Boundaries Part 3: How to Have Intimate Relationships
"I got this, I don't need help."
"All I got is me, and nobody else."
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Do any of these statements sound familiar? Have you said them? Or, have you heard them from a friend, acquaintance or loved one? Have you found for them or within yourself that the more others try to reach out and help, or invite you to be vulnerable with them, the more you pull back and put your guard up? Do people seem suspicious when they do that, or does that loved one look at you with a puzzled look when you do these things? In our Boundaries Intro, we talked about 3 types of unhealthy boundaries. Today we are looking at excessively firm boundaries.
I referred to these kinds of boundaries as those akin to the boundary between North and South Korea; heavily armed with soldiers and heavy machinery. This is appropriate given the extreme tension between the two nations. However, hat if this same border guarded two friendly countries, or worse yet, two states within the same country?
A colleague of mine mentioned an interesting dream she had where the state of Pennsylvania enacted strict border laws, with a fiercely armed militia guarding the whole state, fenced and protected as though it was its own country. This made no sense, because thousands of people need to cross the border as they do every day, but they must now pass through checkpoints and be interviewed by armed soldiers. This is excessive. Unless New York has threatened Pennsylvania seriously, this is not necessary.
Many struggle with having Korean border armies where they need a much more balanced boundary, but this is not without reason. You or your loved one have such strong boundaries because they were necessary. You once lived in "Korea", whether it was a scary environment, likely featuring some kind of abuse. Maybe you lived and functioned in a place where it was unsafe to open up or express emotions. People needed to be seen with suspicion, and the idea of someone wanting you to open up to them is truly foreign. You used to live in "Korea," whether it was physically a dangerous place, emotionally dangerous, or maybe even physically or sexually unsafe. You have been to war. You've been to hell and back, and now, people are expecting you to act as if none of this has ever happened.
What gets in the way of intimacy?
Intimacy by definition is a deep closeness between two individuals. Intimacy is impossible without vulnerability. The problem is, vulnerability is a tricky thing. If we've ever been hurt by someone we loved or trusted, our instinctive reaction is to never open up to anyone again. The deeper the hurt, the more difficult it will be for us to be vulnerable with others in order to achieve intimacy with them.
Do you have trouble with being vulnerable? Chances are you have very strong and high walls to keep others out, and it is very likely that this was necessary in your childhood, or in previous significant relationships. In the mental health field, this is often referred to as having insecure attachment. Insecure attachment is developed in childhood where circumstances or actions of caregivers taught you that the world is an inherently dangerous and bad place. There are different types of insecure attachment, which have diverse causes and manifestations.
You or a loved one may be experiencing this type of attachment if you hold the belief that you can't count on anyone but yourself to meet your needs. In a lot of ways you don't really seek intimacy. You may see vulnerability as a negative thing, and you may even at times look down on others who are in intimate relationships and are vulnerable with others.
As a child, you received inconsistent love. When you sought attention, your caregiver didn't really respond. Maybe they were busy making ends meet, or caught up in their own relationship. Maybe they were high on drugs or drunk all the time, or maybe this was a generational problem. In general, it took an increased effort to attach before they paid attention to you, which made you feel unsafe to count on them to meet your needs.
Do you or your loved one struggle with low self-esteem or self-worth? Were you described growing up as being rebellious and "acting out" a lot? You probably didn't care much because your caregiver seemed not to care. You perhaps lived in a home with few or no rules, at least ones that were actually enforced.
As a child, your caregiver was emotionally, or maybe even physically, absent. When you sought their attention, you received little or no response. Furthermore, if you then cried, you were discouraged from doing so. Not only were your needs neglected, you were prevented from expressing your feelings about this. Independence may also have been discouraged, leaving you with basically no recourse to get what you need.
A Scary Home
You may manifest this by giving mixed signals in relationships, where you alternate between being open and closed. Friends and loved ones may complain of being confused as to what you want from the relationship. You yourself may feel constantly confused about what you want, and what feels safe for you.
Your caregiver may have been really frightened or frightening in their behavior, being very intrusive. Boundaries may have been nonexistent in your home or family. They may have been very withdrawn at times, and had a very negative attitude. Roles may have been confusing as they were the parent or head of household at times, but at other times they left you to parent yourself or other siblings due to being physically or emotionally unavailable.
