Post 143

Instituting Boundaries, A Five-Part Guide

Holding a grudge is bad.

Don’t hold a grudge.

Don’t even hold hands with a grudge.

There are other ways.

The best thing to do, instead of holding a soul-crunching grudge, is to deal with the problem. A smaller problem calls for a smaller-sized solution. Select the remedy that fits the situation. Don’t over-react.

It’s logical and it’s Christian.


It is.

(Level-headed thinking and transparent no-games-played solutions are, in fact, entirely compatible with a vibrant and active faith. Direct and simple speech is also, for the record, entirely compatible with a vibrant and active faith. Who has told you they’re not? Good Christians aren’t meant to be helpless hapless stupid and mute loo-loos. Who told you that they were? Invite that person to a dinner party. We’ll invite St. Thomas Aquinas and G.K. Chesteron, among others. Good liquor and good jokes will be involved.)

But anyway, I present to you a boundary system that is numeric.

I provide Levels One to Five, and I supplement this with a police officer analogy.

Level One “Offence”: Be Still, Be Quiet (Policeman Gives it a Pass)

There are certain inconveniences associated with life. There are certain inconveniences associated with living or working with other creatures and with people in particular. Instead of vowing to live exclusively with cats (that would be called “penance” in Catholic terminology), people usually find ways to adjust to life with people.

A level one offence is the kind that almost doesn’t count. I say that it almost doesn’t count because it still does. You’ve noticed, and that’s what makes it count. However, these are the kinds of little things that happen every day, all the time and you really shouldn’t think twice about them. These are the kinds of things that you’ll be dealing with until the day that you die, like sneezing or getting an eyelash in your eye. You just move along, without comment or much thought. The policeman doesn’t issue a ticket or even give a warning; he just sighs and waits for an actual infraction.

Here are some examples, which hopefully will fall into level one for you:

  • crumbs left on the clean counter by a child or a spouse: just sweep them onto your hand and put them in the garbage – no biggie
  • socks left on the floor by a child or a spouse: just scoop them up – you’ll survive
  • a sudden spill by a child or a spouse: it was an accident, so a lecture won’t prevent it from happening again
  • towels hung imperfectly by a child or a spouse: at least they’re hung up – you can adjust further if you care
  • beds made imperfectly by a child or a spouse: at least someone sort of somewhat tried – you can adjust further if you care
  • toilet or mirror cleaned imperfectly by a child or a spouse: at least someone sort of somewhat tried – you can do the deluxe job later if you care
  • dishes or drinking cups not put away by a child or a spouse: just scoop them up when you know you’ll be going to or near the kitchen
  • doggie-do in the back yard: get to it when you have time – don’t freak out at anybody about it, but I suppose you could have a heart-to-heart talk with the dog, if you think that’d make a difference
  • spouse or child is gaining more weight than you’d expect: don’t worry; people get bigger and smaller all the time in no particular order; think no more about it
  • someone you know (neighbour, friend, relative) has a bigger piece of life’s metaphorical ‘pie’ than you do: don’t worry; people have more and less than you all the time in no particular order; beware of envy and jealousy in every single form

Those are the kinds of things that you can ignore. Hopefully, they don’t ruffle your feathers at all. Just sigh and move on. No ticket, no warning, nothing.

Level Two Offence: Make a Comment or Make an Adjustment (Policeman issues a Warning)

This is the kind of annoyance or disturbance that might sometimes warrant a comment, or which might warrant some type of action or adjustment on your part to prevent a future recurrence. It’s where you’ve noticed a behaviour that isn’t right, and when you think about it, you realize that a little tweak might do the trick. Let’s say:

