Always be willing to walk away

During a negotiation, one of the most powerful positions to have, is one where you have the power to walk away. If the other person needs something from you more than you need something from them, you will wield the majority of the power in the negotiation.

We can use the same lens to look at relationships. The person who needs the other the least has the most power in the relationship. We see this with the abusive husband who wields power over the wife that will never leave him despite the abuse she suffers. We see this with the rockstar that wields power over his groupies that will do anything just to get close to him. We also see this play out in the heartbroken man that gives his power away by his continued pursuit of a woman that has repeatedly rejected his advances.

(Side note: I don’t think power is the only lens we should use to look at relationships. It portrays relationships as being pure power dynamics. I don’t think that’s always helpful. In fact I think that in some cases you may be losing out by viewing everything as a power calculation.)

The implication is that the person who needs the other the least will put up with less before they feel the need exit the relationship. They have set wide personal boundaries and if their partner chooses to disregard those boundaries, they would prefer to remove themselves from the relationship.

This sounds somewhat selfish — and it is. The point is that everyone should be somewhat selfish because it helps ensure a level of individual autonomy that is a prerequisite to a healthy relationship. You should rather not be in a relationship than be in a relationship with someone that doesn’t respect your boundaries.

Said differently, everyone that is interested in having a healthy relationship should have certain minimum conditions that, when not met, should result in them withdrawing from the relationship. These minimum conditions are your personal boundaries.

Not being willing to walk away, under any circumstance, amounts to not having any personal boundaries. This is manifested in someone that is trying to make it work “no matter what.” On the face of it, this sounds like a strong, noble commitment. In reality it’s a commitment to throwing yourself under the bus if you think that might save the relationship. That’s not noble. It’s misguided and self-destructive.

We have this romanticized notion that if you love someone enough, you make it work, no matter what. This absolutist thinking is terrible advice. We don’t choose our feelings. Love is not a choice. You might end up loving someone that’s a terrible partner. You might fall in love with someone that’s abusive. You might feel incredible chemistry towards someone that doesn’t love you.

Following our feelings does nothing to prevent us from ending up in relationships that are detrimental to our wellbeing. The only thing that prevents us from ending up in self-damaging situations is the set of boundaries that we erect for ourselves and our enforcement of them.

We cannot choose what we feel towards someone. What we can choose is which relationships we pursue and it is here that we should practice careful judgment.

It’s easy to say you’re trying to make a relationship work no matter what. It’s much harder to say under which circumstances you are willing to override your feelings and stand by principle. By doing this, you are setting your boundaries, you are defining the circumstances under which you will walk away. Doing so is an act of respect towards yourself through which you are incidentally affording yourself negotiating power in the relationship.

Not only will your negotiation position improve after setting and enforcing your boundaries, you will respect yourself more for it. Our self-esteem can be understood as the reputation we have with ourselves. If, then, we commit ourselves to trying to make it work not matter what, we build a reputation for ourselves in which we value the relationship higher than we value ourselves. If, however, we make a stand on principle, however painful it may be in the moment, we will feel the benefit of staying true to ourselves in the long run.

A boundary is a commitment to yourself that you won’t put up with situations that don’t meet a certain standard (which you set yourself). If you do not set boundaries, or you fail to enforce them, people will walk over you and cause you emotional (and/or physical) damage. What’s more, if you don’t set and enforce boundaries, you’re not making any commitments towards protecting yourself. Boundaries protect us from incurring damage, physical and emotional.

Everyone needs to have certain sets of conditions which, when broken, lead them to resist or withdraw from the situation. Let’s say your partner enjoys dressing (what you consider) slutty and getting drunk with her friends. This makes you uncomfortable and when you raise your concerns with her, she dismisses them out of hand. She asserts that you’re being controlling and you should “get over your insecurities.” Should you?

When your partner does something that makes you feel uncomfortable, they’re pushing up against (or over) certain boundaries that already exist within yourself. In some cases your boundaries are set to a default setting which will be somewhat conservative. If your wife going out with girlfriends makes you uncomfortable, you might want to consider recalibrating your boundaries. If on the other hand your girlfriend wants to sleep with other men, there might also be a growth opportunity there, but not one you’re interested in (I personally wouldn’t be.) The response to behavior which you feel you cannot accept should be non-acceptance. Even if that means removing yourself from the relationship.

Whether or not dressing slutty and getting drunk is an opportunity to expand your boundaries, or an opportunity to stand up for them, is a question only you yourself can answer. You can try asking yourself “Is putting up with this right for me?” and see what answer bubbles up for you.

I see many men pursuing women that tell them (explicitly or implicitly) that they’re not interested in being with them. This doesn’t stop them from pursuing these women. Why pursue someone that doesn’t want to be with you? This is a trap you can only fall into if you haven’t set a clear boundary for yourself. If you set a boundary for yourself that you will only invest time, love and energy in people that return that investment, then you won’t find yourself chasing ones that don’t. That is — if you manage the challenge of enforcing that boundary.

If you love someone, pursue them if you want, but set your boundaries before you do. If your boundaries are ignored, pursuing them will only cause you hurt. So don’t do it!

Enforcing your boundaries means respecting and protecting yourself — and that should trump all other things, even love. For every relationship you enter you should be able to think through the circumstances under which you would terminate the relationship. It’s not a pleasant thing to think about, but cultivating this ability is healthy and grounds you in reality. If someone wants to do something that infringes on your boundaries, they should be free to do so, but you’re going to choose not to be part of that and not have that person in your life.

Getting started with setting and enforcing boundaries

Setting and enforcing boundaries is one of the things I do with my clients in our 1 on 1 sessions. To learn more about 1 on 1 breakup recovery coaching see my coaching page.