When I look back at my bad old days, there’re a number of things that stand out as emblematic of who I was – the fear of letting go of a bad relationship because I didn’t think I could do any better, being unable to relax and enjoy my time with one woman because I couldn’t stop looking for the shoe to drop… all fairly bad. But there is one very specific night that, to my mind, was one of the most representative of how bad things were.
I had gotten permission from my girlfriend at the time (warning sign #1) to go play in a Mage campaign with my friends. This was significant because my ex hated RPGs – she thought they were the stupidest things ever and couldn’t imagine anyone she dated wanting to play them. She also didn’t care for them because it meant I was spending time with my friends and not with her (warning sign #2) – but this time she relented and allowed me to go spend a couple hours gaming1.
I had been there for less than an hour before she showed up to quite literally drag me away (warning sign #3). I forget what the excuse was, but it was some “togetherness” emergency – I had to go shopping with her for some trivial thing or other.
And I let her pull me away from my friends.
In fact, that phrase – “I let her” – defined the majority of our relationship. After the honeymoon period, where I was just astounded that I was having sex, our relationship became a matter of constant fighting, jealousy, guilt trips and having to justify myself on an almost daily basis. Almost every fight we ever had would escalate from disagreeing over what to rent at Blockbuster to threats of breaking up with me… and so I would give in.
I allowed her walk all over me because I was willing to put up with this. I had few boundaries to speak of and even less self-esteem… and I was willing to consider this treatment a fair price for being in a relationship.
The Value of Boundaries
Stop me if any of this sounds familiar to you:
- You can’t spend time with your friends without your significant other because he or she gets jealous if you have a life outside of your relationship.
- Your boyfriend or girlfriend is constantly pushing you to do things you aren’t comfortable with. If you resist, they get angry or passive-aggressive, badgering you until you give in.
- Arguments with your partner never stay on topic; any disagreement immediately turns into a litany of the ways you’ve wronged them and often only end because of threats to break up with you or to go sleep with someone else.
- The woman you met is willing to make plans but continually flakes at the last minute.
- The guy you met brushes off your concerns as “unimportant” or tells you that you’re being silly or irrational.
- Your relationship is in a constant state of drama – either things are amazing or there’s a new source of conflict.
- You’re passing on opportunities that you would otherwise take because you don’t want to disappoint or upset a friend, family member, or romantic partner.
- You have a friend, a family member, or a partner who is an emotional vampire; you can’t talk with them without feeling bad about yourself and having your energy sucked away.
- Your girlfriend or boyfriend requires constant reassurance and assistance from you. Not a day goes by that they don’t have a new crisis in which you need to intervene.
Odds are good that many of you had moments like this in your lives. God knows I have. In fact, many people who are socially inexperienced – geeks and nerds especially – will have encountered all of these and more over the course of their relationships… often without making a fuss. Many will assume that these are just par for the course when it comes to relationships – platonic, romantic, or familial.
These situations are often a sign of having poor boundaries – the result of a mix of low self esteem and an unwillingness to take a stand for yourself. Many people will cheerfully take advantage of those with weak boundaries; they look for people who are willing to put the well-being of others above and beyond their own in an effort to please others and make them like them.
Of course, this is emotionally shredding and deeply damaging to the person who is letting this happen. At best, you have a codependent relationship – one partner needing constant control and validation while giving up any personal responsibility and the other trying to shoulder the entire burden of both parties as well as take blame for any faults as an exchange for having the relationship.
At worst… well, you’re prey for users, manipulative assholes and emotional abusers.
It’s important to note: this isn’t exclusively a male or female problem. Both men and women are equally capable of having weak boundaries and low self-esteem… and both are capable of reaping the rewards that come with rebuilding both.
White Knights and The Shirking of Responsibility
Part of the reason I stuck in the relationship I mentioned was a simple matter of low confidence; I had more than convinced myself that I was lucky to have this relationship at all. When you believe that you have few options and that the relationship you do have is constantly on the razor’s edge of falling apart – with the implied idea that it’ll be your fault if it does – you will often find yourself knuckling under rather than drawing a line and saying “No. No further.”
The lack of belief in yourself feeds into an insidious self-perpetuating cycle. It’s hard to stand up for yourself when you believe that you have very little of value to offer in the first place – something that is reinforced by the way that people walk over you and take advantage of you. After all, if you were better, cooler, or more desirable, you’d be able to stand up for yourself.
