Boundaries are a hard thing for women everywhere. There are a million reasons, but I think that most of us feel essentially required to take care of the feelings of everyone around us. The feeling that we’ve disappointed someone is almost physically painful, and we take a lot of abuse – we’re programmed, in a way, to take that abuse – because we don’t want to hurt or disappoint any of the people around us.
That’s true when we’re happily married, and it’s still true when we’re unhappily married – when the situation has evolved into a toxic mess, where there’s abuse being hurled at all from all corners, when our physical and mental health is visibly suffering.
We still pick up the phone. Answer the email. Respond to the text message. Read the comments on social media. And we still internalize it. We sit with it. We feel it. We let it hurt us. We formulate a response.
After all, once this person understands us, won’t they come to see it our way? Won’t they realize that your intentions were good, that you were right, that there’s another way to consider things? If we just put ourselves out there, we can help clear the air, alleviate the disappointment, make things better.
Only … it doesn’t work that way. Maybe sometimes it does, but in a divorce context, especially, it is difficult to convince people of one right way, or to move forward in a way that doesn’t cause at least some pain and disappointment, even from the people you love the most.
As is true in so many areas of life, one of the best things you can do is establish healthy boundaries.
It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about your soon-to-be ex, your in laws, your own parents, your mutual friends, or even – I am sorry to say – your children.
In the heat of the moment, many people can behave differently than they might otherwise. Or, maybe it’s not different at all. Maybe your mother in law never liked you anyway and was always insanely critical – maybe her behavior is exactly what you’d expect it to be. In either case, though, the way other people feel about your divorce is their issue to work through, and not yours.
That may sound harsh, if we’re talking about your children. But you don’t owe them explanations, and, in fact, explanations can be super harmful and completely inappropriate. They may feel some kind of way about your split, but that doesn’t entitle them to insider information (information that would, in all likelihood, only serve to hurt their opinion either of you or of their other parent, which is not acceptable). You have to hold a boundary that says that you love and support them, that you’re they’re to help them, that it had nothing to do with them, but that what’s between mom and dad stays between mom and dad.
For their sake, and for yours, you have to hold a firm boundary. Certain topics are not up for discussion. Though you’re happy to help them navigate their feelings in and around the divorce, it doesn’t mean that you have to open up to the point that you divulge sensitive or damaging information. You have to protect everyone involved.
The same goes for anyone else in your life. You don’t owe anyone explanations. It’s really none of their business. Whether they support you or think you’re making a mistake you’ll regret for the rest of your life, you don’t have to explain yourself.
You ultimately can’t change other people, or how they’ll react to the situation, but, for your own sake, you have to give them less power over you. When someone says something mean or hurtful, take a moment to categorize it as such. If it’s abuse, feel free to terminate the conversation.
Yes, even with your soon-to-be ex, you can stop the conversation. You don’t have to spiral into a fight where you’re screaming obscenities at each other, or where you feel like your personal safety might be in jeopardy. You can say, “This is not productive, and I’m ending it now.”
Just today I was emailing with a client who told me she wanted something in her separation agreement to specify that if her ex became verbally abusive that she would not have to continue the conversation. I was like, “Umm, you already have that,” but, of course, I put something in there anyway.
So, just in case no one has told you: you are free, at any point, to leave a conversation. Even if you initiated the divorce, even if you cheated, even if it’s all entirely your fault and he had absolutely nothing to do with it (I’ve never seen a case like that, but I suppose it’s theoretically possible), you don’t have to continue on in an unproductive, harassing, or abusive conversation. You can end it. You can refuse to communicate except in writing.
And for other people – like your in laws – you don’t have to respond at all. Like, ever. Consider this permission, from me, to end your relationship with them forthwith. After all, you’re divorcing their son. So, the whole ‘in law’ part isn’t even true anymore. You’re legal strangers. And you wouldn’t allow a stranger to just harass you, would you?
So, no. End it.
Negotiations are not abuse. Mediation or collaborative divorce does not involve threats or coercion or violence. If that’s what’s happening, you’re not working through the issues in your divorce. Don’t allow abuse to continue under the guise of working through the issues in your marriage.
It often happens that the people involved – husbands, wives, children – in a divorce need to seek professional counseling. It may be that you do. But it may also be that the other people who are treating you in this way are in need of it, too. You can’t help the way other people deal with trauma or stress or difficulty in their life. You have an obligation to help your children – without giving them too much information – but everyone else is on their own.
It’s okay to disappoint people. After all, their happiness was never your responsibility. But your own is.
For more information or to schedule a consultation with one of our experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.