  • wet towels are not hung up by a child or a spouse: mention that you’d like it to happen
  • a child or a spouse is humming or singing a tune and it’s messing with your brain waves: my personal view is that it’s great that they’re happy but that it’s fair to ask for silence if you’re in the same room
  • you’re a freelance something-or-other who can control his own dollars-per-hour rates and you feel underpaid and under-appreciated by your clients: raise your rates
  • the stranger calls you ‘dear’: tell him, “Don’t call me ‘dear,’ ”
  • the Eucharistic minister decides to stroke your child’s cheek when she goes up for a blessing (“Isn’t she so cute?”): you punch her in the head. Oopsie! I mean, you tell her, “Don’t touch my kid.”
  • Canada Post leaves you junk mail: you put up a sign saying you don’t want it
  • you’re too busy to talk to Suck-All-Your-Time-Again-Chick: don’t pick up the phone this time
  • grandmother brings unwanted sweets or treats or gifts when it ain’t Christmas: tell her, “Please don’t bring these things anymore.” (Seriously. That’s what you say. You’re the parent.)
  • contractor shows up at your door without warning: remind him that visits must be pre-arranged (hiring a contractor does not mean your home is now an Open House).

The rationale here is that talking is fair. God gave us a brain and he gave us the blessed English language. Let’s use it. Express yourself. Tell the relative/friend/acquaintance/stranger that you don’t want a repeat of behaviour A, B or C.

Sometimes, of course, you’ll need to begin with an inquiry. After all, in some cases, the intention behind the action matters more than the action itself, and when it comes to intention, you may want to verify before proceeding with your warning.

Did your wife really intend to forget that today was the one-year anniversary of your very first circular saw? Maybe this failing wasn’t deliberate. Maybe she just didn’t have the date correctly noted on her phone. (Inquire.)

Did your husband really intend to buy Schwepp’s gingerale (weird logo) instead of the preferred Canada Dry? Maybe it wasn’t deliberate. (Inquire.)

The idea with Level Two is that there’s no point in seething in silence.

And in particular, I aim this at the women, who tend, some without actually realizing it, to build into their relationships, tiny but significant-to-them ‘tests.’ They want to see if the men pass their invisible surprise quizzes and meet their unwritten but oh-so-obvious standards. This habit can become quite ingrained in a woman, and tends to increase the more the woman has grown up or hung out with other women. The problem of course, is the men often don’t have a clue.

Not a clue in the world.

They figure that they bought you a birthday card last year so now you should be good for the rest of married life. They figure that they gave you flowers when you were dating so they’ve accomplished what needed to be done (ya married ’em, didn’t ya?).

Clueless, sometimes.

They think of these Loving Touches as things you do when Something Goes Wrong. They think if you need to repair something, you go to the garage and you Find a Tool to Fix It. Drill set? Check. Wrench? Check. Duct tape? Check. They don’t always entirely Think Ahead. Books have been written about the wired-in differences between men and women.

The men don’t always entirely See the Road Signs, your teeny tiny liddlewiddle HINT(s). Nope. Right over the head. So, welcome to Life with a Man. Spell it out, more often than you’d like. It may take a few times at the beginning of the marriage to explain about Birthday Cards or Flowers and perhaps a refresher once in a while (repeated or increasing infractions are, sadly, a signal that something else is going rather wrong – then you’re out of Level Two). Don’t be entirely surprised. You married a man, after all, right?

I’m not saying that men are justified in being apathetic, but just that you give your man a chance to explain. Teach them, educate them that birthdays and other special occasion dates are a big deal, because (admit it) they are to you, as they are to most women.

Teach them, educate them. Don’t think your man is inferior to others just because he can’t read your mind. It’s okay. No? Well then, would you prefer a Smooth Operator then? The kind of guy who knows how to push all the right buttons while he manages his very own fleet of Ladies On the Side? I don’t think that’s what you want. Better to have an open-hearted man who’ll listen and do his best than someone who has a great smile but is Entirely Slick. As for the women, you’ll do the same on your side, right? (Don’t make unnecessary hurdles for the sake of watching him blow them.)

Oh, how I so dearly wish every man knew the value of a hug! Ladies, am I entirely wrong when I provide a guide like this?

Woman: “Leave me alone!” (Translation: “I need a hug.”)

Woman: “You don’t care at all about me!” (Translation: “I need a hug.”)

Woman: “All you care about is your circular saw!” (Translation: “I need a hug.”)

Am I wrong?

