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Set limits and say no

Knowing how to set proper boundaries can make a difference in the success or failure of your relationship. The topic comes up frequently in my counseling office, and most people think that limits are set by telling other people what the limits are. But limits are really something that you must create within yourself. Having the confidence to say “no” to another is an important aspect of creating boundaries; But it starts with knowing what you do and what you don’t want.

The tennis match: setting limits and occupying space

When one or both partners don’t have enough space or don’t feel heard, their relationship will develop signs of trouble:

• One partner becomes a resentful caregiver, while the other feels oppressed and belittled.

• One will be alert to the other’s moods, often walking on eggshells so as not to disturb the other.

• You can threaten to leave to get your way.

• One wants more time together and the other wants more space.

These differences can create resentment, pain, and power struggles.

When a couple fights, the flow of love between them is blocked; even when they really love each other. On the other hand, a partner who understands boundaries and is committed to equality and mutual satisfaction is much more likely to create the love and partnership that they deeply treasure.

Each person has individual needs for closeness and personal space, as well as other needs to feel nurtured, understood and autonomous within a relationship. Some want the freedom to be close and comforted; others want freedom to be autonomous and unrestricted. It is essential that you and your partner know your own needs and wants, communicate them, and then understand each other. Knowing what you want and what you feel are essential skills in creating a mutually satisfying intimate relationship. In counseling, I use the metaphor of the tennis match to help couples understand and respect each other’s space needs.

To keep your relationship in balance, especially if it’s new, neither you nor your partner have to do all the calling, all the planning, all the talking, all the giving, and all the chasing. Instead, you must learn to throw responsibility and power around like a tennis ball.

This can start in the early stages of dating or making a new friend. Start by making a move to show the other person that you are interested in being around, then sit back and wait for your partner to make a move in return. For example, make a phone call to invite him for coffee or to join a group going to the movies, and then let him make the next invitation. You can do the same in an already established relationship – if you feel taken for granted, just back off a bit, no drama, and your partner will move towards you. If you are feeling overwhelmed because your partner is too aggressive, step up and take the initiative, or say a simple “no, thank you” (see below).

The idea is to establish a balance in your relationship, which can be difficult to achieve if you have a strong interest in the other person or if the two of you have developed an unbalanced interaction. Becoming too strong in the relationship can alienate the other person or it can disguise a lack of sufficient interest on the part of the other person. Don’t keep hitting balls over the net if you don’t return them. On the other hand, if you never hit the ball but always wait for the other person to do it, you’re not playing a good game of tennis either. It is essential that you do your part, because passivity is easily interpreted as a lack of interest and can interrupt communication. If you compare what has happened in the relationship so far to a game of tennis, you will quickly see if you have been too passive or too aggressive.

The Tennis Match: Flip the Conversation

The game of tennis is so critical to balancing all of your relationships and allowing them to find their proper levels that I have developed some guidelines that you can use to understand and promote intimacy. Following the guidelines will help you and your partner understand the needs and wants of others, and create natural boundaries that are comfortable for you. It will give both of you the space and balance to show that you are interested in what others are saying and want to hear more. Whether you’re online, on the phone, or face-to-face, you have to carry the conversation back and forth, what I call the tennis match.

Tennis match guidelines to understand your partner

• Take turns: Leave space for your partner to open topics, express opinions, gather thoughts, and express opinions. Don’t jump straight into silence if it’s not your turn.

• Focus: Listen carefully to what your partner says; don’t get mentally distracted by what you want to say next.

• Volley (Respond): After your partner says something, respond directly, letting them know that you heard and understood what was said and, if possible, that you have similar thoughts or experiences.

• Don’t argue: There is definitely a place for lively discussion in good conversation, but be careful not to be too opposed. Your goal is to establish understanding.

• Return service: at the end of what you say, ask for a response by adding “don’t you think?” Or what do you think? “Or, answer a question.

• Serve again: If your partner drops the ball, ask a question about something that was said before and give your partner enough time to express their opinion.

If your tennis match lasts long enough, you will learn a lot from each other and you will both feel like you have “a lot to talk about.” The approach to the game of tennis is not rigid, but a flexible attitude that you can adapt to almost any situation.

Say no

When you meet a partner who is aggressive and overwhelms you with too many words, too much emotion and drama, or too much attention, you must learn to set limits. If you are interested in maintaining the relationship, you should also learn to step up and hit the ball in the direction of your partner. Learning to say ‘no’ or even to remain silent in a neutral way is not necessarily easy, but it is essential to avoid uncomfortable situations. Be polite, but firm when you say “no thanks” and it will prevent the other person from imposing on you. Often saying nothing is the best tactic. Wait until your stormy partner runs out of strength and then you can make your statement.

If no questions are asked, you don’t need to volunteer, no matter how sad the story is. By asking a direct question, you can learn to be polite and say, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t.” If that’s too difficult, say you need to check with someone else (your calendar, your spouse, your kids, your boss, your pets) or think about it before you answer. If you have trouble saying no in person, use email or call when you know the other person will be out and leave a polite refusal on their voicemail. Often saying that it is not an unconscious test. If you’re not sure if you are respected, valued, or cared for, you may feel like saying “no.” After saying no, if your refusal is handled with respect, care, and consideration, your questions may disappear and you may change your mind.

Go through a scene from a situation where you want to say “no,” for example, with a demanding neighbor, partner, or relative, and practice saying “no” in several different ways in your imagination. Look at television and movies for examples of people who say “no” with grace and dignity (you can find them, if you watch them) and imitate them.

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