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Setting Limits

Limits only make sense in the light of consistent healthy agreements. 

In the discussion of healthy agreements, I explained the importance of treating one another with dignity and respect, regardless of the subject. These agreements ensure that no matter how difficult or upsetting a topic may be, that you are not doing damage. You may not always agree or like what you hear, but you can be kind and respectful. This keeps the stress of a conflict or misunderstanding to a minimum, expanding the possibility that you might learn or resolve something.

The healthy agreements define the boundary between respectful and disrespectful behavior.

Setting limits are the skills involved in enforcing these boundaries when someone is treating you disrespectfully (breaking the agreements).

There is never a justification for abusive or disrespectful behavior. It always does damage and if allowed to continue, there is a point where healing and trust may never be restored.

My famous, unfair, yet true equal responsibility clause:

  • If your partner is abusive or disrespectful to you, they are damaging the relationship.
  • If you continue to let someone disrespect you and violate your boundaries, you are teaching them that being abusive and disrespectful works.

Clearly, we would all like abusive and disrespectful people to simply stop. We want them to act responsibly, be kind, considerate and get their needs met cooperatively and respectfully.

The Bad News

If someone is older than 18 and is being abusive or disrespectful:

  • They have not adequately developed empathy and compassion for others.
  • They have not learned pro-social conflict management skills.
  • They have not developed their social and emotional intelligence.
  • They have learned that being abusive or disrespectful works.

People who are being reactive and disrespectful don’t realize how hurtful they are being because they are too focused on their own pain. Disrespectful behavior gets them the kind of attention they are used to. Yelling, name-calling, being critical or blaming reduces their overall stress by venting their emotions and directing the focus to (you) the other person. Most importantly, they have learned that disrespectful behavior gets them what they want.

The only time people stop using disrespectful behavior that is working for them…is when it stops working.

Learning to set limits is about respectfully and assertively teaching your partner that disrespectful or abusive behavior has permanently, irrevocably, and consistently stopped working.

I teach two methods of setting limits: the Loving Invitation and taking a Time Out.

The Loving Invitation

Setting healthy limits via a loving invitation is done gently and with a spirit of kindness. Reassuring, inviting and effective, the loving invitation is a reminder that we are friends and that we are here to help each other.

Here’s how it works:

You have to recognize and stop the disrespectful behavior WITHIN 5 TO 10 SECONDS of it starting. You cannot allow the disrespectful behavior to continue, no matter the subject. The longer you wait (measured in seconds, not minutes) the less effective your intervention will be and the more damage that will occur. As a reminder, the most common forms of disrespectful behavior include: yelling, interrupting, changing the subject, judging, analyzing, blaming and complaining.

Here is what the loving invitation sounds like. I recommend rehearsing this until you know you have it right and you know that it comes across with confidence and sincerity. If you don’t believe you mean it, neither will your partner.

“Please stop” (hold up hand indicating stop)
“I love you”
“I care about you”
“I’m on your side, we’re on the same team”
“I really want to hear what you have to say”
“I want to know how you feel, what you think, and what you want”
“All I’m asking is that you…”

Next re-direct them in a positive direction, using one of the following:

If your partner is yelling:
“Please talk to me in a soft and kind tone of voice”

If your partner is judging, analyzing, telling you what you should think, feel, do, or want:
“Please tell me about you, and when you want to know about me you can ask”

If your partner is being critical instead of explaining how your behavior affects them:
“Please tell me how my actions have directly affected you”
“Tell me what you are afraid might happen”

If your partner is blaming or complaining:
“Tell me what you would like me to do that would really work for you”

If your partner is interrupting:
“Let me finish telling you what it is like for me, and then I’ll be happy to listen to how it is for you”

If your partner is changing the subject;
“Please finish discussing (this subject) until we are both satisfied, and then I’d be happy to talk about (next subject) with you”

These are the words to say, but you also need to say it with confidence and sincerity, which takes practice.

Chances are excellent, that if you catch it right away, say the right words, and have a kind demeanor, that your partner will calm down (even if a little) and resume talking to you respectfully.

Reward this behavior by giving them your undivided attention and making sure they feel understood. Clearly demonstrate your compassion and empathy for their experience (especially when their experience is not your own). No part of this exercise implies that you agree, just that you acknowledge and respect their thoughts and feelings, their fears and desires. See my post on Communication Skills for more details on how to do this well.

This skill will help you re-direct would-be-arguments into constructive discussions, and help you both stay relatively calm and productive. It helps build confidence that discussing difficult subjects brings the two of you closer together and does more good than harm.

