Respecting Your Boundaries When Supporting Your Partner
In intimate, loving relationships, it's normal for two partners’ emotions to become deeply intertwined. Each individual may care so deeply about the other’s feelings, wants, and goals that their partner’s wellbeing begins to feel like their own.This unique bond can be extremely fulfilling for couples when sharing positive emotions and experiences. However, when the emotional stability of your partner hangs in the balance, you may begin to feel weighed down. Many of us know first hand that one partner's emotions can send shockwaves through the other, making it difficult to differentiate between your own mood and that of your partner. While it’s always important to maintain a sense of empathy and compassion, it's also crucial to remember that you are both individuals with distinct feelings and needs. So how can you provide unwavering support to your partner while safeguarding your own emotional well-being?
In therapy, interpersonal differentiation refers to the ability to separate one's own thoughts, feelings, and identity from those of others, especially in close relationships. Developing a healthy level of interpersonal differentiation can lead to more satisfying and less codependent relationships. Though it may appear simple, this critical aspect of personal development is more complex than it may seem. Addressing this skill in therapy involves a deep understanding of personal boundaries, self-awareness, mindfulness, and self regulation. Once the balance between support for your partner and interpersonal differentiation is achieved, you can maintain a strong, supportive partnership while still ensuring you remain grounded in your own emotional identity.
One of the most critical skills for maintaining any healthy relationship is identifying and upholding boundaries. Start by identifying areas where clearer boundaries might be necessary in your relationship. You can still be there for your partner to listen, offer advice, and spend quality time together. However, it is also essential to communicate when you need space or personal time. Define what is acceptable and what isn't in terms of your partner's behavior and your own mental health. Striking a balance between supporting your partner and maintaining your well-being can be a difficult adjustment, causing feelings of guilt and discomfort for many. However, remember that establishing boundaries in your relationship will actually be beneficial for both partners. Allowing yourself space for your own feelings and self-care will also give your partner the space to practice emotional regulation and self-soothing, fostering a more independent and structurally sound relationship from both sides.
As you might imagine, setting clear boundaries with your partner sometimes requires a great deal of self-awareness. Therapy can be helpful for learning how to explore your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and identifying areas where you might be enmeshed with others or struggle to assert your own identity. Past experiences and family dynamics can significantly influence your ability to differentiate from others’ thoughts and feelings. Exploring your upbringing and early relationships can be a helpful therapeutic intervention for identifying patterns that may be affecting your current interactions.
Alongside this reflection, you can continue building self-awareness by learning to recognize your own limits. In the modern world, many of us have unintentionally become disconnected from our body's innate cues and needs. The relentless demands of our daily lives often lead us to overlook and even disregard signals such as hunger, fullness, fatigue, and emotions, ultimately causing a significant gap in awareness of our own well-being. This is partially due to the development of emotional regulation, which allows us to gain control over our instinctual drives and reactivity. Obviously, learning emotional regulation is extremely critical for normal development and healthy functioning. However, it is important to do so while strengthening the connection to our body that we may otherwise lose touch with in the process. This is an empowering skill to hone and can be accomplished through mindfulness practices. Mindfulness practices can help you become more aware of your own emotional reactions, triggers, and personal needs in relationships, allowing you to recognize and establish your own limitations. This in turn leads to the development of a healthier form of self-regulation in which you can respond more rationally and less reactively in interpersonal situations.
For example, in a conversation with your partner where they are telling you all of their thoughts, worries, and stressors from the day, you might stay for as long as they want to listen and support them without a second thought. Though your intention is to be a good, supportive, and responsive partner, failing to acknowledge your own emotional and physical state may lead to a sense of resentment towards your partner or negative outcomes for your own goals and wellbeing. Maybe you’re actually very tired and emotionally drained from work or have a big day tomorrow that requires a clear head and a good night’s sleep. Building self-awareness and mindfulness skills would allow you to check in with yourself in that moment, emotionally regulate, and then clearly and respectfully communicate your limits and needs. Integrating these boundary-setting, self-awareness, mindfulness, and self-regulation skills will allow you to differentiate your own thoughts and needs from those of your partner and build a healthier relationship that embodies respect for both parties.
If you are struggling to set boundaries in your relationship feel free to reach out for therapy. I am accepting new clients in California and work with individuals and couples.