When you don’t feel as though you have anything to offer and you’re desperate for someone to complete you, you will tend to shift your boundaries and sacrifice your values for someone else in the hopes that this will prompt them to like you. In fact, this need to be loved is often the cause of White Knight syndrome; by “saving” someone else, they will surely love you. A White Knight trades on “fixing” problems for others in exchange for love because they believe they have nothing else that others might find attractive. They rely on obligation and allow themselves to be used – as well as live in fear of conflict or disagreement – because they don’t feel that they can rely on their own value.
The other frequent cause for poor boundaries is an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s own actions. Taking a stand – saying that you will not tolerate or put up with certain attitudes or behavior – means being willing to accept the responsibility of making that choice and thus shouldering the consequences. This can be intimidating, especially when you’re not the most secure person to begin with. A major reason why I put up with being treated so badly in my relationships was because I was conflict averse; I didn’t have a strong foundation to work from and dreaded any fight for fear of causing more drama which would inevitably be my fault and lead to further fights down the line. As a result, I became the sort of person who was very good at finding excuses for why things had gone wrong – it wasn’t my fault, it was out of my hands. Similarly, I would constantly make excuses and rationalize my girlfriend’s shitty behavior to others – it’s not her fault, it’s because of X, Y and Z.
Why would I do this? Because I didn’t want to acknowledge my part: I was choosing to continue a relationship with someone who made me miserable. I wouldn’t take responsibility for what was ultimately my screw up and fix it – either through trying to work things out with my girlfriend or by dumping her and walking away – and so I instead tried to shirk the blame and refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong.
Bullies, Game-Players, Drama Queens, and Weaponized Guilt
This is going to be a tricky section because what I’m about to say is going to sound an awful lot like victim-blaming, which is not my intent. Stick with me here.
People who have poor boundaries and low self-esteem are typically easy prey for abusers. One of the most common signs of a predatory, abusive personality is the testing of boundaries: trying to push someone further and further out of their comfort zone, using a cycle of rewards and punishments in order to manipulate someone into being willing to knuckle under. I’ve received many letters from women who had boyfriends who consistently tried to push the envelope of what they were comfortable with – demanding nude pictures, trying to bully them into sex they didn’t want to have (especially girls who were not ready to have sex yet) or into sexual practices they didn’t like. One good friend of mine had a husband who would continually badger her into being willing to participate in threesomes with various female friends. Every time she would refuse he would “punish” her, either berating her for her lack of consideration for his needs, belittling her appearance and attitudes, or just becoming increasingly passive-aggressive. He was consistently testing her boundaries, trying to find some way to get her to sacrifice her values in an attempt to please him; her own needs, desires, and comforts were of little import.
People like this thrive on those who don’t have the confidence and the self-worth to stand their ground and push back.
Mind you, this isn’t the only way that people will take advantage of poor boundaries. Anyone who remembers high-school will likely recall that one toxic friend who would steam-roll over others in order to get his or her way; anyone who resisted was subject to inordinate amounts of social pressure – trying to utilize the social contract to push others into doing what he or she wanted. The friend who would get pissed at you for disagreeing with them in public. The passive-aggressive friend who would make commitments and conveniently “forget” them when it suited her. The two-faced smilers who would be pleasant to people’s faces but had no problem cutting them down when their back was turned.
How many times have you had someone – a friend, a lover, even family – pull a guilt-trip on you? “Oh, you’re the only one who could do this for me, everybody else just ignores me. You’re the only person who cares about me.” or the ever classic “If you really cared, you’d do this simple thing for me.” They are trying to use guilt as a lever, the better to force you to take on responsibilities that aren’t yours. How many people have said “How can you not do X when I’ve done Y, Z, and Z1 for you?” – even when you didn’t want them to do these things? They are trading on reciprocity, making you feel obligated to them because they’ve done something for you.
These are people trying to trade on your poor boundaries.
So too are the friends and lovers who will try to drag you into their drama – who have a never-ending list of complaints and grievences that they expect you to take responsibility for. The ones who throw childish tantrums and yell at you if you don’t immediately accede to their wishes. The ones who try to hold you hostage to their whims with threats – threats of cheating on you, threats of breaking up with you, even threats of self-harm… all to keep you in line.
It’s up to you to stop them.
Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t bring this all up in order to blame the victim for the bad actions of others. I bring this up because sometimes people simply don’t recognize the problem in the first place, or understand that they have the power to make it stop, if they only would reach out and take it. It can be difficult to read the words when the book is too close to your face; sometimes you need a little distance and perspective to realize what the issue is.
Taking A Stand
When I get emails from guys who want to know about how to handle women who consistently make plans and then flake, or from women about guys who try to leverage their self-esteem against them, I always have the same question: “Why are you letting them do this to you?”
When you’re dealing with game-players and other toxic individuals, it takes two to play… and it only takes one to bring things to a halt. It can be intimidating as hell – and many toxic people are very good at pressuring others to give in – but you have the power to say “No.” To refuse to put up with that behavior. To draw the line and say that you will not take responsibility for other people’s problems and won’t accept having them thrust upon you. It can be difficult to say “no” that first time, to tell somebody “Hey, you’re my friend but I’m not willing to let you try to guilt me into doing something you know I don’t want to do.”
It can be even harder when it’s someone you care about – after all, the point of relationships is being willing to put the needs or wants of someone else first, no?
Here’s the deal: it’s one thing if you’re willingly making a sacrifice for someone because you care about them and you want to make them happy. It’s another entirely when you’re being made to feel like you have no choice or when you’re only agreeing to because you’re afraid of the potential fallout if you refuse. Would you be willing to try something a little out of your comfort zone with your lover because you want to make them happy? That’s good. That’s a part of of being an active partner2 in a relationship. It’s another matter entirely if you’re only willing to do something you don’t want to do because you feel that to not do so would materially affect your relationship. Do you feel that you’re constantly giving in to unreasonable demands for the sake of your relationship with someone? That’s a sign that you may have an issue with poor boundaries. I had a girlfriend who insisted on talking to me on the phone for hours at a time every day, no matter what. If I didn’t clear out my schedule for her, she would make my life miserable until I begged her forgiveness. She had trust issues, she would tell me, so it was on me to reassure her every day that things were just fine. And I would give in because I didn’t want to deal with the drama if I said “No.”
I had poor boundaries and I suffered for them.
How It Should Have Gone
Let’s go back to that example I gave you at the beginning – when my girlfriend came and dragged me away from my friends. Here is how that scene would have played out if I had stronger boundaries, if I wasn’t willing to put up with her behavior and didn’t fear getting dumped worse than anything else.
“Let’s go. I need you to help me out with some shopping.”
“… what do you mean ‘no?'”
“I mean ‘No.’ I told you days ago that I was planning on spending the day with my friends. I haven’t seen the guys in months and I’m not going to cut things short just because you’ve suddenly decided that you’ve got other plans for me.”
“We are not having this conversation here.”
“That’s right, we’re not. I’m going to be playing in my friend’s campaign. You can either join in or take off, but I’ll be staying.”
“I don’t think you realize what you’re saying. If you stay here, I might just have to go find someone else. Someone who isn’t going to neglect his girlfriend for some game.”
“You go ahead and do that. I’m not going to date someone who thinks my hobbies are stupid and resents my spending time with my friends.”
Assuming that I didn’t get dumped on the spot, I would be in for a fight later that evening when I got home… and I would be willing to handle it like a grown-ass man. I would have accepted the possible consequences – a fight, breaking up with my girlfriend, or both – because the alternative would be continuing to allow her to browbeat me into submission and keep me away from my friends. And I would not be willing to put up with that behavior from her. The threat of being dumped loses its sting when you’re willing to say that you’ll take it… happily even.
At the time, I didn’t believe I could do better or that anyone else would ever be interested in me. Years later, I can see just how wrong I was… and how much that attitude became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody would be interested in me because who wants some emotional weakling that they could walk all over? Anyone worth dating – whether they’re male or female – is going to appreciate someone who can stand up for himself or herself.
Making that first step – being willing to take a stand and accept the consequences of doing so – is difficult. But the act of establishing boundaries will actually serve to bolster your self-esteem and confidence. It will feel liberating to realize that you not only have a choice, but that you can and will decide what you are and are not responsible for. Just as poor boundaries can be self-reinforcing, so too can having strong ones. By drawing that line in the sand and saying that you will not be pushed past it, you’re eliminating neediness from your life; you’re saying that you’re not so desperate for affection that you’re willing to allow others to treat you like a doormat just so that they’ll like you.
And that is incredibly attractive.