Ideally when we act, we are acting with best intentions. But sometimes our best intentions don’t work out the way we had hoped. Sometimes the question of “best for who” can be raised, as there can be conflicting interests. And sometimes our understanding of what is best is skewed.
I see two different ways that we can inadvertently do harm with best intentions. First is trying to do (or help) too much, and the second is by trying to avoid conflict and never saying “no”.
Becoming a Parent
I first started to understand the complexity behind intentions and motivations when I became a parent. As a parent, we have a few different roles.
One of those roles is to provide for our children. We provide them with a safe environment. A home full of love and caring. It’s easy to get caught up in being a provider and try to provide every “thing” and every opportunity for our children.
It’s easy to understand why we do it though. Maybe we want to give our children an opportunity we always wanted but never had; and so it becomes important to us to ensure our children have those opportunities.
Because we love our children we try to give them everything and do everything for them. But in the process, we are doing considerable harm.
A while back I wrote about attachment theory. One of the main ideas behind attachment theory is that healthy attachment is all about establishing boundaries.
As young children everything is about us, and our needs. When we don’t believe our needs are being met we respond with stress, anxiety and fear. As babies this may be crying, as toddlers it becomes tantrums.
With healthy attachment children learn that needs not being met doesn’t indicate a lack of care or love. Further, they learn that not all needs will be met, and that’s alright.
In unhealthy attachment however, not having their needs met continues to result in stress, anxiety and fear.
Any parent knows that kids can be masters at manipulation. As parents we try setting boundaries, and our children continually push them. They push while exploring and trying to understand the world around them. As parents we need to get them to understand and accept “no”. But have them understand that “no” doesn’t mean we love them any less.
When we fail to establish boundaries, we are actually crippling our children. We are teaching them that they can do whatever they want, and that rules either don’t matter or only apply sometimes. By doing this, we are giving them a sense of entitlement.
Provider and Teacher
In addition to being a provider for our children we are also teachers; and this is the harder role. It’s relatively easy to provide food and put a roof over our children’s heads. It’s MUCH harder to teach.
Think about how you learn. You learn by failing. By making mistakes, seeing where things went wrong, and trying something different next time.
As a parent, the hardest thing to do is watch your child fail. So sometimes we try to make decisions for them. We try to prevent them from making the same mistakes we may have made.
But our children need to learn on their own.
This is where boundaries come in. We need to set boundaries, but let our children explore and learn within those boundaries. We need to be able to watch them fail. We need to know when to let them pick themselves up and when to help them. And that’s a VERY hard balance, and a difficult thing to do.
It hurts to watch your child fail, so sometimes we try and help them to prevent them from failing. We are doing it because we care, but we do too much.
This conflicts with our role as a teacher. As a teacher, our real role is to prepare our children for life on their own. To mold them into independent beings, who can make the right choices when they need to. But when we do too much, instead of “helping” our children we are creating dependence.
Societally we have this notion of adulthood. People reach some magical age (18 or 21) where they are now “legally adults”, and they are now deemed responsible. This doesn’t mean we actually ARE responsible (look at college life for ample proof of that), it simply means we are now responsible for our own decisions.
We start relationships, maybe even start a family of our own. And hey, we’re adults, so we’ve got everything figured out now. But in many ways not much has changed since we were children. In many cases we are still that child pushing boundaries in order to understand the world around us and our place in it.
Dealing with Conflict
I’ve touched on this in the past, but one of the biggest failings we have in our development is most people grow up with the notion that conflict is bad (I know I did). A logical conclusion that can be made is, if the presence of conflict is bad, then avoiding conflict means things are good – right?
Yeah, not so much.
Because we want to avoid conflict, we fail to establish boundaries in our relationships. Your partner is doing something that hurts you, and often we don’t want to say anything. It’s “not a big deal”, so we let it go in order to avoid conflict. And in the process we set ourselves up for larger, more serious conflicts in the future.
I’ve got a buddy who is really into sports. He has a wife and a young family, but most of the year he’s out 3-4 nights a week with his buddies playing various sports and then going for drinks after. According to him she’s fine with that. I’ve often wondered, is she really fine with that? Or does she just not want to say no?
If I were her I think I’d be more than just a wee bit resentful.
Establishing boundaries in relationships is difficult. I think part of the reason we don’t want to do it is because we don’t feel we should have to. Our partners should “know” when they are pushing boundaries too far. They should “know” when they are hurting us. But honestly, unless we say something they probably don’t.
It makes me think of contract negotiations in sports. Often you hear about players who are horribly overpaid. When you think about it though, who’s fault is that? I would argue it’s the fault of the person paying them (team owners). Players may often overvalue their worth, but the owner has to be the one to agree to it. They can always say no, or offer less. If a player is offered more than they are worth, of course they will accept it.
Relationships are the same. Just as the authors of books need editors, sometimes we need our partners to reel us in and keep us in line. Sometimes our partners need to tell us “no”, or say “you can choose to do that, but be aware that I’m not fine with it”.
For my buddy who’s out almost every night, maybe his wife IS fine with it. I’m sure she’s fine with him going out once a week, maybe even twice. Supporting your partner in their interests is important. But I would guess she would also like some help at home, and some additional time spent with her husband.
He probably started with one or two nights, and then added more. And if she never said anything, he probably thought the silence was consent. He pushed boundaries, and she never established where they were.
My guess? This turns into a significant issue for them sometime in the future. And he’ll be stunned, because he always thought she was fine with it.
My buddies scenario is just an example, but I think we all run into cases like this. We want to be “the good partner”. We want to be supportive. We also want to avoid conflict. So we put ourselves in situations where we give and give. We want our partners to establish boundaries on their own, and usually they do. But we are all different, so where they establish the boundary may be different from where we believe it should be.
When this happens, instead of being resentful with our partners we need to take a look at ourselves. We need to learn to say “no”. To say “hey, I matter here too”. I like to think the best of people, and I believe that in most relationships both partners truly do love each other. So done right, I think most partners will understand and adjust their behavior accordingly.
Being an adult doesn’t mean we have things figured out. Relationships are complex, and we should always be growing and learning. Just as a parent plays a dual role of provider and teacher, in a way we do the same in our relationships.
A common complaint I see is that relationships become one sided. One person feels they are giving and giving while the other person just takes. That’s not a relationship.
For the person who feels they are “giving”, ask yourself what are you asking for in return? Are you allowing yourself to be taken advantage of? Kindness and caring doesn’t mean always doing something for the other person and not asking for anything for yourself in return.
It’s not about being petty and withholding stuff until you get what you want (that’s about power and control, and is bad news). It’s simply knowing your value and saying “I’m worth your time. I’m worth your attention. My needs matter in this relationship too.”
Your partner matters, and you matter. For the relationship to be successful and happy you need to find a balance where both people feel valued and appreciated. And establishing boundaries is essential to that, and to happy relationships.