Testing boundaries is essential to living a satisfied, vital life. Especially in long term relationships.
In Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel writes:
The moment two people become a couple, they begin to deal with boundaries — what is in and what is out. You draw the lines around your blissful union.
As first, this isn’t an issue. You are still discovering the terrain of the other; they like to eat their pizza slice curled up rather than flopping over the span of their fingers, the level of annoyance at your lateness knows no bounds, touching them there will evoke either a sensual softening or a fit of giggles, it’s 50/50 depending on the day.
It’s safe for you to imagine a time when you have merged lives because you still have your own life, separate to them. There is a psychological and physical distance between new lovers that just is, and it’s this distance that fans the flame of desire. It reminds you of your aliveness; the sense of vitality that comes through discovery, as you both seek to close the proverbial and actual space between you.
It’s a few years down the track and you’ve consolidated your relationship. You’re now living with one another and their habit of scratching various body parts is no longer endearing. There’s very little physical space between you. One might even assume your emotional boundaries have been clearly defined, either explicitly with questions like will we go to bed at the same time? Am I free to spend time with my friends whenever I choose? Or through trial and error.
It’s Christmas and we both have four days off this year thanks to a clever calendar alignment. We’ve been dating for over a year. I have to stay in town to spend time with the kids when they come back from their dad’s on Christmas Day. His family are in another city. Christmas Day is right in the middle of the four days.
‘Are you going to your parents for Christmas?’ I ask.
‘I was thinking about it but I don’t want to leave you here,’ he says.
‘I can’t go, I get the kids back on Christmas Day. But you should go, I don’t want you missing out on your family thing.’
‘My brother is coming down from Darwin. It’d be great to see him.’
At this point I mean it when I say he should go. It makes sense. I don’t want to be the girl that prevents him from sharing in important family traditions that mean so much to him. However, as the time draws nearer, I begin to regret my enthusiastic encouragement of his journey north. Regret begins to rankle and resentment rises. Why didn’t he want to spend Christmas with us? Is this is sign he doesn’t want to fully commit to me? To us? How dare he leave me, alone for the most part. I decide this is a sign; a sign that he doesn’t want to be part of a ready made family. It’s over.
I say nothing, hoping he will pick up on the reluctant enthusiasm and bruised silences. He doesn’t and he leaves town as planned.
For the first day I busy myself with final preparations — food and gifts. I hardly notice he’s gone. He rings on day two. I can hear the blender in the background signalling the annual family Pina Colada tradition. He tells me they’re relaxing by the pool today after a big night. There’s a fullness coming from the other end of the line that amplifies the quiet solitude here. My face crumples.
‘How could you leave me?’ I wail.
‘What?’ He’s confused. ‘You didn’t mind. You said so.’
‘I thought I wouldn’t mind, but I do. It sucks here. I’m alone. At Christmas.’ I pause between sentences for emphasis and to steady my jagged breath.
‘I don’t know what you want me to do,’ he says.
I cry my fears and sorrow down the phone for as long as he will tolerate. He has to go, he says. ‘Mum is serving lunch.’
Upon his return a few days later we make time to more clearly define our expectations of one another, not prepared to leave important decisions up to the interpretation of subtle sighs and shifting body language in the future.
We navigate our relationships in an effort to establish closeness; an emotional and physical safety. The challenge is, we often negotiate away our personal autonomy when establishing the rules of play. What initially feels like security begins to feel confining. This is the kiss of death for intimacy.
“Where there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek” — Esther Perel
This is where the the toddler comes in:
Your toddler is eyeing off your prized breakable possession. In your most serious parent voice you warn them not to touch it. Despite your stern directive they reach towards the glass vessel. You repeat ‘don’t touch it’ or ‘uh uh’ as a way of letting them know the shiny glass thing is not for playing with. Emboldened by your strong boundary setting, they look you directly in the eyes as their pudgy arm and tiny fingers reach out towards the breakable object. There’s a glisten in their eye and a ‘what are you going to do about it’ expression on their face. Your eyes widen as you convey exactly what you plan to do about it.
They touch it anyway.
Breaking the rules feels energising. It’s a reclamation of free will. A delicious taste of freedom.
Channel your inner toddler and look for ways to break the rules together. To create safe distance between the two of you. To stir up hunger and invite imagination. Pursue activities that are just for you. Be courageous and empathetic enough to renegotiate boundaries from time to time, or at least discuss them. Try new things, in and out of the bedroom. There’ll be discomfort and fear as you’re reminded that your partner is a human in his or her own right.
Creating distance is particularly hard to do in a society that sees stable, peaceful togetherness as a symbol of true and lasting love.
Be gentle with each other — you want to give the vase a polish, not smash it into a million pieces.There’s enough space in a relationship for the familiar and for adventure. For security and novelty. For the stability that comes with playing by the rules and for the thrill of re-writing those same rules. It may feel unsettling but at least you’ll feel alive, right? And that’s better than the inevitable slide into numbness and disconnection.