Working Moms
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Working Moms

Boundary Setting Fails

You’re learning the wrong lesson!

Side view of brown wooden fence through a green field.
Photo by Edan Cohen on Unsplash

Are you a builder or a destroyer?

When you were a kid, did you build the tower of blocks, or were you the one who knocked someone else’s tower down? I think most of us know what it’s like to carefully build something beautiful only to have someone knock it over, ruining all your hard work.

That’s pretty much what my experience with boundary setting was like. That is until I realized I was learning the wrong lesson from it.

The Process

I am the queen of boundary-making.

I have built so many in my life that I should be a member of a construction union. Looking at a problem and deciding what issue to deal with is a skill I have honed to near perfection. We are talking Olympic-level solutions here, and at least a Masters-level for getting all relevant parties to agree to those solutions. And, my ultimate specialty, the final piece, is setting up all the rules for everyone to follow—my true strength.

It sounds so simple.

The steps are clear, sequential, and straightforward. Find the issue, create a solution that everyone agrees to, set up rules for all to follow, and voila! A boundary is born! I followed not just the letter of those steps, but the spirit too…

Only to have them fail with an underlined, capitalized, bolded, italicized F.

Boundary Fail: Exhibit A

My ex-husband was from a different culture.

One of the smallest, most benign boundary-fails I experienced with him involved how our children answered us when called. As a child, when his parents called his name, he was expected to drop what he was doing and physically run to them. He needed to immediately find out what they wanted. We raised our kids in the US, where if a parent calls out a child’s name, the standard response by the child is calling back with “what?”

My ex really, really hated that.

He felt it showed a lack of respect, and he wanted them to act the way he did when he was a child. The problem was that he hadn’t been very active in the parenting department but wanted things his way since I was the primary parent and completely fine with a response of “what?” that became the norm in our house.

Honestly, I was usually just happy they responded at all.

The problem came to a head as my kids became teenagers, and the “what?” was occasionally paired up with an attitude. This caused an ugly fight between them and their father more than once. So, I took my boundary-making skills and set them to work.

I talked with all of them and decided the problem was a lack of understanding on both parts. I helped my kids understand their father’s perspective, and I tried to help my ex understand that “what?” is just “what?” in the US. It’s an entirely appropriate response to someone calling your name, and it has nothing to do with a lack of respect. At all.

After some discussion, everyone agreed that “what?” was an acceptable response when their name was called. If the parent who was calling needed that child to present themselves physically, then the parent would call the child’s name followed by “come here, please.” There would be no yelling, screaming, threats, or punishments.

Problem defined- check.

Communication initiated- check.

Solutions applied — check.

Rules agreed upon- check.

And yet…4 days later, I came home from work to find all three kids in tears because of the same damn fight!


Anatomy of a Failed Boundary

This is how it was with every failed boundary. I was so sure that I could make them succeed. Each time one failed, I took it to heart. What sort of lame mom can’t protect her kids and keep the peace? This was my family; I could not fail!

So, I’d look at what went wrong. I’d pick apart the wording of the agreement, the ability of all parties to understand the rules, my own (poor?) communication of the end goal. Finally, I’d find a small (or big) gap in communicating the issue/plan and start the problem-solving process again.

I was like some mad scientist.

I would disappear into the office with a pen, paper, and a problem to solve. I’d brainstorm, write out solutions, cross them out, write again, and, eventually, emerge with a shiny new boundary out of carefully chosen words (that don’t offend or blame anyone). Then, finally, I’d push my goggles up onto the top of my head, shout “Eureka!”, and gather the family together to introduce the new and improved boundaries that would encompass aaaallllll the things I could think of.

Only to get a motherf*cking F yet again.

The Cycle

I repeated this cycle over and over and over as my kids grew up. I was so sure that if everyone involved in the situation understood each other’s feelings, we could work it out. I really thought there was nothing that endless, earnest talking couldn’t solve.

That was cute. But wrong.

Every boundary I carefully set up, explained and cared for was plowed through like it was made of toothpicks. Sometimes my kids drove the plow, but they drove through it in the way a new driver might miss a turn accidentally… But, mostly, it was my ex who drove the plow, and he did it with intent and malice.

I spent most of my marriage in that cycle. Over and over, I set a boundary, watched it get tossed aside, set up a new and improved boundary, only to watch it get demolished. It happened so often that I worried I might not actually have a DO-NOT-CROSS line at one point. I worried I was defective or missing something and that I would spend my life as a boundary-less doormat.

Happily, it turns out I do have a DO-NOT-CROSS line. Unfortunately, he crossed it, and we divorced.

