What are boundaries anyway?
If you’ve been in any kind of relationship - friendly, romantic, employment, sitting down next to a stranger - you understand the concept of boundaries. And if you’ve been involved with a narcissist, or just someone who acts like one, you know what it’s like to have someone ignore, step on, and mock the boundaries you’ve set, all the while maintaining a set of their own boundaries that are as difficult to understand as they are to follow. Setting clear, concise boundaries that you are willing and able to enforce is one of the most important weapons in your arsenal when it comes to protecting yourself and getting things done without getting caught up in their narcissistic web.
The concept of boundaries freaks most people out. They hear the word and think of barbed wire and property wars. But, there are boundaries in every aspect of our lives. A child learns the limits of what is safe to touch and what is not. If you touch the hot stove, your hand will get burned. We have boundaries in the workplace. If you don’t show up, you will get fired. And so on. Knowing where the boundaries are and what will happen if we cross them is the most basic way we understand how to function in our world.
Despite what many people think, and what your narcissistic partner will tell you, setting a boundary is not an attempt to control the other person. Setting a boundary is merely communicating clearly what the results will be of certain behaviors. That is all. The other person then makes the decision about whether or not to bring about the consequences by engaging in the behavior. A child may then choose to touch the hot stove. An employee may decide to not show up for work.
My ex was habitually late to everything. I mean, everything. Whatever it was that he was doing, he felt, was so important that he couldn’t stop in order to make it someplace on time. I, on the other hand, am habitually early. I hate being late. It makes me anxious. I hate walking into a room with the assumption that everyone is annoyed with me. After almost a year of being involved with my ex, after having him show up late to everything, including our City Hall wedding, I decided to set my first boundary. It was the first of many and it was small, as many first steps are. I told him that if he wouldn’t make an effort to show up on time to events, then I would no longer accept invitations for us.
It Isn’t Your Fault
If you’re involved with a narcissist, you come up against all sorts of boundaries and you find yourself walking on eggshells, as their boundaries often shift and new ones pop up all over the place as the situation warrants. As a result, you may find yourself constantly overstepping those boundaries and causing friction even when you do your best to be careful and respectful. You cannot respect a boundary if you don’t know what it is, or if it changes based on your ex’s mood. Don’t even try to convince yourself you can do it. You can’t.
Narcissists will also frequently have double standards, seeing one type of behavior as acceptable for themselves, but completely unacceptable for you.
My ex demanded to know my email and web passwords and he often used my laptop. If I refused to share these things with him, he accused me of infidelity. He, on the other hand, restricted access to everything of his. He would even close his laptop when I walked by him. When I brought this to his attention, he accused me of trying to change the subject, which, of course, indicated my guilt. It is nearly impossible to live that way, which is why it is so important for you to set your own boundaries.
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How to Set a Boundary
There are basically three parts to a boundary. The first two consist of identifying the behavior and stating the consequence. These are what I call the “if you,” and the “then I,” statements. If you can’t respect my boundary, then I will leave this room/relationship. The third step is what I like to call the “execution.” The execution is merely carrying out your part of the bargain.
The first step in developing the “if you” statement is defining yourself and what is acceptable to you. It is the most important step in taking what control of how you allow others to treat you and it is a vital step in taking responsibility for yourself and your life. If you don’t definitively know what you want, then you cannot convey that to someone else, and you will likely waiver in your resolve should it come to carrying out the execution.
Remember, a boundary is not about controlling the other person’s behavior because, as we all know, we can only control our own actions and not the actions of others. Setting your boundaries communicates to the narcissist that you will no longer allow yourself to be controlled by their behavior. You are taking the responsibility into your hands and no longer allowing your partner to dictate how you act in the relationship.
By no longer accepting invitations on our behalf as a couple, I took myself out of the equation of arriving late. If my ex wanted to show up late, that was his prerogative. He could go without me.
The execution can be the most difficult aspect of setting a boundary. Don’t set a boundary you aren’t willing or able to enforce. Be prepared for a fight. Narcissists chafe against boundaries and will often perceive a boundary as a threat or a challenge. The narcissist thinks that his needs are more important than anyone else’s and if you have any doubt about the reasonableness of the boundary or your will to enforce it, the narcissist will exploit that weakness.
I knew that my ex wouldn’t all of a sudden start showing up on time, and I had to be comfortable with no longer accepting invitations for us. That didn’t mean that I couldn’t meet a friend for lunch by myself, nor did it mean I wouldn’t accept an invitation for a party to which we could show up whenever we waltzed in. It meant that if someone invited us for a dinner party that started at 7:30, I would politely decline, as opposed to accepting and then showing up at 8:30, when everyone was either in the middle of the meal or just being served dessert. I had to be comfortable with no longer being invited places. And, frankly, I was. I had developed anxiety over social events, particularly with my parents, and so parties were no longer parties to me, but events that promised to be filled with worry and anger. I was happy to give that up.
He argued and accused me of trying to hobble our social life. It never occurred to him that he was hobbling our social life by showing up late to everything. He told me that I was acting like a frightened child, “cowering in the shadows of social convention.” And that is how he thought of it. If he wanted to think about it that way, that was fine with me. I was taking myself out of a situation that I found to be very difficult and over which I had no control. If I wanted to arrive someplace with him, I had to wait for him to be ready to go. I wasn’t going to put myself in a position where we both arrived separately, and so I chose to just opt out altogether.
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Stand Your Ground
Don't get into a head-on conflict with a narcissistic partner. Chances are, you are intentionally being drawn into conflict in an attempt to make you lose control of yourself as well as the situation. A narcissist will often try to use your words against you and try to make you feel guilty for setting a boundary. Don’t get sucked into this! Remove yourself from the situation if you must. Hang up the phone. Walk out of the cafe.
When it comes to executing the consequences, do not give up or give in. If you give in, you are doing nothing except reinforcing the narcissist’s delusion of self-importance, essentially granting permission for the mistreatment to continue. Surround yourself with people who support you. Put yourself in a position of power. Don’t apologize for asserting yourself. Don’t succumb to the guilt trip your partner will try to lay on you. Your partner will fight, but he’s only trying to break your resolve. Don’t let him. Do whatever you have to in order to not give in or lose control. Remember, this is about you and how you want to be treated and not about you trying to keep him happy.
Setting boundaries is all about how we allow ourselves to be treated, and if we don’t maintain our own boundaries, there is no way anyone else will.