A couple weeks ago, my husband’s friend was visiting. They don’t see each other much, and the bromance is strong between the two of them. One evening, they were downstairs playing video games. My girls were down with them.
I went downstairs to ask a question about dinner. Dave and his friend were facing the television and the girls were off to the side holding the small switch game, occasionally looking up to see what was happening on the big screen. My husband was playing a 1st person shooter game. When I came down, the scene was just the inside of a building. My husband, as the player, was searching around with a gun out in front.
“You aren’t shooting people in this game, are you?” I asked.
Both Dave and his friend looked over a little guiltily. “Uh…” Dave hesitated. “No...of course not.” But his tone and sideways glance gave him away.
My oldest looked up and said, “This game is kind of violent.”
I started fuming, but didn’t want to make a scene. So I swallowed it and said, “Can’t you play something else?”
They agreed to turn off the game and were deciding what to play next. Dave’s friend said, “Well...if you have a hard and fast rule against violence, we probably shouldn’t play that other game…”
That other game turned out to be a virtual reality fighting game where you fight off pixelated, monochrome beings who come at you. For some reason, this was totally different in my mind, but I think they ended up playing MarioKart.
Anyway, the evening progressed. In my head, I was still angry...or at least I was defaulting to anger. Anger was my coverup for confusion and discomfort. I was projecting all this on my husband, and I was preparing to tell him how poor his judgment was and how I couldn’t believe he didn’t think that was inappropriate and so on and so on. But his friend’s words came back to me: “If you have a hard and fast rule against violence…”
We don’t. We’ve never talked about it. We have discussed the appropriateness of different movies and games, but we’ve never set up general rules. My girls have watched all the Harry Potter and Star Wars movies. Definitely not free of violence.
They play Super Smash Brothers which is a game in which cartoon characters fight each other, but still that doesn’t bother me. As I’m thinking about what we allow, I realize that something about the realistic first-person shooter games crosses a line for me. But considering our lack of boundary around it, I couldn’t berate my husband for what I saw as a lapse in judgment.
Eventually, my husband came up to help finish dinner. He didn’t say anything about the game and we worked side by side amiably. I had another choice here. I could have left it. I could have said nothing and just let the slightly negative interaction downstairs dissipate. But then we still wouldn’t have had the conversation.
So I said, “So...hey...about the video game?”
“I’m sorry if I overreacted a little. But I think I’ve realized that first person shooter games--especially realistic ones--are a hard line for me. You can play them, of course, but I’d rather you not in front of the girls.”
“I get it. And I agree.”
Now I should take a second to note that my husband is one of the fairest and most level-headed people I know. I am fortunate in this, especially since I can be overly emotive. Setting a boundary isn’t always so easy, but it can be that simple. This highlights one of the important rules when setting a boundary: You have to communicate it. We often set boundaries in our minds and are appalled when they aren’t recognized. Boundaries are personal for a reason. There is no given that others will agree with your boundary, and our ideas around boundaries depend on many factors including our culture, our past experiences and our unique personalities. Our comfort level with different boundaries can also change as we age and life happens. Relationships require an ongoing conversation around boundaries and this is magnified if you are coparenting and have to make all those decisions about how to raise children.
A second guideline when setting boundaries is to keep it about you. This means waiting until you are feeling calm and rational. If I had tried to set a boundary downstairs after I had just seen the game, I would have made it about my husband. I would have said all the unfair things in my head out loud. It would have been a more charged conversation at best, an argument or fight at worst. By waiting and getting to the bottom of my anger, I was able to speak calmly and it was well received.
If it sounds like I’m bragging, it’s because I am proud of myself. This interaction is evidence of the past couple years of coaching and mindset work I have done. A few years ago I would've jumped right in and made a scene. I would’ve picked a fight. It was nice to realize that I have grown.
Back to boundary setting. Here’s a simple way to remember it:
The final step is perhaps the hardest. You have to decide what you will do if somebody crosses your boundary. Again, make it about what you will do. You also need to be sure that you are prepared to follow through. If somebody breaks your boundary without any consequences, then what you have is a paper fence. Build your boundary out of steel. Here are some examples of ways you might honor a boundary:
I don’t like it when you tell racist jokes. If you do so, I will leave the room. (and then you have to leave the room...every. time.)
Unexpected visitors throw off my schedule and make me anxious. If you show up unannounced, I will ask you to leave. (and then you have to ask them to leave….every. time.)
The good news is that once you have made a practice of establishing and upholding your boundaries, it gets easier. In a trusted relationship, you don’t have to set a consequence. I didn’t have to tell my husband what I would do if he played that game in front of the kids because I trust that he won’t.
Also, remember that I am speaking within the realm of life coaching, not therapy. This process works well with rational, thoughtful people. If you are dealing with somebody who is toxic, abusive or mentally ill, you might need support from a mental health professional or perhaps even law enforcement.
Like all changes worth making, this is not easy work. If you have a habit of holding loose boundaries or if you feel overwhelmed when you think about where to start, remember that one small step at time will eventually get you where you want to go. No steps will keep you exactly where you are.
For help with this, contact me. Sometimes a little support goes a long way.