Falling in love is easy but staying in love can be hard. Authors Jennie Miller and Victoria Lambert reveal how setting boundaries could be the key to a long-lasting relationship
Have you accepted that there is a problem of some sort in your relationship? Whether you feel as though you’ve ‘lost the spark’, or you both argue frequently, how do you move past diagnosis towards an improved ‘healthier’ relationship and how can boundaries help with this? All relationships need attention and tweaking every so often. Admitting this to yourself is not a sign the relationship is past saving or that you have both given up on each other. Accepting your relationship can benefit from scrutiny, consideration and spring cleaning is a sign of a healthy attitude to love.
You may look at your own relationship and find one of these three classic dynamics at work: ‘parent and child’, ‘always grownups’, or ‘in the playground’.
A familiar dynamic might be one partner taking on a parent-style role and the other falls into a child position. Think of sensible lawyer Mark Darcy and hapless Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones’s Diary; he cannot help disapproving of her antics, she cannot help provoking him. As Bridget found out, Mark was quite capable of being supportive (behaving in a nurturing fashion and thinking for both of them) but didn’t know how to relax. He wasn’t trying to offend her, however. And he did enjoy her fun, spontaneous behaviour cheering up his life. So your partner may be more in control but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are older or critical. You may bring youthful energy into the relationship, but they will still be driving it. Both of you are responsible for causing any tension or faults. Those in a relationship that is very parent-child usually display weaknesses in the other direction – the parent might struggle with spontaneous gestures; the child may equally not contribute much nurturing or leading. This imbalance in a relationship is often part of its initial attraction as together they make up for each other’s deficiencies – ‘opposites attract’ we say. But over time, what appealed initially can become a source of frustration as one partner feels they always have to do the planning, presentbuying, or household administration, while the other resents feeling patronised.
Bring in the boundaries
Couples need to think about this as a joint problem and therefore look to take equal responsibility. Start with one area which isn’t too contentious. (Maybe avoid money as this has its own dynamic, which may skew the best intentions.) Why not start with fun? If the spontaneous contact has gone, there is probably little fun, laughter, or jollity in your relationship – perhaps that behaviour was part of your past together, so what can be done to refresh that? Remember what you used to enjoy doing together – maybe take up a sport again as a couple or join a theatre club.
Think of Bridget Jones’s parents: Pamela temporarily leaves Bridget’s father, Colin, and begins an affair with a shopping channel presenter named Julian. Pamela explains her concerns about her husband to Bridget, pointing out she has spent thirtyfive years cleaning her husband’s house, washing his clothes and bringing up his children. ‘And now it’s the winter of my life,’ she says, ‘and I haven’t actually got anything of my own.’ She feels she has been left with no power, no career, no sex life, in fact, no tangible life at all. This dynamic can happen when life is busy and stressful; you both might have very demanding jobs. You work well as a team, keeping home together and bills paid, but equally you both work at weekends, work late, have little time for self or other. You have a shared strong work ethic and a shared aim that when you have worked enough and saved enough, life will start. But life needs to begin now.
Bring in the boundaries
Each individual needs to start by reflecting on themselves. And really noticing what is missing; for example, how tired you are, or if you are not able to remember the last time you and your partner laughed together. Can you see that the first problem is to do with yourself (tiredness; attitude to fun)? You need to establish a healthier internal balance and self-boundary and then think how to incorporate that boundary into the relationship. Get your own self in order before you work on the relationship. Readdress what you need individually – this might be stepping away from the relationship (finding time for friends or playing tennis, for example), but then also making time together for something that is not so goal-driven. Mortgages need to be paid and children reared, but remember why you got together initially – did you find each other to pair off and buy property, or did you fall in love and have fun? Spontaneity is, of its nature, very difficult to prescribe but chances are your initial relationship was much more spur-of-the-moment, so ideally you want to capture a little of that again.
In Bridget Jones’s Diary, this situation would be exemplified by Bridget’s relationship with Daniel Cleaver – there is lots of fun but neither is taking responsibility for the relationship’s future. A number of relationships start this way – this dynamic is an important and healthy part of a relationship and the time described as the ‘honeymoon period’ (which can happen in any relationship at any age, even if you find your loved one at 75). You may hear friends lamenting that they ‘wish they could go back to the honeymoon time’, but it’s natural to leave it behind as we take on responsibilities. We just need to make sure we don’t lose track of it altogether. We might recognise it in the couple who’ve been engaged for years – always talking of how, when they marry, they’ll settle down properly. They may look as if they’re behaving like this just because it’s fun, but are they also shying away from responsibility and the need to look after themselves and each other, as well as the chance to let their relationship grow?
Bring in the boundaries
Like the others, this couple needs to look at their individual boundaries first and to establish how they are looking out at the world and whether it is in a healthy way. This might mean accepting an underlying fear of commitment in one or both of you. Are you both distracting yourself from the reality of a relationship which just isn’t working by constant holidays, moving home and buying pets? Is your frenzied social life – always with others, never alone – just a displacement activity to avoid breaking up? Talk openly and honestly with each other about how you would feel if your social life dropped away altogether and you really had to face up to the future without distraction.
BOUNDARIES: Say No Without Guilt, Have Better Relationships, Boost Your Self- Esteem, Stop People-Pleasing by Jennie Miller and Victoria Lambert is published by HQ, HarperCollins in paperback on 10th January priced at £9.99.
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