real life

'A family member made a comment about my wife over dinner. It crossed all my boundaries.'

Honesty is my love language, so I want you to know the truth:

I wrote an entire book on boundaries. They are more important in our lives now than ever. And yet, I still struggle to set them with some people and in some areas of my life.

I write this as someone who is smarting from a microaggression that I failed to correct.

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I’m nine years into my relationship with my wife, and we’re an hour into a birthday dinner for my brother.

It’s just him, our parents, my wife and our son. And before I can process what's happening, I find myself in the middle of a conversation that chokes my capacity to speak up for myself.

"It’s interesting that none of your grandparents had an issue with your relationship with Nyssa, because Dad and I certainly did."

My mum offers these words across the table in the same tone that she asked for someone to please pass her the bread.

She has no idea that these words are violent, and perhaps it’s her naivete that shuts down my vocal cords. 

My brother flashes me an apologetic look – a look that reads, ‘Why the f*** are we back at same-sex relationships as a big thing?’ He attempts to change the subject, but the cigarette is lit and now my dad is smoking it.

"Beck, did (my grandfather – one of my favourite humans, who is no longer with us) ever say anything to you about Nyssa?"

Dad is curious and has no idea that this casual conversation is emotionally cancerous to me.

He doesn’t know that this topic exists in the context of me feeling apologetic for bringing a ‘situation’ to them that they had to ‘get used to’.

And he certainly doesn’t realise that he’s just unintentionally weaponised against me a man that I idolised, by planting a seed that my darling grandfather may have disapproved of the woman who has made me a better me.

Nyssa holds my hand under the table, pressing it against my left knee that has gone rogue and is bouncing anxiously. 

I don’t know how we got here, and I want to throw up or cry or not be seen as ‘different’ this late into nearly a decade of love that has been the best thing to ever happen to me.

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And so, as the author of an entire book on the importance of boundaries and how and when to set them, I... do nothing. Nothing but smile and answer them reassuringly.

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My fear system has launched into SOS-mode and I’m back at the day I told them I had fallen in love with a woman.

The same day they smiled and answered me reassuringly (but followed up by micro-managing how I was allowed to behave with Nyssa, ‘just in case anyone is offended’). 

I poke at my asparagus and the waitress benignly offers another round of drinks to the happy family at table number six.

It’s three weeks later now, and that conversation is smoke on a wind long gone from my parents’ minds. 

They love Nyssa like their own child. They call her just as often, if not more, than me. She is one of us, and we are that happy family, joined together by a wicked sense of humour and shared preference for music with a strong beat.

Behind those microaggressions are two people who are loving the best they can, with the knowledge and awareness they have right now, and with their individual capacities for emotional growth. 

They are influenced by their own ‘stuff’, and still, they have successfully raised children with whom they share friendships as adults. An achievement to be pretty damn proud of. 

Does it make the microaggressions okay? No. Should I have spoken up and set a boundary? Probably. Will I do so in future? Honestly, I don’t know.

I am also a human doing the best I can with the knowledge and awareness I have right now. 

And sometimes, that means that I cut others some slack simply because I understand their intentions are not harmful. They don’t mean it, and would likely be horrified if they knew it was hurtful.

Sometimes, this is an informed and conscious decision on my behalf. Sometimes, I’m driven by an unconscious need for self-protection because the unhealed wounds I carry have been triggered and I’ll do whatever I have to do in the moment to feel safe again. 

That’s right, psychologists have ‘stuff’, too.

Dr Rebecca Ray is the author of the book Setting Boundaries. Image: Supplied.

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Do I ever set boundaries in my life (including with my parents)? You bet I do. I set boundaries all over the place, usually without much guilt, and with a healthy dose of assertiveness so everyone is clear on where they stand. It’s taken me a while to get here, though. 

But there are times when I don’t, and there will be times when you won’t, either. And that’s okay. Boundaries don’t need to be perfect in every part of your life to be effective and empowering.

There will be some areas of your life that you continuously improve at boundaries, and others where it will seem like the struggle remains real and present, either because of your own baggage, the baggage other people own but project on to you, or a combination of both. 

Our interpersonal world is always dynamic. Please don’t expect yourself to get it right every time. 

To strengthen your boundaries in the areas of your life that you feel ready to, here are my tips:

  • Focus on what’s in your control (that is, communicating clearly to set the boundary, not how the boundary is received). 

  • Validate your own feelings first. There’s only so far you can go if you reject, dismiss, or ignore the parts of yourself that hurt. Eventually, it will demand your attention whether you like it or not.

  • Stay close to people who model healthy boundaries and support you to put your own boundaries in place.

  • Don’t own anyone else’s stuff, and know that everyone has it. Bags and bags of it. Don't take responsibility for anything that's not yours, including feelings, reactions and the general happiness of others.

  • Mind your expectations. No one is perfect. Not you, and not the people with whom you're setting boundaries. Progress matters; perfection is impossible.

  • Trust yourself. The nature of your inner authority to be your authentic self is to trust in your capability to live into your potential – even when it gets hard. You got this! 

  • Practise, practise, practise. Your brain is wired for empowered boundaries by you repeatedly practising empowered boundaries. Over and over again.

Dr Rebecca Ray is the author of Setting Boundaries, Pan Macmillan, RRP $32.99  

Feature Image: Supplied.

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