Oh, if every man could look upon that porcupine sulking in the corner and see that the unfamiliar creature with the 12-inch-long spikes is actually His Very Own Wife in Disguise, he wouldn’t retreat!

Oh, if every man could look upon that porcupine with the tragically fierce face as the Little Girl He Married, he wouldn’t head for the hills! He’d just rush up and give her a hug.

And she’d be okay.

She might weep but don’t freak. Let her wipe her nose on your shirt and you’ll both move along (you can change later when she’s not looking).

It’s got a 90% effectiveness cure-rate, this mysterious thing called a “Hug.”

Even faster than going to the garage to find Tool #303.

Give it a try, men-folk. See if I lie.

Ah, the things that I wish!

But back to the words of a Level Two warning, there’s no need to couch your words in fake phrases like “Maybe it’s JUST ME but when you killed my pet I personally felt, well, I felt rather, HURT (insert smiley face here.)” “Maybe it’s JUST ME but when you tested your Chain Saw by running it on my rose bushes, I found that I felt, kind of, sort of, WOUNDED ON THE INSIDE.” (Yeah right. You wanted to deck him.) Me phrases You phrases, Blah. Whatever. Use whatever words you got in your head, not what Mr Expert Look-I-Wrote-a-Book-About-Effective-Communication said.

People been communicatin’ long before you came along, Mister Expert. And they managed just fine.

You don’t actually need to buy another book.

Just speak, sonny boy! Speak, li’l missy.

If you don’t intend to inflict pain, none will actually be inflicted (that reaction of Oh-poor-me-I’ve-just-been-mortally-wounded-by-your-deathly-words is intended as a distraction and a diversion from the point and even a one-upsmanship thing where the one who is Most Hurt is the Most Right. Bleck.)

Just state your case. Here’s my beef, etc etc.

A complaint is just a complaint, right?

That should deal with 80% of violations, issues and cases. Talk. Tell the person (and it doesn’t have to be in person – who made up that rule?) where the problem is.

Make your complaint. Then move on with a clean slate.

That’s your first line of defence. It’s the first raising of the bar. The first inch, you could say.

If this corrects the problem, then you’re done. No hard feelings, no grudges.

Level Three Offence: A New Rule, for You (Policeman Issues a Ticket)

Sometimes things are more serious. They just are.

Sometimes people have slipped into a pattern of mistreating you.

The mistreatment isn’t Level Five, but the conduct that you’re dealing with is most definitely wrong, and your warning(s) didn’t work.

At this point, you need to begin Asking for Stuff.

It’s not enough to say your words or make a comment or adjust things a little.

You need to Ask for Stuff.

In many cases, you can request or require a proper apology.

In some cases, you’ll want something else. Let’s say the Law Society says you’re suspended but you’ve actually done nothing wrong or different than before. In such a case, you’d ask for a reversal of the suspension. Why not? That would be how they could properly address the wrong.

In other cases, you can ask for money. (I’m not joking. Many human transactions are based on an exchange of money. Our entire legal system is based on monetary compensation.) For instance, you can stop doing everything for free. Don’t do PhotoShop on everyone’s photos on your own dime and with your own time. Don’t declutter your friend’s pantry and garage without counting the cost. Stop volunteering if you feel you’re dealing with a Level Three person or situation. Begin charging what’s fair, up front.

The idea here is that you do NOT Continue As Before. You do not. You start asking for what you think is fair. And if you’re dealing with a group, don’t stress. A new approach, of setting out rules and procedures, won’t bother those who were already cool. A new approach, of setting out rules and procedures, won’t trouble those who already wanted to make the entire thing work, for both them and for you. The only people who will be peeved are those who were Entirely Special, the ones who always wanted to be the Exception to the Rule.

So, be firm. If you need a rule or a new procedure to protect yourself from (any further) abuse, then institute it. Readjust things as need be. The good people will go with the flow and the bad will just go, hopefully. They won’t show. They’ll be Suddenly Really Altogether Too Busy to be there. Awesome. That’s what you want. Goodbye and good riddance, Special Lady and Free-Ride Man.

More examples.

