Boundaries are the coastlines between us and others, the world, our own thoughts and feelings and the thoughts and feelings of others, between our spiritual lives and the spirituality of others, for instance. They are instinctual unless they are trained/traumatized away. Partners of sex addicts generally need help with their boundaries once they discover their partner's sexual acting out has violated those.
Boundaries exist in the physical, mental, emotional, relational and spiritual realms. The physical realm includes our physical being, our living space, our health, our finances, our children, all things that are in the tangible world. The mental realm is our thoughts, our intellectual lives. The emotional realm includes all the feelings and feeling level experiences we humans enjoy. The relational realm is us in relation to other persons, our place in the culture we live in. The spiritual realm is our spirituality, whatever that means to each of us.
While our skin may be the obvious physical boundary between us and the world, it is probable that you prefer at least a 24 inch radius around you to feel entirely comfortable in the physical presence of others. So your physical boundaries, your coastline, would include the additional distance that you prefer to stand away from most others. You might have a boundary that asks/requires of you that you will not be in the presence of a former sexual abuser. The coastline would extend out quite far in this instance. Your boundaries would include that no one can hit you, yell in your ears, expose you to STDs or spend your children's college education tuition on using prostitutes.
So this natural coastline has places that let others closer and might resemble harbors and places that look more like peninsulas. Sometimes we allow trusted persons to navigate further in like a ship steaming into an interior river. As long at as it is really your choice from your position of empowerment, that you are not providing access in exchange for abuse, (even though it's likely that would be happening unconsciously on your part,) your coastline will be uniquely your own healthy creation.
Coastlines change as tides move in and out and other changes occur in both immediate and far away tectonic plates. Sometimes we fill in marshy areas to prevent the coastline from endangering interior places. Sometimes we build sea walls that effectively handle lesser changes to keep ourselves safe and sometimes we endure tsunamis.
Physical boundaries can be too weak, (physical abuse) too rigid, (germaphobia) inconsistently applied and flexible/healthy. If you are a Partner of a Sex Addict (PoSA), your boundaries are likely weak or inconsistent referent to your Sex Addict/Compulsive (SAC). You probably believed (or perhaps hoped) that not enforcing your boundaries would preserve the relationship with your SAC that seemed to be eroding in the face of his destructive behaviors. For example: you might have hoped that your asking him not to look at pornography would be enough of a deterrent for him because he loves you and claims he cares about your happiness. When you found that he merely complied with your request verbally but then went ahead and continued viewing pornography anyway, you are left in a position of needing to enforce your earlier-stated boundary with a consequence if it happens again. This can present an enormous challenge if you feel terrified of standing up for yourself. You may imagine he will leave you if you establish a consequence, and then, perhaps, you decide it's not worth it, so you disregard the offense. And his acting out continues and you get hurt again.
We want to state emphatically that boundaries can be one of the most confusing—as well as liberating—aspects of healing from the pain of your partner's sexual addiction. They can also one of the most difficult parts of the healing process, since we all make a lot of mistakes as we attempt to challenge old behavior patterns with yet untested ways of dealing with our SAC. Coming to terms with the fact that we are living with a sex addict can challenge the deepest core of our identity, but setting and then enforcing boundaries must become the essential part of how we manage our recovery going forward. Since this is such a critical element for us, it takes a tremendous amount of focus to identify, define and then act on our boundaries. We must develop and utilize our discernment and as our values and discernment sharpens, our boundaries will adapt to reflect those changes.
Deciding your boundaries in each of these areas is your right and your responsibility. No one in the world can tell you what is right for you or what you do and do not have to accept.
Your boundaries will reflect your self-esteem and your self-worth to some degree. They will also be a natural outgrowth of discernment. You may have been taught that you did not have the right to make these decisions for yourself. Or that a certain religion or another set of dictates contain the only acceptable boundaries. You may not have realized that there are realms of appropriate boundaries or that you would have a variety of boundaries and that they would be interactive or situational.
Sadly, creating healthy boundaries is not taught in schools, churches or in most families. What we learn from these places can be very unhealthy. We frequently learn that our boundaries are not appropriate after much pain and many years of confusion and self-doubt. We do not have many role models for appropriate boundaries. We must seek them out in persons, through reading, counseling, coaching and other such supports.
Establishing boundaries has consequences for you, for your relationship and your SAC. When you are considering your boundaries, consider your values, your physical and emotional safety and what feels right for you at the present time.
An simple example might be: you establish a boundary—speaking without interruption when in conversation with your SAC. The consequence might be that you state that, “This conversation is over unless you can listen until I finish speaking” and remove yourself from the conversation. No engagement. You have set a boundary. Yes, it affects the relationship and the SAC, and most importantly, you have established a sense of respect, equality and safety for your conversations.
And congratulate yourself for your first steps towards keeping yourself safe! You have lived in an unsafe environment for far, far too long. Your coastline has been too often what your SAC wanted for his purposes. Your needs and preferences were not part of his equation.
Here, it is important to remember that if he is using sex compulsively/addictively there will be a divide between what he says his values are (he loves you, he wants to make you happy) and what his actions show (he continues to act out sexually, though you've stated many times that his behavior is devastating you). This is not because he is mean, or a horrible person, though both may be true. Much more likely is that he is operating under the awesome grip of addiction which subverts the addict's true nature into serving its own dark ends.