Time Out

The loving invitation works because it stops a destructive behavior, re-assures and calms the reactive person, and then re-directs them to more pro-social behavior. It works when the reactive person learns that the pro-social behavior relieves stress and results in them feeling understood and respected.

Loving invitations don’t work:

  • If the reactive person is unresponsive to a loving invitation (continues to be disrespectful or abusive)
  • If you wait too long to intervene and the situation is momentarily beyond recovery,
  • If you, yourself are too reactive to be rational, respectful and constructive.

A time out is a good example of STRONG limit setting when the loving invitation has failed. It is a firm and respectful alternative to reinforcing disrespectful or abusive behavior.
setting limits taking a time out
How to take a “Time Out”

When you are sure that taking a break is necessary to prevent further disrespect or abuse:

1) Say, “I need a time out” or “I need a break from this for a little while.” Never say “You need a time out” or “You’re out of control.” Also never say anything that might indicate judgment or criticism of the other person – no matter how disrespectful or abusive their behavior may be.

2) Indicate that you’ll be back and that you’re intent is to resolve things peacefully. This might sound like “I’ll be back in an hour, we can try again,” or “I really want to fix this with you, but I need a break for right now”

3) Without yelling, without slamming doors, without any disrespect of your own, and without delay, get out of the house.

No discussion, no eye contact, no negotiation, just leave. This is important. When you attempt to leave, your partner will likely do ANYTHING to try to get you to re-engage in the argument/fight/disagreement. This is very difficult, but what you must do is avoid eye contact, avoid any further talking, disregard threats, and just get out.

4) You need to be completely out of communication (by voice, phone, text, email) for at least a full hour. Go take a walk, a bike ride, a drive. No mood altering. No retail therapy. Just go be by yourself and journal for an hour or so. I don’t care if you don’t like journaling – do it anyway.

You both need the experience of being completely out of touch with one another long enough for both of you to calm down. Research shows that it takes approximately 45 minutes of being alone and un-stimulated for the fight or flight / emotionally flooded brain to subside – it may take substantially longer for some individuals. This is why I recommend taking at least an hour before returning from a time out.

When you return, it is your job to re-engage your partner with a calm attitude, voice, and body language. Say something like:

“Hey, there was something really important that you were trying to tell me.  I’m calm and ready to listen. Would you tell me what you are most concerned about and what I can do that would make the biggest difference?”

If your partner makes any significant effort to talk to you respectfully, reward this behavior by giving them your undivided attention. Do your absolute best to show them that you understand and that you care. You don’t have to agree. Concentrate on what they are saying, listening closely to their concerns and wants.

If your partner resumes their disrespectful or abusive behavior, give them another loving invitation. Should that fail, take another time out. Repeat this cycle as needed. For sure, this can be exhausting, upsetting and highly inconvenient. It is, however much more productive and less harmful than staying in an abusive or disrespectful argument or fight. If you wind up taking three breaks in a row, you might consider getting a motel room for the night and coming back the next day, once again, ready to listen to and acknowledge your partner’s experience respectfully.

Using time out in this way is like using guardrails on a bridge; we hope we never have to use them; if we do use them it should only be on a rare occasion, and they’d better hold. Once you and your partner have been practicing healthy communication for a few months (not years!) you should rarely if ever have to use time out. Relationships that require frequent use of time out may indicate:

  1. You have not focused on developing respectful behavior adequately.
  2. You are not practicing your loving invitation techniques properly or consistently.
  3. One or both of you may have anger or emotional reactivity issues that may require individual therapy.

In many years of teaching this exercise, I can only recall two or three cases where someone had to use the motel option. If you do this well, especially in conjunction with the other communication and relationship skills you are developing, you will find yourself setting limits less frequently as the relationship becomes more respectful.

The Big Picture

Consider what would happen if every time your partner is disrespectful to you, they find themselves alone and frustrated – no argument, no fight, no attention – just alone and frustrated. Imagine what would happen if they learn, over time, that being disrespectful simply results in an entirely unsatisfying experience.

At the same time, if every time your partner is kind and respectful, they get your sincere and undivided attention, your understanding and acceptance, and a genuine desire to help them out.

Now multiply these two consistent experiences over the course of 3 months and what do you think would happen?

Developing a kind and respectful relationship takes time, practice, and mistakes. What’s important is that the overall trend is ever increasing respect, kindness, compassion, empathy, and support. Loving invitations and time out are fundamental skills designed to improve the health of your relationship.