Setting clear limits and being able to say no with ease creates a happy and long-lasting connection with your loved ones, says relationship expert Jan Day
Understanding what having clear boundaries means and maintaining them is essential for healthy relationships. However, being able to establish these limits – which involves being aware of what you need to feel okay within yourself, as well as being able to help with what your partner needs – is not always easy. I believe they are definitely possible with practise though.
Having limits is basically about being able to say no and yes with ease. It’s about saying no to what you don’t want, and also being able to hear and understand what others don’t want. Although this sounds very simple, it requires a level of honesty that most adults find really challenging.
Have a think about all the times in the past week when you said yes but in reality you meant no. Of course, you have all manner of handy excuses for doing that. The most frequent one I hear is that people don’t want to hurt their friends or partners. Instead, they subvert all their own needs to please the other (or at least do what they imagine would please them because they don’t actually know) so that they can be happy and harmonious. Except that isn’t usually the result.
The result is that we flatten all our authenticity, and hence our self-esteem, and also close the door to real love because we aren’t able to see each other. We avoid the depth of vulnerability that would arise if we allowed ourselves to say we want something different, and in avoiding that vulnerability, we lose the possibility of intimacy and real love. We can’t really connect with each other if we aren’t being seen as we are, and that can’t happen if we don’t show who we are. In addition, when we live behind a smoke screen of niceness, we our lose self-esteem – it’s as if we are saying to ourselves: ‘my views don’t matter’.
This kind of honesty and authenticity are the foundation of healthy relationships. However, most of us also have a deep in-built fear of hearing no and as a result we fear saying it as well. For most of us, our childhood need for love and approval leads us to avoid situations where we would receive a no, and we tend to associate hearing it with rejection or abandonment. Approaching this topic, therefore, is bound to bring up our defensive walls and our vulnerability. However, the gains are enormous. They include increased vitality in the relationship, a boosted sense of self-worth, a deeper sense of connection and love with our partner, and even better sex.
Most of us would be mortified if we thought that someone else was sacrificing themselves in order to please us. Being able to say no is very different to the art of compromise and co-operation. Of course, there are times in a relationship when we need to give and take, and show a willingness to try things that maybe aren’t our first choice. However, that is very different from not telling our friends or partner where our no is.
If we’re not confident in our ability to say no at the point when we need to, then it’s likely we’ll say it much earlier to avoid the situation. Often we don’t even know if we want to say yes or no. We de-sensitise ourselves so that we don’t have to feel the pain of having our boundaries stepped over, whether accidentally or deliberately. This de-sensitisation leads to a loss of pleasure, a loss of feeling and a loss of our own sense of aliveness. And our relationships suffer as a result.
A good way forward is to practise using yes and no consciously with your partner. Here is an exercise for exploring boundaries in the context of touch. It is important to be willing to go slowly enough that you stay connected to what you are feeling and not to expect any particular outcome. Be aware that you and/or your partner may or may not get aroused. It is important to explore in this exercise with no expectations of what might happen and for both of you to commit to being open, honest and vulnerable.
1. Plan a time when you won’t be disturbed and agree to be honest, gentle and authentic.
2. You will both take turns, and so first agree the amount of time that each turn will take. Around 30 minutes is good but you may want to start with a shorter time and then progress. That will give you both a chance to experience and feel what is possible. Agree beforehand whether you want to be clothed or unclothed.
3. One will be receiving touch and one will be giving touch. The receiver will use a limited vocabulary: yes, no, pause, please, stop.
4. Whoever is receiving focuses entirely on what is happening within them. Don’t try to look after the one who is giving you touch. If you like the touch you are receiving, you say yes. If you don’t like either the way they are touching you or where they are touching, you say no. At that point you can either show them how you’d like to be touched in that place or you can move their hand to somewhere you’d like to be touched.
5. If you aren’t certain whether you like something, say pause. That means they will stop moving their hand and but leave it in contact to give you some time to tune in to what is happening. If you really like a particular touch and you’d like more you say please and if you need everything to stop, you say stop.
6. It is important that the one who is giving touch is willing to be there for the one receiving it, without expectations and without judgment about how the receiver responds. As much as you can, give them the space to feel whatever they feel and to express it to you without getting into any reaction.
7. It can feel very vulnerable to say no if you aren’t used to it. In order to feel safe to practise that, they need to know that you aren’t going to get upset or react negatively to their boundaries. Likewise, for the person receiving, it is important to say no from your heart and as a piece of information without it being loaded in any critical way. Imagine keeping your heart open to your partner, who is also potentially feeling vulnerable, even while you say no. And of course, if you are enjoying the touch, make sure you say yes or please to let them know that you do like it. Go slowly so that you allow feelings of vulnerability to arise – witnessing each other’s vulnerability creates intimacy – and respectfully so that you can both build your confidence.
This exercise can open up a whole new level of honesty between couples. I have even known it to kick-start intimate sexual connection in couples who have found themselves relating more as comfortable friends. You will discover the freedom and relaxation it allows and it means that you don’t have to second guess and shoulder all the responsibility for ‘doing it right’. And it can give you the freedom to take some risks and try out ways of touching that you wouldn’t normally try, safe in the knowledge that they will tell you if they don’t like it.
Although this exercise is focused on touch, you will find that the benefits are much broader, spreading out to all our decisions and choices and giving us a renewed sense of our own aliveness. Being real and being willing to express our limits or boundaries opens up a whole new world of connection.
Jan Day is a relationship expert.
For more information visit janday.com
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