Love is Not Enough – Why good boundaries make good relationships
Emotional empathy is often touted as a relationship panacea, but there’s another piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked. In this episode Justice Schanfarber makes a case for the value of emotional boundaries in relationships. Join us as we explore –
Most couples therapy in North America today prioritizes attachment, partner soothing, other-validation, and empathizing techniques, and so people are sometimes surprised when I talk about the need for differentiation in relationships.
To the uninitiated, differentiation is often confused with distancing, but it actually makes the opposite possible: In order to remain in close proximity to others (especially our primary partner) when emotions are running high, we must have achieved a certain level of emotional differentiation. Differentiation is what allows us to remain close to others in emotionally turbulent times.
If we have not yet achieved a sufficient level of emotional differentiation one of two things will happen when we are faced with a partner’s emotional volatility –
We withdraw. Without sufficient differentiation our nervous system can not handle our partner’s strong emotional experience, and so our body sends us a visceral message: Retreat!
We become enmeshed. We lose hold of our own emotional equilibrium as an individual and we merge emotionally with our partner. We can no longer differentiate between their emotions and our own emotions. We become a single emotional unit.
Withdrawing, distancing, or avoidance is sometimes mistakenly associated with differentiation because these behaviours appear to be the opposite of enmeshment, but withdrawing (distancing, avoidance) is generally a symptom of too little emotional differentiation rather than too much.
Enmeshment and co-dependency: The dark side of empathy
Emotional enmeshment (commonly called co-dependency) is often conflated with empathy. Actually, co-dependency IS a form of empathy, it’s just not a very favourable form of empathy. Empathy, often touted as the cure-all in couples therapy, has a dark side too; without emotional boundaries (differentiation) empathy devolves into co-dependent feelings and behaviours.
Dependence, Independence, Interdependence
Another way to understand differentiation is in terms of dependence, independence, and interdependence in relationships.
Long term relationships move through a set of predictable stages: dependence gives way to independence, independence gives way to interdependence. These are developmental stages that we all must navigate in sequence. They mirror the developmental stages of infancy and adolescence. In early life we are enmeshed with the mother (dependency). Slowly we develop our independence, sometimes as a reflexive action or protest against our dependency (think teenage rebellion). Eventually, if we do our personal work, we arrive at interdependence.
Flexibility is the key to interdependence in relationships: The people involved are strongly rooted in their own emotional autonomy AND they are able to meet each other empathetically. They can show up for each other emotionally without being blown away or drawn into the other’s emotional storm.
Differentiation and desire
In relationships characterized by interdependence and high levels of emotional differentiation the need for either enmeshment or distance has been effectively resolved, and the way is now paved for desire to flourish. The issue of desire is an interesting sidebar to the idea of differentiation –
High levels of emotional differentiation are associated with desire in relationships.
Neediness preempts desire. There is generally not room for both. We don’t get to experience much real desire until we have sufficiently attended to our neediness. I’m not talking exclusively about sexual desire here (though that is definitely a part of the picture); I’m talking about knowing what you want as distinct from what you need. The difference is profound, and profoundly confusing for those who have little direct experience with emotional differentiation.
Need Vs. Want
Something I see again and again with client couples is that people who lean heavily toward the enmeshed end of the spectrum think mostly in terms of getting needs met, and do not know how to respond when asked for specifics about what they want or desire.
I recently suggested on my facebook page that “Sometimes our most difficult relationship issues boil down to a personal ability to say yes and no and to feel solid in either. This simple-sounding thing causes lifetimes of distress.” What I am speaking to here is the presence or absence of emotional differentiation.
Without sufficient differentiation we are not connected to what we truly want, to our genuine desires. In our enmeshment with our partner, we are always playing a guessing game, trying to manipulate outcomes to get our needs met, and so we are never able to stand solidly in what we are a YES to and what we are a NO to. A solid yes and a solid no are rooted in knowing what we WANT, and that want gets obscured when we are scrambling to get what we believe we need.
About the image at the top of the page
The image at the top of the page in some ways exemplifies what we are talking about here. In order to strengthen the connection between the ideas in the image and the ideas in this article we might add a developmental lens, ie – in the first quadrant (upper left) we could say that yes, our boundary is breached, but it’s also quite likely that we haven’t yet developed the differentiation boundary. Differentiation is of course a boundary, a very important and particular kind of boundary.
The next image is captioned “Rediscover Boundaries”, but it’s quite possible that differentiation boundaries have not yet been developed, so for our purposes we could also say this is about developing or discovering boundaries for the first time.