The difficulty of these experiences is that they happened when you were at your most vulnerable, with few or no defenses to cope. Like a piece of skin constantly being scraped and damaged, you grew calluses over your heart, developed by your brain in order to help you to survive. The difficulty now is placing yourself in healthy environments where it is safe to open up. Then there's the actual task of opening up. The common thread between those with loose boundaries and those with very rigid ones are that they both are best brought into balance in a safe relational environment.
Related: The Baggage Breakdown - Isolation
How to have intimate relationships
You have needed to keep your guard up thus far because it was the only way you survived. You are like a soldier who had gone to war and is now back home, but the path to intimate relationships is vulnerability. This is difficult, because it is the complete opposite. I have had countless individuals in my office complain when people invite them to open up, or let their guard down in order to grow, back away in distrust. This is because it still fells like the walls are needed.
Knowing Who to Trust
This is a crucial step to vulnerability, intimacy, and thus a richer, more fulfilling life full of great people, great friendships, and great love. Chances are, you know all about what untrustworthy and unsafe people are like, so what should you look for in your relationships? In the book Minimalism: Live A Meaningful Life, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus outline eight elements of a healthy and trustworthy relationship:
For any relationship to work and to be a safe place for openness, it has to start with love. This isn't just romantic love. This isn't infatuation or being needed or someone needing you. Love is an internal sense that you would go to great lengths for this person. Feeling loved is a felt understanding based on some evidence that they would do the same for you.
This is going to be gigantic, especially for those of us who have very rigid boundaries. You both have to mean what you say and say what you mean. Naturally, this will be tested in small ways, and if the tests of trust are passed, more trust will be developed. If someone is untrustworthy, then you already don't have a relationship. This not someone leading you by the nose and asking you to trust them. Trust is earned and maintain by words and actions that are congruent.
This is another major component for relating when we've had a troubled childhood or past. Just tell the truth and expect the same. It sounds simple, but it takes courage. Set aside fears of reactions or anything like that. It is what it is. If they can handle it, they will, and if they can't, they won't. The same is true for you, and it'll keep your relationship super simple and free. I understand that executing this is the hardest part, but ask yourself, "what do I want out of this relationship? What kind of relationship do I want?" and determine what actions you need to take to achieve this.
Especially if you've had bad experiences with this in childhood, you are definitely going to need care in your relationships. You may most likely but put off by the mushy-gushy, "bleeding heart" type, but regardless, you need people in your life who care. This is where you show each other love through your emotional involvement, concern, and action. Because of your past, you might really struggle with verbally or even physically expressing love, but you can most definitely express it in your actions.
Do the people in your life make you better? Do they embrace you for who you are? Do you do these same things for them? Do you care about what they care about? Do they care about what you care about? Support is embracing each other's interests to a reasonable extent, and helping one another to grow.
A relationship of any kind; friendships, romantic, or otherwise, are watered with time and attention. Yes, life gets busy, and we have school and careers and what not, but attention is the water that nurtures the growth of a relationship. This is very important: pay attention. Set aside the phone, TV, or any other screens. Hang on to each other's words. Get a real sense of what's going on in each other's lives. When you do this regularly, you'll know exactly what intiamcy feels like.
Be real! The best part is, a lot of the most genuine people I know are in fact those with rigid boundaries and a difficult past. Be the real you. Be who you truly are, and allow friends and loved ones to do the same. If you do not feel comfortable being your true self, then there is already a serious problem in this relationship.
Last, but not least, you need understand each other. In the same book I mentioned, there are four levels of understanding to help you know where your relationship is. Tolerance, Acceptance, Respect, and Appreciation. When you argue, where are you at? Do you simply tolerate each other, but can't stand each other? Do you accept each other for who you are despite frustrations? Do you truly respect each other although you butt heads? Or, do you appreciate each other for who you are even while you are disagreeing?
People are hard. Relationships are even harder. I can't close this without making an attempt to encourage you to get professional help if you've experienced the things I mentioned above. It's going to be very hard to have relationships and live a fulfilling life without some assistance. However, I understand the nature of distrust, and as I do with my clients, I step back and encourage you to take that step whenever you feel ready. In the meantime, try these out and see if they make a difference. Wishing you a life of wellness, wholeness, and freedom.
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