What A Boundary Fail Really Means

I walked away from my divorce, still carrying a sense of defeat. Not about my decision to divorce, but about my failed boundaries.

Why couldn’t I get them to work?? ‘Setting boundaries’ sounds like such a healthy, adult thing to do… so why couldn’t I do it??? Was there a class I missed? It seemed like everyone I knew could successfully set them up; what was I doing wrong??

Of all things, my answer came from a self-defense course. It turns out my boundaries were fine, maybe even fantastic. But I was learning the wrong lesson when people ignored them!!

Let me explain. I’m in class listening to the self-defense instructor discussing situational awareness. He set the scene with the following scenario:

You are at a gas station pumping gas at night with no one around. You see a man coming through the parking lot on a path that will intersect with you. He kind of makes you nervous, but he’s not a clear threat. What do you do? Is he just trying to get a soda at the gas station? Is he a predator? Do you scream for help, only to find out he was just thirsty and wanted a drink? Do you ignore him and wait to figure out his intentions but risk finding out he’s a bad guy too late? It’s an age-old dilemma for women. You don’t want to make a scene…but you don’t want to get killed either.

So, what do you do?

You set a boundary.

Put your hands up in a defensive position and tell him he’s too close or to back up. If he seems startled and immediately backs off, apologizing for scaring you…then you know. He just wanted a soda but got a lesson on not scaring women as well. Wonderful.

But, if he ignores you and keeps coming forward, even if he’s saying, “relax, I’m just trying to get a soda, what’s your problem?” then you know. He’s a threat.

You’ve established that he doesn’t respect your boundary and his intentions are likely bad. And once he gets too close, you can take him down with a perfectly executed block that feeds into a guillotine choke. Because even if he thinks you’re nuts, he should respect the boundary you set.

Let me repeat it for those in the back:

You set boundaries to establish intentions.

And the clouds parted, the angels sang, and the sun shone down!!

I realized that my boundaries had worked perfectly. I had simply learned the wrong lessons from their failures. This epiphany was so sudden and so profound I’m pretty sure there was an audible popping noise.

The Boundaries Had Been Working All Along!

My boundaries worked.

They were intended to be an early-warning system, not a real barrier. Their true protection came from the information I got from them. Had I been looking at them as “intention indicators” rather than spending all my time trying to construct new and better ones, I would have saved myself years of frustration.

What the boundaries are, how they are worded or communicated doesn’t matter. What matters is how those affected by the boundaries react to them, how they respect the boundaries that you create.
If I tell my family never to bring anything fuchsia into my house, there might be some confusion or even some eye-rolling. But in the end, those who love me and respect my autonomy and right to make decisions about my life will shrug and then never bring anything fuchsia into the house! On the other hand, someone who insists that because it’s their favorite color, it’s their right to wear it to my house doesn’t respect me, my wishes, or my right to govern my own life.

Most situations that require boundaries to be set are likely to be more complicated than color choices. But the essence of most boundary disagreements can be distilled into two questions:

1. Do you have the right to erect that boundary?

2. Is the person respecting it?

If the answers are yes to the first and no to the second, the early warning system is working. Your boundaries are doing their job, and you have been warned.

The Takeaway

How I wish I had understood all this earlier! I’d have spent much less time trying to get my ex to understand the acceptability of “what?” and way more time wondering why he had to have things his way, why he couldn’t compromise for the sake of peace, and why he couldn’t stick to the agreed-upon rules.

He was not just headed into the gas station for a soda, unaware of his effect on those around him. This wasn’t innocent, accidental boundary-crossing. He refused to accept the boundary he agreed to with his kids. It was intentional and wrong.

We have the right to create boundaries that protect us. But, unfortunately, those around us who have benefitted from not having those boundaries in place will be the ones who complain the loudest.

But if they accept and respect them, they are likely just trying to get a soda from the gas station. The ones who complain and then crash through the boundaries or the even -more -dangerous silent crashers are the ones who are screaming that they don’t think you have the right to protect yourself if it inconveniences them. They are dangerous.

They are the ones you need to watch, the ones that need to be blocked from your life and their intrusions choked off.

So, build your towers of blocks, and when someone knocks them over with intent, now you know that the problem isn’t the type of block or the construction design. It isn’t you. The problem is that you are dealing with an asshat who only cares about what they want. They don’t give two figs about what you want or need or what you’ve built.

Take that hard lesson to heart and act accordingly.



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Amy Torbenson

Amy Torbenson

Mom of two amazing sons and one amazing daughter, lifelong reader of anything and everything, (really) slow runner, and a terrible cook.