It’s normal that many of us fear the deep self-exploration required to establish clear boundaries in our partnerships, but it’s also of the utmost importance.
Words by Maura McNamara. Illustrations by Nadia Snopek.
“Let there be spaces in your togetherness,” writes Khalil Gibran in The Prophet. “Let the winds of heaven dance around you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.” In this timeless text from 1923, Gibran speaks to one of the greatest challenges in partnerships: maintaining healthy boundaries between the “me” and the “we.” His vision presents worthwhile relationship goals, but the path to such balance is often an elusive journey.
It can be challenging to find models of Gibran’s healthy partnership in our dominant cultural myths. Wildly popular romances like The Notebook and Twilight idealize relationships with poor boundaries, equating “true” love with obsessive, all-consuming emotional manipulation. On the contrary, Instagram influencers who hawk product-placement ads disguised as self-care tips spread toxic messages that promote hyper-individuation, while pop-psychologists dispense wellness-industrial-complex infographics that tout “positive vibes only” spiritual bypassing over the unglamourous work of acknowledging uncomfortable emotions, unlearning destructive behaviors, and communicating with full transparency.
It’s normal that many of us fear the deep self-exploration required to establish clear boundaries in our partnerships. From our cultural conditioning to the fingerprint of our families’ particular traumas, many of us never receive a comprehensive emotional education on how to explore our fears with confidence. We enter into partnerships as adults without ever learning what healthy boundaries feel like, that we deserve to prioritize mental health, and that we possess the agency to design supportive and sustainable relationships.
Let there be space in your togetherness.Khalil Gibran
Nahuatlacas elder Tepahteh “Oso” Hutze attributes this dearth of wisdom to the artificial nature of capitalist culture. Steeped in a consumption-based model, “We don’t know what we want, where we are going or what is important for us,” Oso tells ILY. In short, “We don’t know ourselves.”
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh expands on this thought in his book How to Love (2014), using the metaphor of a pot without a lid. Like the lid-less pot, he writes, humans often feel themselves to be incomplete and imperfect. As a result, we restlessly search for another person who can perfectly match us and finally make us happy, healed, and whole.
In seeking to fill this existential emptiness, we can often make dangerous projections onto our environment that are bound to fail. “Sometimes we think we’ve found the ideal partner who embodies all that is good, beautiful, and true […] and we fall in love. After a time, we usually discover that we’ve had a wrong perception of that person and we become disappointed,” Hanh writes. Like a relentless itch that can never be satisfied, we can become addicted to the sensation of being saved by our partners and neglect our own capacity to heal ourselves.
This overemphasis on the inner lives of others at the expense of our own is also called codependency, which the recovery support group Codependents Anonymous describes as “look[ing]to others to tell us what to think, feel, and behave.” Many of us are conditioned into codependency as children, forced to adapt to homes where abuse or addiction are present. To mitigate emotional or physical injury, we learn that it is most important to be “compliant or avoidant rather than to be authentic.” Our sense of security and self-worth hangs on our ability to predict and manage the moods of dysfunctional caregivers. In these dynamics, relinquishing all the personal boundaries that protect our own needs and desires is completely normalized and feels synonymous with love.
As adults entering partnership, unlearning this survival-based programming can feel scary and even life-threatening. We may feel that to ask a partner for physical or emotional space is to risk rejection or abandonment. But when we are afraid to communicate our needs for autonomy, this lack of trust can create the conditions for emotional abuse.
“If I find myself with someone who is unwilling to give me my free time, I see that as a red flag,” artist Lala Abaddon tells us. Abaddon creates deeply personal works and is transparent about past abuse, documenting her journey to heal her relationship with herself and the world around her as she builds a homestead from scratch in the Chihuahua Desert. Abusers target potential partners who will not push back against boundary violations like reading private text messages, dictating how to dress, or limiting time with friends and family. This pattern creates a cycle of escalating transgressions that can become more controlling and violent. “I’m in a very healthy relationship now, where my partner has a whole life outside of me and I outside of him, so when we come together, the time we spend is more valuable and we really are able to support each other in our dreams and goals,” says Abaddon.
The state of scary obsession with the object of your affection is familiar for many — and it has a name: limerence.
It’s important to note that the purpose of creating strong internal boundaries is not to become so self-sufficient that we do not need partnership. Our innate drive to partner is a well-documented evolutionary asset. A University of California Study found that couples who use the collective pronouns “we” and “us” rather than “me” and “I” have lower levels of psychological stress and navigate the inevitable challenges of life with more ease. “Rather than waste energy blaming each other, they see a problem as something they both need to solve,” writes rabbi and psychotherapist M. Gary Neumann. “They divide tasks, brainstorm, resolve and move forward,” tackling life with the confidence of two brains, hearts, and bodies.
In other words, the goal is balance. Committing oneself to a team is not the same as self-abnegation. “The irony is that it is usually the difference between people that makes one person attractive to another,” writes poet John O’Donohue in Anam Cara (1996). The subtle pull toward homogenization can actually corrode long term relationships. “There should be no imitation of each other; no need to be defensive or protective in each other’s presence. Love should encourage and free you fully into your full potential.” The voice that tells us to bury our gifts and strengths is a voice of fear, not love.
Love should encourage and free you fully into your full potential.John O’Donohue
So what is the secret to a healthy balance of identity? We must be willing to undertake what O’Donohue calls “the beautiful but difficult spiritual work of learning to love yourself.” A concrete step toward strengthening this self-love is taking on a mindfulness practice. For some, this looks like meditation, for others it involves yoga, walking in nature, even mindful eating or driving.
“You are your own master, and you are the gardener in your own garden,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh on his blog. “We are relying on you to take good care of your garden, so that you can help your beloved to take care of [theirs].” When we stop using others to avoid the responsibility of our own healing, we become powerful assets for growth and transformation.
As humans, we cannot escape the duality of our selfhood and our interconnectedness to all things. It is natural to face some discomfort and fear as we explore the porous boundaries between ourselves and the universe around us. Navigating boundaries with our partners can be a painful growth process, but our most intimate relationships provide fertile proving grounds for learning to nurture our personal visions in concert with the greater, shared goals of humanity. In a world marked by confusion, alienation, and abundant suffering, restoring the balance between “me” and “we” is an essential undertaking, one fundamental to our personal and collective well-being.