This image encapsulates a really important lesson that many of us struggle to learn. If we want intimacy then we have to risk the vulnerability of authenticity, of being really honest. Among other things, being authentic means saying what is and isn’t OK for you. That’s what us therapist types mean when we talk about “setting boundaries”
The right-hand column in this picture is a good summary of what happens if we don’t do this. If we are not looking after ourselves by setting good boundaries we are likely to end up resentful and lonely. So why is it so difficult for many of us to set boundaries? Typically it is because (perhaps unconsciously) we don’t believe we are good enough, important enough, loveable enough or safe enough to get what we want. As a result of those kinds of insecurities about our worth, we fear that if we set boundaries we will be rejected or attacked.
That may have been true in the past, in our formative years, it may even have been true within your current relationship, but if you want the goodies in the left-hand column of the picture, then you are going to have to learn how to set boundaries with each other.
One key to setting boundaries effectively is to remember to talk about the positive side – what IS okay for you, what you DO want. So often we focus on what we don’t want (e.g. “Don’t fiddle with my hand, it tickles me”) rather than asking for what we’d like ( e.g. “I like that you want to touch me. Would you just hold my hand or rub it more firmly so I don’t get ticklish”).
Another approach I use, particularly when setting clean and clear boundaries represents a new way of operating in the relationship, is to say something like “I’m trying something new to help our relationship. Please bear with me if I don’t do it very well”. This signals my positive intention really clearly to my partner as well as giving them a warning that something new is coming their way.
Finally, remember that if you haven’t been taking the risk of setting boundaries and being assertive, it is going to feel uncomfortable but, as the diagram points out, that discomfort is minor and temporary compared to the lasting benefits that come from allowing yourself to be seen and known by your partner. That’s what intimacy is all about.