When setting boundaries may be the most caring thing to do for you and your partner

One of the most painful things to witness - as a counsellor working with distressed couples - is where one person, having tried every way they can to let their partner know that their needs are not being met, becomes stuck in communicating this in an angry and critical way. Their partner then defends themselves against this perceived attack, and the distressed person is then left feeling even more desparate and unheard, and that their needs are not important to their loved one.

Underlying the angry, critical attack is grief - if I stop trying to let my partner know in the most intense way I can that s/he is hurting me, what is the alternative? Do I have to then accept that my needs are not going to ever be met? Or what may feel even worse - will accepting that I have no influence over my partner's responses to me mean I have left myself with no other option but to leave?

There is an alternative, although it is no guarantee that your partner will change. At the end of the day, the unpalatable fact of the matter is we cannot change someone else - only they can make the decision to respond or not to our needs.

The alternative is setting boundaries - communicating calmly and assertively that although we cannot force our partner to change in the way we need them too, that if they do not there will be a consequence. Think carefully before you decide what the consequence will be - if you threaten to leave, for example, then find you are unwilling to do so, this empty threat will actually give your partner the message that you don't really mean what you say (and therefore it's OK to continue as things are now).

Finding a realistic consequence that you can put in place in a calm, non-reactive way is actually a caring thing to do. It says to your partner "I respect your right to not change in response to what I am telling you I need from you. However I also respect my own need to not open myself up to more pain and hurt, so I am going to ...(impose this consequence)". 

Give your partner some warning before you put the consequence into place. S/he then knows that you are not doing this from a reactive or angry position, but simply from a position of respect for yourself and for your relationship.

Consequences need to be non-punitive, and attend to your own well-being. An example of this may be spending more time separately (you may need to connect with other friends who do meet important needs for emotional support and nurturing), or withdrawal of services you provide for your partner where you feel these are not reciprocated (e.g. cooking meals, going to social events you would rather not attend for any other reason than to please your partner). Make sure you do not withdraw something that is vital to connecting as a couple, though (e.g. communicating about issues, having sex etc).

These strategies may not mean that your partner is willing to change. They will, however, put you in a position where you are able to better meet your own needs, and just possibly create a space where your partner is able to reflect on the consequence of not changing, free of criticism and blame.

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