Setting boundaries: Loving others by letting them down

I believe there are times when the best way to love someone is to let them down, sometimes even letting them hit rock bottom. This oftentimes means watching the ones we love get hurt. And you know what? It sucks, it hurts, and it doesn’t feel like you’re loving them at all. 

Most of us like to think of ourselves as helpful people. We give our little brother $200 when he’s having a hard time making ends meet, we help our friends out when they need a free babysitter, and we answer a call from our cousin at 2am because she’s been having a tough time with her new husband. In short, we go out on a limb when it’s someone we care about or someone we’re trying to form a relationship with.  

That’s the stuff relationships are made out of, right? It’s the give and the take—you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. The trouble begins when things get out of whack. You know things are off when you’ve been scratching your friend, your little brother, or your Aunt’s back for two years, you’ve lost feeling in your fingers, and there’s no sign of that itch going away any time soon. 

  • Sign number one of things gone awry: it’s been too long. You’ve been giving your brother $200 per month for the past eight months. You know that without your help he couldn’t pay the bills. You also know that he stopped his job search three months ago and spends most of his time playing video games. As long as you keep paying him, he won’t have a need to look for a new job. Something needs to change. 
  • Sign number two of things gone awry: you can’t take care of yourself because you’re too busy taking care of someone else. You’ve been watching your friend’s twins twice a week until 11pm.You’re missing out on sleep and quality time with your partner. You’re tired at work and your partner is getting frustrated with your unavailability. Something needs to change.
  • Sign number three of things gone awry: the relationship is imbalanced. You answer that 2am call from your cousin but when you need to call her to cry about your dog passing away, she’s “super busy” with work. You call the next day, and she doesn’t answer. You call again and she’s “not in a place where she can talk.” You’ve come to a point where you are willing to help her with her emotional difficulty but she’s not willing to help you. Something needs to change.

When something needs to change that means you have to set a boundary and it’s probably going to be hard. You’ll have to be clear and consistent about the boundary you set. Try the following: “Lately I’ve been able to do ______ for you. Your friendship means a lot to me and I want to continue to be there for you, however I am going to need to support you in a different way. I will no longer be able to _______.” 

You’ll likely experience some push-back after setting a boundary and that’s when you need to remain strong. It can feel like you are letting someone down but in reality you are giving them a chance to learn a tough life lesson. You are loving them by setting boundaries.

Melissa Oliver, LMFT, is a licensed marital family therapy working in part time private practice at the Warren Alexander Group in Stillwater, OK.  She works with individuals, families and couples.