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The Importance of Boundaries
I'd have all the nickels
Looking across the table, I sipped slowly on a glass of wine, smiled, and nodded again as my date for the evening continued the epic telling of his life story. His name is Braden and he had looked like a good match for me. On paper.
I have no idea what he thought of me on paper or otherwise, but my sense was he wasn’t thinking about me much at all.
Wrapping up a recap of his athletic prowess in high school and college, he next launched into his Army career. I interjected that I also had spent time in the military, attempting to engage him in a dialog. He was polite, nodded, and taking a breath, resumed his story at exactly the point where he’d left off.
Since arriving at the restaurant, he’d asked me no questions about myself at all. I suspected I could set the table on fire, and it would barely disrupt his narrative. Somewhere around the chapter entitled “Basic Training” my mind began to wander to something I had seen at the barn earlier in the day.
When dealing with a 1200-pound horse, you must protect your personal space and keep yourself safe. This means teaching your horse that there are limits. While Trudy was being led into the barn by her trainer, she decided to display her “mareness” to one of the geldings who was standing in the barn being groomed. Stretching out her neck and attempting to nip him, she shoved her trainer out of the way in the process. This violation of the trainer’s space was addressed quickly by the trainer who sharply and firmly flicked the lead rope back and forth in front of Trudy’s nose while moving towards her, making the horse move her feet and back away. The message was clear and decisive, and Trudy had no trouble understanding it. With a sharp flick of the rope, Trudy was learning boundaries.
If only the rest of our lives could be fixed so easily.
We all know relationships are tricky. Not just with a partner or spouse, but any family member. Or maybe a co-worker, a client, a boss, a neighbor, heck, even my dog. Our limits are tested every day.
While I assign no blame, from what I saw growing up, love, marriage and family were complicated and full of drama. There was certainly love. But there were also secrets, betrayals, half-truths, power struggles, anger, repression, subjugation, occasionally violence, and compromise. None of it seemed very appealing to me and yet somehow, I still retained that make believe dream of a perfect someone who would love me, and that love would make everything okay.
As the youngest of four children in a complicated home, by the time I was coming of age, it’s fair to say my parents provided minimal guidance and I was largely left to my own devices. I may have shown a brave face and seemed to enjoy my independence, but closer to the truth would be that I felt neglected and, in my heart, believed I was unloved – and unlovable.
Sixteen, out of my parent’s house and on my own, I was too young for the social and sexual situations I encountered. The men I met, mostly older, seemed to have some fantasy of an ideal woman, much younger, that they were trying to make real. What I experienced, what I was subjected to, nearly destroyed me. Seeking love and safety, I found neither.
Over the years I continued to struggle with romantic attachments. I felt deeply damaged and completely incapable of a healthy relationship. Eventually I decided to opt out of dating altogether and gave myself the gift of time to heal and repair.
But this is not a story of regret. Everything I’ve experienced and overcome has made me a stronger, more compassionate, and loving person. And now, having done the work, I have a sense of self-love I never had before and perhaps I’ve even picked up some wisdom over the years.
What would dating look like now? I wanted to know.
The process has changed since I was younger. There were no online services, no photo previews and profiles, no swiping right (or left?) during my early years. Back then you met through friends or family, or maybe through work or church, or often, let’s admit it, at bars. Now there are dozens of ways to connect and that can, I suppose, open you up to a lot more possibilities.
That said, there is something about dating websites and apps that feels a little too much like an online grocery shopping service to me. One where your delivery driver rarely gets your order right but somehow you still have to tip him.
After all this time I was looking forward to finding men who, like me, had spent the years in self-examination and growing spiritually and emotionally. But after four first dates, mind you a very small sample, I’ve been rather disappointed to find men, my contemporaries, still holding onto to a version of their fantasy ideal, holding so tightly to that vision, they can’t see the real person sitting across the table from them.
Braden poured himself another glass of wine, perhaps one too many, and was telling me about another of his athletic feats in college and how much he could still bench press, which seemed to me kind of an odd thing to dwell on for a man in his early sixties. He wore more jewelry than I had ever worn at one time, and though earlier I had decided to ignore it, I now distracted myself by counting the number of chains around his neck and wondering if weightlifting was helpful for carrying around all that metal.
Taking a break from my counting, I took a sip of the water I had switched to and was suddenly uncomfortably aware of his gaze fixed on my breasts. Reaching over he took my free hand and told me what a great conversationalist I am, causing me to nearly spit-take water all over him. I wondered if he’d misread my chain counting as some sort of indication of interest or perhaps it was just the wine that had gotten to him when he said, very pointedly, that he’d driven a long way to meet me and was hoping to find a place to spend the night instead of driving all that way back.
If I only had a nickel for every time I heard a lame line like that when I was younger. I thought about that sixteen-year-old girl, so strong and yet so fragile and lost.
I grew up very confused about love, but there are things I know now to be true. Boundaries are essential. They keep you safe. And you can’t settle for less than you deserve, ever.
Believe it or not, sacrificing yourself for someone else doesn’t really make them happy either. It is better for everyone when we are clear about what we need and stand by it.
Retrieving my hand, I told Braden I had to leave, early day at the barn tomorrow, you see. Putting down enough cash for my portion of the bill, I wished him a good night.
I could almost hear the sharp flick of the rope behind me as I walked away.
Boundaries. Not just for horses.
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