Boundaries in relationships – bombs and sneak attacks!

I am grateful to Terry Real (renowned couples therapist and author of “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.” on male depression and “The New Rules of Marriage”)  for his Relational Life Theory. Terry’s theory provides a blueprint for individual growth in relationship via his Relationship Grid.

In the Relationship Grid, there are two axes. The vertical axis delineates the continuum of self-esteem. At the top, we have Grandiosity. Or what we call, going “one-up.” I think that I am better than everyone else. The rules don’t apply to me. My truth is the truth. I am entitled and contemptuous. judgmental and condescending. At the bottom, we have Toxic Shame. As opposed to appropriate shame which is appropriately feeling bad about something I did, where it makes sense to feel bad about something I did or did not do, toxic shame is says that I am bad. What this means in relationship is that I get stuck in the bad feelings I have about myself (narcissism) which prevents me from focusing on you, what you are feeling and our relationship. I feel flawed and worthless so I am going “one-down.” Healthy self esteem is midway between grandiosity and shame…neither better nor worse – just the same as you. Grandiosity can take the form of self righteousness, arrogance and contempt. It can also be subtle…an eye roll is the perfect exhibit of this. You see your partner, not as an equal, but as one who can be dismissed.

The horizontal axis on the Relationship Grid outlines our boundaries. A boundary is a psychological divide that both protects and contains.  A protective boundary shields me from the world. Like the rind of an orange, my protective boundary is the barrier to a word or action penetrates my heart and causes pain – unless there is some truth to it and I need to take it in and think about it. The protective boundary allows me to think.. Is this true or not? If the answer is “no,” then it flies off my back like water on a duck. If the answer is “yes” or a partial “yes,” then there is information there that is valuable for me to take in and utilize for my benefit.The containing boundary protects the world from us. It is the restraint that prevents us from saying things we regret- spewing out hurtful attacks that though recoverable, take a toll long term in a relationship. It can be subtle and passive. Teasing and criticism are shots with silencers -as harmful long term as tirades of emotion.

Marinate on these concepts for a while. Where and how do you throw missiles in your relationship?  (porous containing boundary) When do you let what someone says about you affect you more than what they may be saying about how they feel? (porous protective boundary)  More to come on looking at which quadrant you usually gravitate to in your relationship. And also more examples of how this shows up in my room!

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