Boundaries. They are important in any relationship, any partnership, any interaction. We’ve been reading a lot about them in the news lately: boundaries crossed, boundaries not respected, boundaries ignored. This can happen with words, gestures, actions, or even intentions; and once crossed, the damage is done.
I read in a parenting book once that the most effective way to manage boundaries is this: draw the line clearly of what is acceptable and unacceptable to you and make the other individual(s) aware when their behavior has become unacceptable BEFORE your emotions get the better of you.
It seems so obvious, but I admit that I used to be someone who would let an unacceptable situation progress without clearly stating my feelings about it to the point where I was upset, hurt, or angry. This happened in my professional and personal life and sparked intense emotional reactions in me (and sometimes still does because I have big feelings, ok). I didn’t want to be the kind of parent who yelled at my kid all the time, though, so when I read about this method, I started applying it immediately. I actually applied it, whenever needed, to all areas of my life.
Sometimes, this is just not possible because people can be unpredictable. But, for the most part, I found that when I confronted the other person from a place of calm but firm sincerity rather than aggravated frustration, he or she was more receptive; there was little to no argument; and we almost always arrived at an understanding and a compromise. Most importantly It was respectful, and I was still able to be kind while demanding that I be respected, too.
Boundaries are all about respect: respect for ourselves and respect for others.
My husband likes to point out a particular hand gesture I make when my boundaries are pushed. I hold up my hand, palm flat and facing whoever is responsible — a physical separator or an attempt at using the Force to create separation. I think this is a natural gesture many of us make, and nonverbal cues are just as important as words. My former students probably know this gesture very well because, if they saw it, I was not going to put up with whatever it was that they were doing or saying.
The hand went up. That was the line.
Lines also create Borders — another frequent topic of conversation in the media.
Like boundaries, borders can be crossed. This has become an important theme in my life, actually.
Before I came to live in Liberia, one of my connections to this country was the cross-border partnership I formed with a high school here and my former school in the US. In fact, I recently completed a paper about the partnership and my teaching pedagogy for one of my graduate classes, and I found myself shifting back and forth between using the phrases cross-border and borderless to describe this international interaction.
I entitled the paper “Culture, Communication, and Collaboration: Preparing Globally Competent Learners,” and in it, highlight my determination to create opportunities for more students to experience the benefits of internationalized educational experiences. However, this past week, I had to take a close look at the difference between the phrases cross-border and borderless in context of globalization. (Below are some images of my online presentation of my paper topic.)
I learned that the phrase cross-border actually emphasizes the existence of borders while borderless acknowledge the disappearance of them.
At this realization, I initiated a conversation with my classmates about what happens to culture when borders disappear — when so many people become international travelers, expats, or study abroad students that cultures begin to blend and perhaps saturate each other.
Some well-traveled classmates explained that self-identity becomes that much more important, then, because this is what helps retain the core of one’s culture: the identity that was created out of traditions, language, customs, philosophy, religion, and societal norms. One classmate even noted that he adopts a “cosmopolitan culture” as he travels, absorbing the best parts of the different cultures in which he is immersed and making them a part of his own story. And yet another classmate asserted that culture must change with time, but that doesn’t mean its traditions are lost or that it is any less important than it once was.
Each of these ideas appealed to me, and I appreciated the perspective they gave me as I start my expat journey. The overall concept got me thinking about relationships, too, and the balancing act of respecting and valuing both individuality and partnership.
As newlyweds, my husband and I are navigating the simultaneous disappearance of certain “borders” and the acceptance of others. This requires an enormous amount of trust, patience, and respect. And doing this right has never mattered so much to me.
On one hand, we acknowledge and celebrate our borders: what makes us individuals, the aspects about each other that initially attracted us to the other person, the different strengths we bring to our relationship, and the varied interests that keep our conversations enjoyable.
Recognizing our borders also helps us to understand and accept each other’s’ boundaries and be respectful of the other person’s space, time, energy, and feelings. We’ve had meaningful, productive, and sometimes difficult conversations about each other’s expectations when it comes to boundaries (everything from morning routines to “me time,” from social engagements to social media). Each conversation has made us stronger and has brought us closer.
On the other hand, we must also become borderless in the sense that there is a certain selflessness that comes with partnership, a support of one another in our individual efforts to reach a common goal, and a shared vision of the roadmap of our relationship with each other. We have become a team.
I had these thoughts in my mind this morning as I read an article in The New York Times entitled, “Should Your Spouse Be Your Best Friend?” The article cites couples like Barack & Michelle Obama and Justin Timberlake & Jessica Biel as celebrity couples who have publicly used the phrase “best friend” to describe their significant others. I admire both couples for seemingly doing so well at “doing life together,” and the article basically picks apart the definition of a best friend compared to a healthy view of what partners should expect from a long-term relationship.
In it, the author suggests that, once you move past the newness of the relationship (where everything feels like a rush of adrenaline and emotion), the reestablishing of borders is important and is an achievement because it allows us to say, “O.K., now I have this person I’m attached to. I have the feeling of security. That’s what allows me to be an individual again and self-actualize.” You retain your individuality (your borders), and boundaries are established.
The difference, the article notes, between a life-partner and best friend is that best friends feel accepted unconditionally. “Do I care if my buddy Mark is messy in the kitchen, leaves his bathroom a shambles and doesn’t pay his income taxes?” the author writes. No. If my best friend made these choices, they wouldn’t affect me in the long run, so I wouldn’t care as much as if my husband made the same choices.
And this is why we must know ourselves well enough to recognize what our own boundaries are (in addition to — you know — universal boundaries of human decency). And once we recognize those, we must be upfront and honest about them if we expect others to respect them.
I have often called my husband my best friend and vice versa. However — as with Timberlake’s acknowledgment of Biel’s impact on his life as his “best friend, collaborator, and wife,” — this is just one of the ways we describe our partnership, our closeness.
Certainly, though, out of mutual respect, we also acknowledge and embrace the complexities that come with marriage — how difficult it can sometimes be to navigate the geography of the other’s emotions and expectations, but how rewarding the journey always is once that border is crossed and we are immersed for a little while in the pleasures of the existence we have created together.
That is, until one of us gets a little too close to that line…. Then it’s: