“Fences make good neighbors” my grandpa used to say. He would nod toward the six foot barrier of wood that separated his meticulous lawn and flower garden from his next door neighbor’s yard, a cantankerous older woman he nicknamed “Texas.” Grandpa and “Texas” had their battles over the years regarding the property line, her weeds that crept into his park-like backyard, and her dog that never ceased to bark.
I gained an appreciation for what my grandfather meant about boundaries as I became an adult, and in particular as I divorced and began to co-parent with my ex. Boundaries, I soon learned, where everything in the ongoing mission to maintain peace, accountability, and division between our lives. A clear line in the sand to define “mine” versus “his” was an essential component of progressing to a state of successful co-parenting and to regain my life after divorce.
Here are four things I have learned about boundaries, how to establish them, and why they’re important:
1. Boundaries are hard to establish and enforce at first. Exes struggle to adjust to life after divorce. In most ways, exes would probably rather not have to interact; however, children and wrapping up the loose ends from the marriage necessitate contact. One former spouse may be farther along in the healing process, while the other may still be in the eye of the storm of healing, emotions and patience raw and frayed.
I struggled to stand up for myself in the beginning. He was physically intimidating to me, and an angry, unpredictable mass who couldn’t be reasoned with. I didn’t want to see him, but I had to because of our children. Before the divorce was finalized, we had no official guidelines for responsibility, a schedule, or ground rules to protect either of us. Everything was a battle more epic than grandpa or “Texas” ever imagined, and “boundaries” weren’t even part of the vocabulary!
Boundaries were handed down to us in officially-typed script, stamped and signed by a judge. There were no questions now as to who was supposed to do what nor when, where, or how. We still had to make sense of them and learn to apply them to real life; but, at least a paper to point to when things didn’t do as they should.
2. Boundaries mean nothing if they are allowed to fall one moment, then expected to stand the next. Consistency is the key to ensuring that a boundary is recognized and respected. Sometimes the boundary may feel like it’s inconvenient and in the way; but, the biggest mistakes one can make is disregarding the boundary.
An acquaintance of mine’s divorce states that her ex provides medical coverage for their children and is responsible for all medical costs. On many occasions the children needed to go to the doctor, and her ex was unavailable to pay the co-pay or doctor’s bill or pleaded for her to cover the cost because he was currently low on funds.
This happened so many times that he eventually started demanding for her to pay every time and even convinced the kids that she was supposed to pay for all of their medical expenses. They would call her from their dad’s house begging her to pay for their glasses or dental exam because “it was her duty.” Of course, she felt awful for them and wanted then to get the care they needed, so she usually complied for their sake.
The fact that her ex was court ordered to cover medical expenses became lost in everyone’s memory because the boundary was allowed to fall long ago. The final straw came when she was faced with $400 in doctor bills in just one month, with no sign of help from her ex, the one ordered responsible. She made the decision from that point forward to refer back to the divorce and no longer get pulled into this trap. She has had to repeatedly remind him that she will not pay anymore, and slowly he seems to be getting the message.
3. Boundaries are often fought hard for, but they will preserve your sanity. A friend of mine used to be harassed by his ex-wife non-stop every day through text or phone calls. Sometimes she was begging for money, other times she was cussing him out and trying to start a fight, and some times she had legitimate reasons to contact him with a question or information to share about their children.
He grew sick and tired of being continually interrupted with her drama, and began to erect and enforce some much-needed boundaries. First, he would not engage in any texts if they were vague, argumentative, or not centered around the children. Her requests to go out for coffee, insults, and other non-essential contact were ignored. He would only respond if the query was child-related. She seemed to start to get the hint about texting, so began calling more.
He stopped immediately answering his phone and would text her back to say that he was busy and ask what she wanted. If it was child-related, he would call her back. If she was just in the mood to argue or talk about nonsense he ignored it. When they do talk on the phone, he lets her know how much time he can allow for the call. If she deviates from the children, he puts her directly back on topic; otherwise, he excuses himself from the call and tells her good-bye!
4. Boundaries, like any sort of rule, offer structure and limits. Just like a backyard fence, a boundary alerts all parties of how far they can go and what they can get by with. You can’t expect others to respect your limits if you don’t respect theirs. A polite, but firm indication from you that the limit is being reached and your ex can go no further is important, and it gets easier to do each time. Every time that you stand your ground, that reinforces your parameters until they learn that you mean business.
I used to be very frustrated by my ex’s parenting. My children weren’t supervised, didn’t turn in school work, and were always left with his relatives instead of spending time with him. I finally concluded that there was nothing I could do about the way he spent his time with the kids no more than I intended to let him interfere with the way I parent on my time. I had to let my frustrations go; otherwise, I just invited him into my life. The good news is that his parenting has improved!
The treatment you accept is the treatment you can expect. If you don’t even take your own boundaries seriously, no one else will. You can’t be unfair or unreasonable; but, you can surely lean on what your divorce decree and shared parenting plans say to back up your demands. If your ex fails to follow these guidelines, they may be in contempt of court. Don’t be afraid to take your ex to court for contempt if that’s what it takes to get a stern reminder of the boundaries and to demonstrate that your wall will stand!