Monday, November 18, 2013

Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.

© Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2013

 People get into a lot of trouble when they do not set proper boundaries.  Boundaries exist for just about every type of relationship.  To exist in a relationship without boundaries (it’s usually not “all or nothing”) is to become enmeshed, co-dependent, or to merge into the other person’s identity, or at the very least, to give up a certain amount of one’s own identity to the other.  In relationships, especially in bad marriages, we see this phenomenon frequently.  When a relationship begins to deteriorate, very often there is a period of time when either one or both parties goes into denial or simply does not “deal with it”.  “Dealing with it”, requires setting boundaries, perhaps confronting the other person, saying "no", and then applying reasonable consequences for boundary infractions.  The boundaries in this essay do not include work-place boundaries such as in sexual harassment, or bullying for example, which are subjects for another discussion.  The boundaries (or lack thereof) we speak of here are pertinent to divorce or other relationship dissolution, as well as in child custody matters.

Some Examples of Defective Boundaries that Cause Problems Seen in Family Court:

I.              Financial boundary issues:
One of the most frequent is when one spouse has a spending problem, buys things on a regular basis that the couple cannot afford, creates significant credit card debt, and creates a lifestyle that entails living beyond their means.  How can that happen? There are two people in this relationship.  Perhaps the spender is intimidating to the other party and a discussion would predictably end up with an argument, or worse: verbal or physical violence.  Someone who spends excessively, without the approval of the other party, may be doing it because it is a compulsive behavior, or out of hostility to the spender’s partner, or because the spender actually believes (or acts as if) there are funds with which to pay the credit card bills.  Some people must purchase things to help with their depression. Sometimes, preparatory to a divorce, a vindictive spouse may purposely run up a tab on a credit card, knowing in advance that the debt will have to be split in half at the time of the divorce.  Examples would include a spouse buying tons of clothing (or electronics, etc.)  from January to June and then filing a Divorce Complaint that September.  When discovery (court-ordered financial disclosure) starts coming in around November, surprise surprise: There is $7,000 (or $25,000 or more) of marital debt!  This is referred to as the intentional dissipation of marital assets.
What about the spouse who knows this is going on, however?  Right under his/her eyes.  I have seen this in divorcing couples where a spouse saw this happening and six years went by and nothing was really done about it.  That does not include the periodic nagging or criticism, such as “Honey why do you need that (item)?  Or “We can’t afford this, how are we going to pay for it?”  But nothing really is addressed therapeutically or in a way that will establish the marital boundaries.  Eventually that will lead to divorce or bankruptcy, or perhaps it is a symptom of an already damaged relationship going through its demise.  There is such a thing as peace and harmony in the home.  In Hebrew, it is called “Shalom bayit”.  It is a universal value, namely that you choose your battles and hopefully avoid criticism of your spouse/partner to avoid fighting, especially in front of the children, if any.  But peace and harmony can be very expensive if one of the parties is taking advantage of, or acting out against, the other.  I will never forget a case where arduous negotiations were taking place in the courthouse every day and we were haggling over the marital debt incurred on credit cards by the wife.  The husband was almost crying about the enormity of the debt and the wife’s lawyer told my client (the wife had stepped away), “Shame on you for allowing this to continue for years.  Now you have no right to complain, as if you didn’t know what was going on. You were part of this irresponsible behavior by letting it happen.”  Even her attorney was appalled.

