Growing up, boundaries in my family were usually expressed as something applied through objects. "That's my cookie! Give it back," or "Don't wear those pants," were typical of the kinds of boundaries we expressed.
When it came to family intimacy, boundaries were commands with some personal message thrown in, usually barked-out by a more powerful parent. "Be nice to you sister or I'll send you to your room. I've got a headache."
The choice was to either buy into the boundary or be tossed out of the game. Parental needs were considered first and a child's specific need was not seen as important unless it served the parent. There was little room for discussion.
Which is why marrying a man with even fewer personal boundaries than I had was not a stretch for me...in fact it felt pretty comfortable. We both hated the rigid do-as-I-say thing and the feeling we were both invisible and/or powerless in a relationship. I longed for equal status and a voice in my own life, he longed for peace and an evening without getting clobbered. We believed that having no real boundaries would get us there.
A relationship without boundaries brings lots of emotional flexibility into the dynamic – not to mention ambiguity. This quiet collusion we built felt like trust...because heck, we never challenged the thinking going on...we just trusted it. This loose framework helped both of us believe everything was always fine, and allowed us to build a big fantasy world where life was always good. Quietly sucking up any pain (or maybe drowning it with Scotch) was a private, individual activity to be done in brief moments of personal freedom. Finding "self" moments became a frantic game of cat-and-mouse – with a touch of guilt thrown in if discovered. Personal doubts festered and grew alongside negative behaviour we usually disclosed to outsiders.
Living a fantasy is not sustainable. I often felt like I was driving down the highway backwards, pretending the joy ride was fun, swallowing my fear. When the crisis came to a head, I first tried to use boundaries as my concrete line drawn in the sand in an attempt to prevent disaster from happening and keep myself safe.
As time went on, I learned boundaries were more empowering when used daily to help me define who I was, especially to myself. It was a way to show self-respect. With few boundaries ever stated in my marriage, I realized how much I floundered and second guessed every decision, or passively accepted my fate. In the end, I felt invisible to myself and enmeshed with my mate. The end of the marriage meant having to kill off at least half, if not most of me...and then try to rebuild.
I learned slowly it's okay to express needs and state limits but to remain flexible in changing or evaluating. Real intimacy and personal growth are validated through the boundaries we set. I wish I had discovered this news-to-me fact years ago...but hey, it's never too late to learn. I’m still a work in progress.