go back and have to explain to them how he failed.
Maybe he calls you a tease.
Maybe he calls you a stuck-up bitch.
Maybe he — inexplicably — calls you a slut.
Maybe he makes up a story about you to his friends, and maybe some people start talking about you at school, and maybe the entire incident is pretty horrible.
The girl in this example has good dating rules, I think. Reasonable ones designed to protect her from bad things happening.
But then, even though she had evidence that Captain Dickface was bad news, she still got caught up in a moment of weakness and rationalized why she should break her own rules just to feel good.
Then everything turned into a big shit-festival.
Because she broke her own rules.
Because she didn’t enforce her boundaries.
The girl wasn’t honest with the guy when he first approached her. Maybe she didn’t feel comfortable telling him how it really felt to hear him say that. The guy wasn’t honest with the girl about his true intentions. There are a million reasons, some noble, most not, for why he didn’t want to tell the truth. Predictably, in the end, it didn’t work out.
You might believe this scenario has little in common with married couples, but I would argue that THIS is largely why so many people end up divorced.
Not because of bullying and unwanted sexual advances, certainly.
But because of people being dishonest about their true intentions, and people failing to communicate and enforce their boundaries — probably because they’re afraid of rejection, or of being alone, or are afraid of what others might think about them.
Let’s Get Even More Real
Married adults sometimes have crappy marriages and get divorced. And you know who all of them were before they got married?
The same people who wouldn’t have liked hearing me say that they shouldn’t be marrying their boyfriend or girlfriend. They would have felt offended just like I would have, and maybe you do.
But now here they are, pissed off and resentful and full of regrets about wasting their life, hurting their kids, and being afraid of what might happen next.
And here’s the №1 reason that happened: They tolerated things that shouldn’t have been tolerated, they failed to communicate and/or enforce their personal boundaries, and ultimately lied to themselves and one another about what their long-term relationship with this boundary violator (or victim of our violations) would look like.
If your boyfriend or girlfriend (or better yet, someone you’ve dated a couple of times) does something that HURTS you, and after talking about it, there’s no evidence that he or she is going to stop doing that hurtful thing, you should cut them out of your life.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t forgive. Forgiveness is an awesome thing.
This doesn’t mean that all people who violate your boundaries are BAD.
Some will be good people.
They’ll just be bad marriage partners. They’re not the same thing.
I think that might be the worst part. Very good, very decent, very fun, very awesome people will violate your boundaries — either because they’re a flawed mistake-prone human being like the rest of us; or because they legitimately don’t SEE or FEEL the same negative consequence you do from something that happened.
You won’t want to cut all of them out of your life.
But please don’t marry them.
It’s okay for people to disagree. It’s okay for people who love each other to have their differences.
But it’s NEVER OKAY for the person we are considering teaming up with for the rest of our lives to HURT us.
Never, never, never.
You will accidentally be hurt in life. I don’t suggest walling yourself off from every person who wrongs you.
But I AM suggesting that your marriage will NOT succeed if you spend every day of the rest of your life with someone unwilling to honor and respect your personal boundaries.
Maybe you won’t get divorced, but you won’t like your life or your marriage.
You’ll be miserable.
Because people who have boundary issues are miserable. That’s just how it works.
How Do I Know Whether I Have a Boundary Issue?
Here’s a good start, from one of my favorite writers, Mark Manson, who uses even more bad words than I do:
“Let’s do the ‘You Might Have A Boundary Issue If…’ list so you know where you stand:
Do you ever feel like people take advantage of you or use your emotions for their own gain?
Do you ever feel like you’re constantly having to ‘save’ people close to you and fix their problems all the time?
Do you find yourself sucked into pointless fighting or debating regularly?
Do you find yourself faaaaar more invested or attracted to a person than you should be for how long you’ve known them?
In your relationships, does it feel like things are always either amazing or horrible with no in-between? Or perhaps you even go through the break-up/reunion pattern every few months?
Do you tell people how much you hate drama but seem to always be stuck in the middle of it?
Do you spend a lot of time defending yourself for things you believe aren’t your fault?
“If you answered ‘yes’ to even a few of the above, then you probably set and maintain poor boundaries in your relationships,” Manson wrote.
“If you answered a resounding ‘yes’ to most or all of the items above, you not only have a major boundary problem in your relationships, but you also probably have some other personal problems going on in your life.”
OMG. I Totally Have Boundary Issues. Can I Still Have a Happy Marriage?
But I have excellent news. You can absolutely fix your boundary problem. You can fix it right now, but it will probably take some practice before you get comfortable telling people to pound sand whenever they try to take advantage of you if you’ve spent most of your life not realizing that’s what was happening.
Boundaries are about your emotional health, which might be more important than you realize.
Emotionally healthy people have and enforce strong boundaries. And ALSO, having and enforcing strong boundaries makes you emotionally healthier.
Having strong boundaries means you don’t take responsibility for other people’s crap, and you ALWAYS take responsibility for your own.
I believe we must vigilantly enforce our boundaries (and respect others’ vigilantly enforced boundaries) in order to have high-functioning, healthy, mutually beneficial, and ultimately successful, human relationships.
And what that means is, when people knowingly violate our boundaries, we need to be willing to walk away and cut them out of our lives, which is a really hard thing to do. Because sometimes it’s your spouse, or a parent, or a sibling, or an old friend, or a co-worker, or someone you share children with.
The Bottom Line
When you don’t break your own rules — when you enforce your boundaries (while honoring other people’s) — you know what happens?
ONLY emotionally healthy people with a clear understanding of how to NOT hurt one another (or tolerate hurtful behavior) ever end up together.
It reduces the probability of divorce by probably 90 percent.
When you start tolerating behaviors that your mind and body are telling you not to tolerate, a bunch of bad things happen afterward, and tend to repeat themselves until everyone is miserable and gets divorced or stops being friends.
When you NEVER tolerate behaviors that you know you shouldn’t tolerate, maybe bad things happen once, but you can be sure they will never repeat themselves.
And the people who are still around after all of that filtering? After all of those strong and courageous and confidence-building demonstrations of self-respect?
They’re the keepers.