II.            Interpersonal Boundaries and Walking on Egg Shells:
If you allow another person to abuse you and/or take advantage of you for whatever reason, you will have to live with the consequences and not complain later that you are a victim.  That applies in all interpersonal situations, whether financial or emotional.  People will treat you as you allow them to.  You set the rules; the other people/person acts accordingly.  Many people living with a difficult person fall into a pattern of avoiding confrontation, keeping their feelings to themselves, going along with someone else’s controlling behavior, etc.  We learn from example and sometimes will model our parent’s (or both parents’) acquiescent behavior.  It may come from low self esteem, a sense of worthlessness, inadequacy or fear (fear of being disliked, disapproved of, rejected, etc.).  When a person is imprisoned by the bonds of fear or acquiescence, it results in a denial of the self.  The self—one’s own identity, needs, desires, aspirations-- become subservient to another person and their demands.  It can become a lifelong pattern.  One can live an entire life, in this prison, denying the self, pleasing others, feeling victimized, overburdened and oppressed.  This is not only depressing, but unnecessary.  It is in violation of basic human rights.  But as was already said, you get treated as you allow others to treat you.  A person in a relationship cannot violate your rights without your participation.  But you may have known this would happen before you committed to this relationship, and you committed to it anyway.  
We often hear about a spouse with borderline personality disorder, which is sometimes loosely applied (like bi-polar disorder is used in name-calling) as a pejorative label by an angry spouse (as opposed to being properly diagnosed by a mental health professional).  This term is, however, often used to describe a spouse who is prone to explosive outbursts (a “rage-aholic”) or severe mood swings, among other things. Often the other spouse will tread carefully (walk on eggshells) to avoid triggering the explosive spouse.  This effectively allows the explosive spouse to control the acquiescent one for years, decades or for an entire marriage under this structure.  Unfortunately, this constitutes a lack of boundaries by both parties.  The aggressive spouse, by exercising dominance and control through intimidation or by the implied threat of an angry outburst, is overstepping appropriate boundaries.  The acquiescent spouse who keeps feelings hidden, has to “swallow” it, keep quiet and compromise their own interests by the failure to set appropriate boundaries.  The aggressive spouse blames, often plays the role of victim, takes no responsibility for his/her actions, is self-righteous (maybe narcissistic) and has little if any insight. That can be due to having a personality disorder, and this can be exacerbated by the acquiescent participation of the other spouse/partner.  The receiving partner typically feels unheard, invalidated, unappreciated and hopeless.  He or she may also feel inwardly angry or depressed (or alternating), be prone to psychosomatic illnesses or complaints, be prone to overeating, drinking or to the overuse or abuse of prescription medication to dull the pain of feeling helpless, hopeless and dis-empowered by the aggressive spouse/partner.
Boundary Issues Involving Children:
            A very destructive form of poor boundaries involves children.  When spouses or two unmarried parents are involved in the dissolution of their relationship, and there are issues over custody and visitation, it is important to insulate the children from the parents’ conflicts or litigation.  A boundary involves a rule:  I don’t go there.  This is not allowed.  It is against the rules.  It's my ex's parenting time, not mine.  Talking to children about the litigation is a boundary violation.  Confiding one’s feelings about the other parent to a child is a boundary violation.  All of these inappropriate boundary violations, among others, do untold damage to children.  In some cases, the children become alienated from one parent due to the actions of the other.  When alienation does not occur, the child at the very least will suffer emotionally.  This can take the form of conflicting loyalties, anxiety, guilt, depression and anger.  Children who are overly involved in their parents’ dissolution can be at higher risk for acting out behaviors (e.g. antisocial conduct, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, etc.).  Of course, much of this depends on the individual child’s pre-existing emotional strength or fortitude and many other factors related to the parents’ behavior, length of time the child is exposed to it, age of the child at onset, etc.  It is not a simple formula.  Sometimes, a distraught parent will cry to a child, lean on the child emotionally and confide too much personal information (TMI) to a child.  This child, depending on the age, can be placed into an inappropriate role vis-a-vis the parent, and can become a "therapist" for that upset parent.  This child, due to the lack of appropriate parent-child boundaries, becomes pressured to take care of the parent, feels guilty when the parent is upset, and gets overly involved in the dysfunctional relationship of the parents.
          Most people will agree that it is inappropriate and damaging to involve children in your marital or relationship dissolution.  This may take a lot of self control on the part of a parent who is very distraught, suffering, angry, etc.  Self control and boundaries go hand in hand. 

Pre-existing Tendencies:
Setting boundaries early in any relationship will establish the rules under which the relationship is based.  Assertive behavior does not mean being aggressive or hurtful of someone else's feelings.  It means that a person is able to comfortably express their needs in an appropriate way that does not entail an abuse of the other person.  But it clearly communicates one's wishes and feelings to the other.  It is the ability to calmly say no, or “I want…”.  It involves calculated risk-taking, and boundary-setting, risking the possibility that the other person may not like it or may not comply.   Just because you want something, does not mean that the other party must comply.  That also works both ways.  In a relationship, both parties are better off making some sacrifices for the benefit of the other, giving to the other, trying to attend to the other's feelings and desires.  A partner, however,  who is overly fearful of disapproval and rejection by others, may be generally unassertive and tend to avoid confrontation with others.  That ostensibly unassertive person may bring those patterns into the marriage/relationship and continue the same dysfunctional role they played prior to the relationship’s onset.  These patterns can be established in childhood and sometimes will be exacerbated in children of alcoholics or in children who were molested or were otherwise abused (physically or emotionally) in childhood.  Sometimes, people will unconsciously seek out a partner or spouse who is similar to their abusive or alcoholic parent.   Not all spouses who do not set boundaries are unassertive in all of their relationships.  It may be situation-specific with only that one person (who may evoke real fear).  A person can be assertive at work and intimidated at home, for example.  That is really a therapy issue.  To develop healthy boundaries, one needs motivation, hard work and a willingness to develop insight and courage to change old, dysfunctional and self destructive patterns. When  you expect others to respect you and to treat you in a healthy way, you respect yourself and enhance your self esteem.  This can only benefit you and your children.  
Good luck, and please post a comment about your experiences.
Copyright © 2013 by  Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.
Please note, this blog is for information purposes only and should not be relied upon or taken to be legal or psychological advice nor does it create an attorney/client or psychologist/patient relationship. If you have a question about a specific matter you should seek out an attorney or mental health expert to assist you.

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  1. You have described my situation perfectly. I walk on eggshells with my recently divorced spouse. I have the majority of parenting time and still get intimidated. At this point is it a good idea to get us both into some sort of post-marital counseling? Do you do that kind of work? Can you make recommendations to the court if you are counseling a couple in co parenting?

    1. If there is no history of domestic violence, you can both go for mediation or counseling. If you are walking on eggshells, it might take some individual counseling for you to feel stronger and to change the role you play with him. There are a lot of issues involved and obviously I don't know your situation, so I can't adequately advise you here. Feel free to call me or email to discuss further. Hope to hear from you if I can help. Best, Jonathan