In the final image (lower right quadrant) we see a visual example of differentiation in action.
[Note – I do not know who created this image and so unfortunately I can not provide attribution.]
You might want to believe you’re on a single, united journey together, but that would not be entirely true. You can be sure that they have their own journey to make; sometimes your partner’s journey will interlock seamlessly with your own, sometimes it will diverge, causing unrest and friction.
Their journey, one way or another, will eventually take them from you. There is no other way. If not by choice or circumstance, time will catch up and death will come between you. Contemplate this truth. Remind yourself often, even until it breaks you. Then maybe you grieve for the loss to come, and learn to hold on lightly to what you have, for it is not yours to keep.
Your partner’s journey includes their own discoveries and challenges, their own hard decisions, sacrifices, dilemmas, and predicaments. Your partner’s journey will have them facing their own heart-break, their own dark nights of the soul.
Parts of their journey will need to be faced alone
Some of your partner’s journey will inevitably need to be faced alone, no matter how much you love them, how much you need them, how much you want to protect, rescue, or soothe them. The same, of course, is true in reverse.
Much of the art of relationship is about how we honour our partner’s journey even as we honour our own, how we navigate the borders and boundaries that keep us as two even as we move as one. Your relationship asks this of you – Can you recognize the unbreakable sovereignty of both you and your partner even as you dance in the longing for some kind of permanent “we”?
Every so often I’ll have a client tell me they lack empathy. “How do you know?” I’ll ask. Generally the answer is some version of “My partner tells me”.
Upon deeper inquiry, we might discover that this person is actually incredibly attuned to their partner’s feelings, that they can read or intuit their partner’s experience in the minutest detail. In fact, what we usually discover is not that they are out of touch with their partner’s emotional experience, but just the opposite: they are profoundly sensitive and deeply moved by how their partner feels. It isn’t that they lack emotional empathy; the problem is that they don’t know how to handle it. They get overwhelmed. And so they protect themselves.
If we feel too much, and we don’t know how to manage those feelings, we resort to predictable coping strategies: We distance ourselves, become defensive, shut down, lash out, criticize, avoid, go numb, even turn to substance abuse or compulsive behaviours.
Is it empathy that is lacking… or is it emotional maturity?
When a client complains to me that their partner lacks empathy, further investigation very often reveals a different picture. What is actually lacking is emotional maturity, ie – the courage, tolerance, and boundaries required to navigate feelings effectively.
It takes courage to let ourselves feel, and to let ourselves be seen feeling. It takes courage to remain present in the face of a loved one’s strong feelings. And it takes courage to reveal (and also manage) the impact they are having upon us – positive, negative, and otherwise. This courage includes a willingness to confront, to disappoint, or to anger our partner.
If we don’t want to succumb to semi-conscious strategies of distancing, numbing, defensiveness, avoidance etc, then we must learn to tolerate the discomfort of feeling our partner’s feelings, no matter how uncomfortable they might be. This necessarily implies boundaries; we must have ample sense of our own emotional agency, of where our experience is distinct from our partner’s. Without these boundaries we are likely to get swept up and overwhelmed by our partner’s emotions, and so trigger those protective mechanisms that look, from the outside, like a lack of empathy.
These qualities of courage, tolerance, and boundaries are markers of emotional maturity and sophistication. Without these qualities empathy may remain present, but stunted; emotional fusion, co-dependency, distancing, and angry acting out are some of the consequences.
Empathy asks us to develop emotional resiliency
When empathy is naively equated with kindness we miss big parts of the picture. Empathy is actually value-neutral in the sense that it isn’t necessarily good or bad. Empathy can cause a lot of suffering if it isn’t accompanied by emotional resiliency, ie – courage, tolerance, and boundaries. Additionally, empathy can be used intentionally or unconsciously to hurt, manipulate, and abuse people; knowing how others feel can be ammunition against them.
In my experience as a couples therapist, empathy doesn’t need so much to be learned or taught, it needs to be allowed, confronted, comprehended. Biological evolution has hard-wired us for empathy. The question is how much of it we can risk feeling, and what we do with those feelings. If we can’t handle our partner’s feelings we’ll minimize, resist, or otherwise disconnect from them.
Sure, some people do truly and pathologically lack the capacity for empathy, but that almost never turns out to be the case in my couples counselling practice. I have found that rarely do people have to learn how to let their partner’s emotional experience touch them, rather they have to practice tolerating the impact, and navigating the outcomes skillfully.