When we start talking about boundaries, we aren’t talking about rules that we make for the people around us. We aren’t talking about controlling people who might hurt us. We are not talking about punishing or manipulating people into doing what we want. Boundaries are simpler than that, and maybe more complicated at the same time.
Think of boundaries as the netting that keeps the mosquitos out of your bedroom while you are sleeping. You don’t want to be bit by a mosquito, but you can’t just tell the mosquito “don’t bite” and expect it to comply. The mosquito isn’t going to decide on her own that biting isn’t nice. So you put a boundary around yourself to keep her out.
The mosquito is not your spouse–you don’t want that kind of separation. The mosquito is the dangerous or hurtful behavior that sometimes springs forth from a bipolar spouse, especially during episodes. It could be name calling or voice raising. It could be spending the money you were saving to buy groceries on something else. It could be coming home drunk or on drugs and acting inappropriately. It could be belittling one of your children or yelling at the dog. It could be skipping doses of prescribed medication and then becoming angry when irrational behavior prompts a question about it. It could be engaging in extramarital affairs and then hiding it. Whatever it is, you need to be protected and a boundary is the only way you can do that.
So what do you do exactly? You make a plan that includes a description of the behavior that you are not allowing in your presence and what you will do in order to keep it away from you. So, if you won’t allow raised voices or name calling, you can decide to leave the room until it stops. If you won’t allow abuse of your children, you will remove the child from the area when unkind words start. If you won’t allow affairs you will ask your spouse to find other accomodations when you learn that it is happening and you communicate what behavior you want to see before you choose between divorce and reconciliation.
If you explain your boundaries before they are crossed, it may influence some of the behavior, so it might be something you need to discuss when your spouse is stable, but that is not the purpose or use of boundaries. Then when a boundary is crossed instead of arguing about it you can say: “I will not listen to name calling” as you leave the room. If you are followed, repeat the boundary statement and walk away again, or if necessary drive away or have a friend pick you up because you will not listen to name calling and that’s your boundary.
Make sure you follow through once you have explained your boundaries because boundaries may be tested and if you fail to follow through, they will likely be trampled. You’ve lost your credibility.
If you do lose your credibility, it can be hard to start enforcing boundaries and you’ll probably get a lot of testing which can get tiring. Protect yourself. When all else fails just walk away–don’t stick around if you feel unsafe.
If this is sounding a bit like something you read about stopping temper tantrums in toddlers it’s because that’s where I originally learned it. I did daycare when my sons were little and I still find myself telling the dogs to “use your indoor voices” when they start barking, It’s ingrained. But it works.
The final word on boundaries: Boundaries are self-defense plans. They are not intended to control or punish anyone.