Your knowing this, though, does not minimize your need to set boundaries nonetheless and to hold him accountable to them. We say this only as a way to help you "frame" the incongruity between his stated values and his acting out behaviors. This is where your discernment plays an active role. You hear his words, but do his actions back up his words? While he is in active addiction mode, you must take care of yourself, as he cannot be trusted to care for you (or anything else) as he is seeing through the twisted lens of his addiction.
Why are boundaries necessary?
In short, boundaries keep you safe on the physical, mental, emotional, relational and spiritual levels. Safe from starvation, from narcissistic and emotional abuse, relational trauma and spiritual invasions from others.
Boundaries return to us the power and dignity that we may have allowed to slip away, that we bartered/gave away or just never claimed as our own.
Healthy boundaries allow us to relate with others with vitality, creativity and with dignity.
Why were we trained to have insufficient/ineffective boundaries?
In our society, most girls are taught to be compliant and to seek the acceptance of others—to fail to establish boundaries of their own—by parents and educators. This is usually done out of ignorance. Sometimes a narcissistic parent simply violates a daughter's boundaries for his/her own benefit and is quite aware of that. Usually, it is unconscious on the part of the adults and/or perpetrators.
So, many women are taught to be perpetually vulnerable and grow up unsafe. Unsafe women often default to needing white knights to come and rescue them. A seemingly good idea except that many, if not most, boys are taught to dominate and overpower, which they all-too-frequently extend to the women in their lives. When your white knight becomes the perpetrator the betrayal is so deep that it is almost incomprehensible. We PoSAs go into denial. We try to reason with ourselves that, "This simply cannot be." But it is. And we must establish boundaries to save ourselves from the white knight who came to save us once upon a time. . . and, No! another white knight is not the answer here.
We PoSAs must begin the very hard work of determining our boundaries. Boundaries are inconvenient for those who want to overpower or take advantage of us. Narcissists, abusers and addicts will dislike our healthy boundaries. Boundaries require that two healthy individuals negotiate their relationship. Narcissists, abusers and addicts have no interest in negotiating. They simply want to overpower you so that their own needs can be met.
Parents and educators often fail to teach effective boundaries because they themselves may have boundary issues. Parents and educators are products of this culture that supports many power abuses, especially towards the disenfranchised: the poor, children, women and those with disabilities, for instance. Nonetheless, we PoSAs must step up to our adulthood and create healthy boundaries when we discover that our existing boundaries are not keeping us safe and healthily connected.
Setting new boundaries
You know what is right for you. Or perhaps you aren't sure what is right, but you do know is what isn't acceptable for you. Identifying what doesn't feel right is a perfectly valid way to begin to find where your own coastlines are. You may want to establish some boundaries now and begin incorporating others as you regain your sense of self, your dignity. This is a process, not an instant set of dictates. Find space to be compassionate with yourself.
One of the most maddening aspects of finally identifying, defining and acting on your boundaries is that your SAC may accuse you of being controlling or of "managing their recovery." Or worse, you may wonder yourself whether you're being controlling. The best way to differentiate between ensuring genuine self-care and trying to control your SAC, is through examining your intention for setting the boundary. For example, if the boundary you are setting is sleeping separately from your SAC for a time so that you can begin to feel some safety, make sure your intention is just that, and not that you're trying to control your addict's actions or retaliate. It is important to emphasize that the same action can have vastly different intentions. It is the intention that matters.
Especially in the early days just following Discovery, when you have a strong need for stability, it's critical to establish some NON-NEGOTIABLE boundaries which you absolutely have a right to. These are things that there is no discussion about. From these points, you must not be swayed or compromised.
Some examples might be:
With your non-negotiables in place, you'll learn to fine-tune your non-negotiable boundaries to reflect your situation. An example might be: If his pattern was to engage in sex outside of your relationship, you might insist on no contact whatsoever with prior acting-out partners. This item can then further be refined (as you see fit) to include no texting, phoning, e-mailing, secret bank accounts, cell phone numbers, or email addresses that he won't show you.
While that may indeed reflect the way he experiences your setting your boundaries, in effect what you've done is establish your "coastline" that will keep you safe. He has violated your safety and trust—so as far as you are concerned now, you are putting your right to safety, security and peace of mind first, over his "rights", freedoms or concerns about being infantilized. This is different than announcing these boundaries to ensure he stops acting out. Because this is challenging to most PoSAs, working with an experienced PoSA coach is particularly beneficial.
Yes, it is frightening to establish boundaries to protect yourself. You may feel quite alone and anxious if your SAC responds with angry entitlement, contempt, derision and/or mockery when you communicate your new coastlines. Setting boundaries may trigger fears of abandonment. Yet, without boundaries we are truly candles in addiction's winds.
As your courage grows and your boundaries begin to provide the genuine, grounded safety you have awaited for so many years, you will find that your relationships—all your relationships—actually enliven you. Yes, there will be challenges, of course. And with those challenges will be a self-respect that graces your days. We promise.
Your Sexually Addicted Spouse by Barbara Steffans, Ph.D. and Marsha Means, M.A.
The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren
Mending A Shattered Heart edited by Stefanie Carnes, Ph.D.
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