New boundaries for old partners: Steve’s story

A recent client, who I shall call Steve, sits in front of me, head in his hands, and tells me this has been one of the worst weeks since we started working together. He can’t explain it. Things had been going so well. I’d seen Steve a week previously, so I asked him to start with the day of that session and work forwards. Steve looks to the ceiling and utters a series of ‘Thursday was ok’, ‘Friday was fine’, ‘Yes, Saturday was ok’ and so on until he gets to Sunday evening. Recalling Sunday evening, Steve looks me in the eye, and says ‘Boundaries. Ugh! You keep telling me about the importance of boundaries.’

Lost boundaries

On Sunday evening, Steve took his young son back to his ex-wife’s house having spent the weekend with him. Chatting on the doorstep, Steve felt great about how well he and his ex-wife were getting on and suggested a cup of tea. ‘We sat in the garden. It was a lovely evening. You remember how hot it was? I got this idea into my head that we could still function as a family for our little boy, so I suggested we go out for the day – to the zoo or something.’

Steve said his ex-wife agreed to his proposal and that she would contact him in the week to arrange details. ‘She didn’t get in touch, did she?’ I asked Steve. ‘No, she didn’t,’ came the reply. In actual fact Steve used much stronger language. Suffice it to say he was angry.

Steve realised he lost sight of the agreed boundaries with his ex-wife, meaning on that evening he made them up as he went along. He took his cue from the pleasant conversation on the doorstep and invented the ‘still functioning as a happy family’ boundary on the spot. The trouble was his ex-wife saw it differently. A few days later she told Steve in an angry text that he couldn’t expect to ‘play happy families’ when they clearly weren’t.

Boundaries – who, what, where, when, why and how

I reminded Steve of our previous discussions on boundaries, or what I call the: who, what, where, when, why and how of boundaries. In Steve’s case it went like this:

  • Who – conversations were solely about their son and his needs, plus their respective roles as parents
  • What – all conversations and all meetings were limited to their son, not just some. Birthdays and Christmas were to be separate, and there were to be no family days out
  • Where – they won’t step into each other’s houses or meet anywhere else as a family unless it involved their son’s health or education
  • When – telephone calls and texts to do with their son were ok at any time within reason. Face-to-face meetings were limited to picking up and/or dropping off their son, except when his health and education were concerned
  • Why – to protect their son, primarily, and also to protect himself
  • How – by making a firm commitment to the above and by regular reminders to keep boundaries firmly in sight. Also, for both to have permission to review boundaries on an ongoing basis as their son gets older and his change

A turning point

The therapy session proved to be a turning point. Steve got better at both maintaining his boundaries and spotting when they were becoming blurred or lost. ‘It’s sad that it has come to this,’ he said. I agreed but urged him to remember that emotions such as sadness and anger can be what causes couples to blur or lose sight of their boundaries. Steve acknowledged that it was sadness that took over on Sunday.

‘I’d never really thought about boundaries. I mean I knew they existed without ever really applying them. It’s funny but now I see and enforce them everywhere – at home and at work. Witnessing my family splitting up was the hardest and most painful ordeal of my life. What stopped it from being any worse were the clear boundaries you helped me to lay down.”

Agreeing and maintaining boundaries

Whatever boundaries are agreed will reflect the individual and family circumstances of ex-partners. Steve and his ex-wife ultimately agreed what worked for them, but others will need to establish their own boundaries. How they do so will also vary. Often for reasons of ease and cost, ex-partners are encouraged to agree their own boundaries. When this is not possible third parties are sometimes needed, such as mediators and solicitors. In extreme cases courts can be involved.

For more information access the Citizens Advice

Getting support

If you are struggling to identify, establish or maintain your boundaries with an ex-partner, then please get in touch. At Conversations With Impact we’ve helped many clients find clarity and peace of mind in this important area of our lives. And if you need third party support we’ll talk to you about what options are available.