If they are horrible dinner guests, you don’t buy them free pizza anymore. When they suggest dinner, you ask them “which restaurant?” Meet, but everyone will pay his own way. If Grandma likes to eat dinner at your place every night but responds that clean up ain’t actually any of her concern (when you ask for help), then you let her know that dinner’s no longer free, and your front door won’t be open 7 days a week. Meet at a restaurant. Everyone will pay his own way.

Conversely, if those meetings at their place never go down entirely right, stop going over. Try the restaurant. It may save the relationship, assuming that you think it’s worth saving.

If Uncle Sleep-on-Yer-Couch hasn’t left as directed, call a locksmith, change your locks, and leave his stuff on the front porch. Next time he’s in town, he’ll have to pay his own way and book a hotel.

You have raised the bar.

It’s fair. You or your hospitality have been misused. So: no more.

Nevertheless, the point here is that with these adjustments, you can continue the relationship, and there’s entirely no need for resentment or grudges on your part. (If they want to hold a grudge against you, that’s their choice – you’ve done nothing wrong.)

You adjust only as far as you need in order to prevent the recurrence of harmful or wrongful behaviour towards you or your spouse or those in your care.

You don’t go overboard. Think carefully. What do you need in order to address the wrong? What do you need to do in order to prevent the recurrence?

Another example:

I recently asked a group of people to leave payment for me if they wanted to complete a purchase. I laid out the procedure. Cheque is fine, cash is fine. Simple, you’d think.

One woman picked up her goods and the following day I got an email, from PayPal.


Of course I know what it is, but why?

I asked her.

(Sometimes, you must first clarify.)

I asked her, what’s with the PayPal?

She told me, well, she had some PayPal left over someone sometime had a transaction with her and now she had a credit ’cause she didn’t spend it and so she thought she’d just use it like that and I hope you don’t mind and la la and la.

Yeah, I mind.

I told her, “Send me a cheque.”

She did.

That’s better.

Moving along,

Level Four Offence: A Bigger Fine and Your License is Suspended

This is just a more extreme version of Level Three. It’s for those people who have been through the warning and the fine and are still continuing to violate. Grandma is still leaving nasty messages on the answering machine and is insulting your kids when you’re not around. You discover your “friend” has been lying to you for years, on matters important and not. You discover that someone has entered your home for the secret purpose of reporting on activities inside. Your “friend” has rejected or ignored you when you implored them for help or support in your hour of need. Those are examples of Level Four.

The answer? Simple.

You suspend.

You say, “I no longer call you friend.”

(I’ve written that twice in my life.)

And of course, you follow through – this means that you interact with them very rarely, and hopefully not at all.

In any necessary interactions, use the clinical precautions that you’d require when dealing with a rabies-filled cat (sourpuss?), the formal structure you’d institute when dealing with a venomous snake. Put on your gloves and your safety glasses.

Consider them the same way you would consider an escaped and unreformed criminal, likely to re-offend, running loose in the community and with a desire for vengeance.

Be amazed that you used to consider them your very dear friend, your confidant, your mentor, your special relative, your whatever. Be amazed, but don’t be sentimental. Be amazed, but don’t waffle.

Make your decision and stick to it. You need to protect yourself and those in your care.

This person is not okay, and now you know it.

So, beware.

Level Five Offence: Jail Time

Then there are the entirely rare cases, where you don’t stick around to hear an explanation and a justification and a lie and an apology and so on and so forth. In this case, safety glasses and an entire suit of armour isn’t enough. In this case, you make yourself UNAVAILABLE. You make yourself 100% INACCESSIBLE.

