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Defining Love: How Boundaries Strengthen Relationships

Defining Love: How Boundaries Strengthen Relationships

I saw a couple this week who inspired this newsletter. They are in love, honest, and have differences that need negotiation. They present a tough issue that requires deep personal reflection about what is important and what can be compromised without damaging the bond of love for the partner and respect for self. This couple and this conflict represent the kind of challenge that comes up for all of us in our romantic relationships.

I have known each partner separately over the years. It was a pleasant surprise to see them together. Both are charming personalities. They are a new relationship, and they met through martial arts. It is very bonding to share a meaningful hobby together. I often recommend it. Now that they are a serious couple, an issue arises for the boyfriend if she wants to make this relationship permanent. He wants his girlfriend to train with the women, not the men.

His logic is that there is a women’s program, and he is uncomfortable with his woman engaging in intense body contact with men. Their school of martial arts is known to be very muscular, though his concern does not emphasize the safety aspect of training, but rather his discomfort at having the men in the class touch his woman. He admits he is traditional, and his family background represents a consistent conservative view. He does not want to be controlling; this is just how the boundaries need to be defined for him to feel comfortable.

The woman is shocked. She has been training with men for years, although not at her boyfriend’s school. She is tough and loves the sport. Training with women, as he proposes, does not match her competitive spirit. They seem deadlocked in this first meeting.

We discuss ways to make this negotiation more workable. Can they beef up the women’s program so that it becomes more competitive? That is possible. The boyfriend is willing to contribute to that project. Is he willing to compromise on his request? The answer is a firm, “No.”. Can she see herself becoming satisfied by training with women who do not represent the same competitive edge she is used to enjoying? She is not happy about that. I send them home to think about what is important to each of them, and we will reconvene and continue this conversation.

I relay this vignette because it represents all of us in a relationship who fall in love, bond, enjoy the limerence of love , and awaken to lines that need to be defined. Nothing is wrong, though it does not feel comfortable. What would be worse is avoiding defining the rules of the relationship that create respect and safety. Every relationship needs to pass through these negotiations, probably more than once in the lifetime of the relationship. These are meaningful conversations that need to be approached calmly and with deep reflection. This takes skills.

There was a time when issues like these came up frequently in my marriage. It was scary to say what behaviors I wanted to feel comfortable. I had never done that before, but then I had never invested myself in a relationship as deeply. I remember feeling uneasy about Michael having lunch with a woman pharmaceutical rep when they were not part of a group. I recall an office manager who would frequently call after hours with questions and long conversations that felt intrusive of our personal time at home. We used to go to dance socials and dance with other partners. It was not unpleasant because I danced with other men, too, but I eventually realized I wanted to be my husband’s dance partner, and we have made that happen. These conversations took courage and willingness to tell the simple truth rather than get angry after another perceived injury.

We all need to learn skills to move through these critical issues and, at the same time, grow a loving connection. Most of us do not know how to do this. You need to have a discussion about what you want when you are both calm. Make an appointment with each other to have these conversations. Let us teach and coach you on navigating your individuality while growing your romantic relationship. Good relationship skills create both partners winning and provide for a thriving relationship.

Wishing you love,

Dr. Barbara