January 23, 2021

Divorce & Toxic Relationships—Why we Need to Set Strong Boundaries.

When going through a divorce, one of the biggest gifts we can give ourselves is firm boundaries.

Ironically, the firmer our boundaries, the more flexible and generous we can be.

I knew a woman who was married to a guy who cheated on her throughout their marriage. She assumed that he understood that he could have as many mistresses as he wanted in their marriage, on the understanding that he’d never file for divorce.

Flash-forward to when she turned 60 and wanted to retire from her job as a teacher; he stashed his money offshore, bankrupted his company, and filed for divorce.

A judge ordered her to continue working until she was 65 and make support payments to her ex and his mistress.

When you don’t establish boundaries, toxic people will continue to push. You cannot assume that they think like you do and will back off when they’ve pushed you too far. For these types, they will never draw a line to protect you—you must draw and enforce that line yourself.

Establishing boundaries does not come naturally to everyone. If you are used to doing things at the whims of your children, your spouse, the PTA, your friends, your colleagues, and/or your boss, your boundaries may be weak.

I knew a woman who drove around with tea lights in the trunk of her SUV because she never knew when she’d be called upon to throw an impromptu party for someone. She admitted that she didn’t even like these parties but felt it was expected.

Providing tea lights for the world, putting up with cheating, or going to lunch you’d rather miss are perhaps not a big deal at the moment, but over time the erosion of personal boundaries has a number of toxic effects.

When you say yes to things you don’t want to do, you risk growing exhausted and resentful—that can take a toll on your happiness and health.

If you go into divorce trying to please everyone, you risk losing even more. Marriage settlement agreements tend to be a zero-sum game. Every dollar you gain is a dollar your ex loses; every parenting hour you gain is a parenting hour your ex loses. In order to assert your needs, you can expect to anger or disappoint your ex at times, no matter how amicable the situation—that’s okay.

They’re your ex; their happiness is not your problem.

Ditto for friends and family. Some want you to reconcile. Others want you to bury the guy. But this is your divorce, not theirs. If they are helping you and making you feel better, fabulous! If not, a little distance may be wise.

You are going through something really tough, and it’s okay to put your needs first.

Will some people get angry? Sure, they will.

Some people are going to hate your boundaries. You not having boundaries has served them well, and they’ll be irritated that they have to remember to bring the tea lights. Again, not your problem. And if they withdraw from your life the minute you stop allowing them to use you, do you really care?

You can keep living your life for other people with whom the relationship is a one-way street. Or you can live your life on your own terms. It’s up to you.

As Maya Angelou preached, you teach people how to treat you, and I’d prefer they treat you really well.

Practice makes perfect.

Cheryl Richardson writes about practicing boundary setting so it starts to feel natural. In her book, The Art of Extreme Self-Care, she has a wonderful chapter titled, Let Me Disappoint You. Richardson talks about an exercise she did with her own coach, Thomas Leonard, to help her deal with her people-pleasing tendencies. For 30 days, she was to disappoint at least one person a day by enforcing her boundaries.

Although the thought of it spiked her anxiety, she learned to stop caring so much about what other people thought and to start caring about what she thought.

You can try this in small ways. When asked if you’d like to give a dollar at the checkout toward some cause, you can simply say, “No, thank you,” without offering an explanation of how you usually give lots of money to charity.

When a neighbor in a multi-level marketing business wants to sell you something you don’t need, just say “No, thanks.” Smile, be polite, and say no without explanation. You’ll learn that most people don’t really care. They’ll just move on to ask the next person on their list of people to ask—it’s incredibly freeing.

Then, you can slowly expand your boundaries, saying no to people who are more important to you. When your good friend wants you to join her online book club, you can tell her that you don’t have the bandwidth to take on any new obligations right now. When your teens want you to drive them somewhere in the middle of your workday, you can say no.

Slowly, you will learn that the people who love you, love you no matter what.

Their love is not conditional on you always saying yes.

If there has been a power imbalance in the marriage, saying no to your ex may feel weird. Setting firm boundaries during the divorce process can set the stage for the post-divorce relationship.

If your ex knows that support payments are expected on time, they are more likely to arrive on time. If he knows you’ll stop a meeting if he bullies you, he is more likely to be on his best behavior. If you are dealing with a narcissist or other high conflict personality type, keeping things brief and firm is an absolute necessity. Keep it short and simple, and don’t be afraid to bring in reinforcements like your lawyer or a coach.

Velvet Glove, Iron Fist.

When you are first starting to practice establishing boundaries, it’s easy to overshoot the mark by being a bit too forceful. I love the image put forward by Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita of a velvet glove over an iron fist and use it when I enforce my boundaries.

I offer the velvet glove when starting any conversation, being friendly, and assuming the best. Usually, that approach is enough. But if you are dealing with a bully, you always have the iron fist beneath the glove. The iron fist may be calling your lawyer, or ending the meeting, or blocking texts, demonstrating that you plan to enforce your boundaries. Often, simply knowing you have an iron fist radiates confidence to the other party, and you only need to use the velvet glove.

And if, every once in a while, you unleash the iron fist prematurely, give yourself some grace. You are building a new skill. If you were learning to ski or play tennis, you’d not fault yourself for falling or missing a serve. Learning to establish boundaries is no different.

Sometimes you’re going to make a mistake, and that’s okay. Practice some self-compassion. Tell your close friends and family that you’re trying a new thing. Tell them you’re working on boundaries and that if you overshoot the mark, they can exercise their own boundaries and tell you so with love.


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