Let’s call this the “There isn’t a Second Chance” Circumstance. I can think of only two examples:

  1. If you’re married, and someone decides to flirt with you, knowing that you are married, then that’s it. You ensure that you never see them again and you ensure that you have no further contact with them. You give them the coldest shoulder you can produce.Be creative and be ruthless. No emails. Unfriend them on Facebook. No phone calls, no meetings of any kind. No goodbyes. No explanations, nothing. Feel no pity. I don’t care if Mr. Puppy-Dog-Eyes has lost his job, his wife or his pet iguana. You’re not his Distress Line, and you aren’t meant to worry whether he has Someone to Support Him in his Time of Trouble. Who gives a shit? The guy was hitting on you and you’re married and he knew it. So he blew it. I also don’t care if you think he has a 100% track record of Being Really Entirely Faithful to His Wife and Being Such an Incredible Awesome Christian. That’s all besides the point. Perhaps it’s his Shtick. You’d be surprised at what some men, boys and even clergymen (sad to say) Specialize In. (Or, to refer to the other gender, I’ll say, you’d be surprised at what some women, girls and even religious ladies – sad to say – Specialize In.)

    Don’t kid yourself. Don’t be fooled. Don’t let Mr. I’m So Chaste and Prudent and Wise come alongside you and fraternize with you. You’re married. Keep your distance. Be on guard. Since when do you need another male friend anyway? And you don’t need to be buddy-buddy with that repair fellow either. The things I have seen! He looks like such an open and charming young man, doesn’t he? Yeah, he is. He’ll charm the socks right off ya, honey. Why all the chit-chat? Here’s the furnace. Here’s the stove. Here’s the tree that needs to be removed. I don’t know you and you don’t know me and we’re going to keep it that way. (I’m very strict these days.)

  2. Parenting is difficult. I get it. Yet parenting is a God-given role, the foundation of the family. So there is a distinction – not invented by me – between parents and non-parents.Parents will, on occasion, be momentarily abrupt and rough and aargh-that’s-my-face-that-you’re-stepping on! These things can be re-addressed in a moment of calm. True, they were less-than-stellar moments, but they do happen. Furthermore, parents will, on occasion, say the Stupidest Things. Those are the moments that should be recorded; penance should include watching oneself Become Rather Unglued. The damage that is done to the relationship will need to be repaired by the parent, sooner rather than later, because the truth is, children do grow up and move on. If a parent has drained the relationship of all good will while the child was vulnerable, available and in that parent’s care, then things won’t be all roses and lilies further down the line, of course and no kidding.

    So I understand, parents aren’t perfect. God knows they’re not. But they have a God-given role to fulfill. They are to do their parenting to the best of their ability, with all the empathy, compassion, patience and generosity that they can muster. They need to do their best and if they err, they must repair.

    HOWEVER, this ‘softening’ does not apply to those outside the immediate family, and it does not apply to cases where a child’s modesty has been violated.

    Non-parents must be viewed with a different standard. A parent may delegate, from time to time, some functions or duties to non-parents, but the final responsibility always rests with the parent. That’s who is accountable.

    Non-parents are the expendable crewmen, the ‘extras’ that can be cut from the cast if push comes to shove.

    And since I right now speak of Level 5, the rare but real No-Second-Chances Instances, I can describe things simply.

    If anyone threatens your child with physical violence, or puts his or her hands on your child in an angry way or causes your child to lose modesty in a way which makes the child feel violated, then you don’t see them again. Cut such people out of your life in the way that you would remove a cancerous growth: quickly and definitively. Do not hesitate.

    No more visits, supervised or not.

    (Don’t delude yourself into thinking that you can supervise a bad situation. Those with evil intent are fast and they’re dirty. While you go to stir the chili in the crock-pot, it’s already happened. They’ve got an axe to grind and they’ll grind it in under 5 seconds. If they’ve abused the trust once, they never get access again.)

    It’s so irrevocably over.

    Never again (even after their reformation – topic for a later post) will the relationship be the same. Never again will they have access like that.


    And as for those around you who judge your sudden reversal, let them. Let them misunderstand, let them Be Concerned about whether you’re Doing the Right Thing. Let them wonder, let them Decide you’re un-Christian, uncharitable and as cold as a fish. Fine. You need not explain. You need not justify. Since when are they the judge of your life? What do they know about what happened? Did they see? No? Do they know the history? No? Well then, maybe they should mind their own business.

    Nevertheless, if you want to explain, you can.

    You can say, “Hey man. It was a Level Five.”

    Because it was.