Showing posts with label boundaries. Show all posts
Showing posts with label boundaries. Show all posts

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Moving Toward a Respectful New Year (Part One)

There is always a lot of focus on holiday times during November, through to December, and into the new year. Increased anxiety and stress, unmet expectations, ideas about new goals and resolutions, unfocused hope - ultimately a combination of emotions, and sometimes an escalation of harm to self and to others.

Work in domestic violence - whether with victims/survivors, perpetrators, children and families, or all of the above - I believe it is important to directly discuss and address methods of managing and understanding the challenges unique to this time of year. An ongoing aspect of such work involves goal setting. I think it is important to do this with every individual in domestic violence services. I believe in goals that are specific, concrete, desired, measurable, and realistic.

In the small bit of time leading us up to January, it seems appropriate to consider these goals for respect and health in such a way. This article is part one of three discussing specific healthy and respectful tools that may be useful for battering intervention classes, healthy relationship classes, parenting classes, or support groups for victims/survivors. They can also be a reflective challenge for the month of January 2019 - can you consider each of the items on the list, one day at a time, for the entire month?

I will attach a pamphlet I have provided to my individual participants at program intake at the end of each article. If you are interested in using any of the information in these articles, please credit me by name, email, and website and you are free to distribute.


  1. Understand Boundaries: Knowing your limits, and recognizing the limits others have in their lives is an infinite task. At any given time, we notice something we appreciate, enjoy, and support - and at other times we notice something we dislike, discourage, and attack. These are the complicated boundaries that bound and weave through our lives and our relationships. Often there is nothing particularly right or wrong about boundaries - much of the time they are simply preferences of life. The challenge comes in when your personal preference conflicts with your partner's, which is where the intersection of conflict and resolution exist. Convincing someone to side or adopt your boundary on a topic is the bread and butter of arguing. It's a simple thing to assume your idea is so commonplace, shared with everyone, it is a bit of a shock to discover your partner doesn't align with you. There are so many shared cultural traditions that we often categorize such boundaries as "common sense." But have you considered that these traditions have a regional component? Ideas and cultural upbringing native to Oregon state might not exactly translate to ideas in North Carolina, and vice versa. It takes self-reflection, mindfulness, and concentrated consciousness to be aware of your rules and values on how to live life. Since so many behavior are default choices developed during childhood for human beings, it's easy to miss slowing down to consider why you think the way you think - when and why you learned different ideas. This is also why during relationships, your knowledge of yourself and your partner are different after one year as compared to after five years of being together. Awareness evolves of both yourself and others - and consciously navigating this space can lead to smoother conflict and the ability to practice the second goal below.
  2. Honor Boundaries: In my classes, I spend a good amount of time discussing how we define words and concepts. I find that while we understand words, we often have a hard time explaining what they mean without using examples or becoming a thesaurus and using like terms, concepts, and words. Honor is one of those words and concepts that I find is difficult to explain for most people. We feel it when it happens, and we can practice it when needed, but going through what it is tends to be more challenging. In order to honor boundaries you have, and honor boundaries your partner has in their life, it stands to reason that you both need to understand boundaries themselves, but also understand what honor is. For me, honor is tied to the ability to see the legitimacy of a perception, and operate in such a manner that you follow the direction of that perception - whether you directly agree or not. It is the courage to respect truth - the truth in you, or the truth in others. An often discussed aspect of honor - honoring your elders - is simply the willingness and ability to follow what an elder asks of you, and often is associated with tradition. With boundaries in relationships, since we all have infinite reasons and examples of rules we place onto ourselves and other's behavior, it is important to honor other's perspectives that may be different from your own. When your partner puts forward a limit, says they want you to do something you do not want to do, or wants to keep you from doing something you want to do - there is a great need to be open to influence to these requests. This does not mean you have to automatically go along with every request, but it does mean you have to consider this request, and demonstrate that you believe their perspective is valid and legitimate. If your partner puts forward a concrete boundary that is about their own personal life, then it becomes increasingly important to practice honor. This also means if you have a boundary of your own, you need to be able to practice asking for what you want or need, and with that be able to navigate disagreement surrounding that request.   
  3. Practice Listening: What is the difference between listening and hearing? This ends up being a good topic of conversation, and I find that people tend to parse it down to listening is akin to attentiveness, whereas hearing is comprehending. In general, I think this is a good operational differentiation - as the two are definitely linked, but separate skills to practice. Dynamics of active listening are good to discuss and teach during battering intervention classes - appropriate eye contact, indicators of listening (such as nodding along), limiting distractions - but those are the superficial ones that are definitely good components, but the deeper listening strategies are just as, if not more important due to them being easily overlooked. How do you summarize someone else's perspective, what they just said to you - and check in to make sure you heard correctly? Where does remembering prior conversations with this person demonstrate your ability to listen and retain information - and how does remembering end up being an indicator of the importance and value you hold for the other person? Noticing is a critical part of listening - it's often not about words, or even tone of voice someone uses - body language and nonverbal communication is a bigger part of our interactions than we can fully appreciate. I think about texting on phones as an example. You can text, "I'm doing fine," and depending on the context of that statement, it can mean everything from a loving response, to a pleasantry that is not very meaningful, to a subtle attack. The person reading that text will put their own present state of mind and interpretation of the body language and meaning into those words - while the person typing it will have their own meaning. With any luck, you'll both be on the same page, and texting has evolved to use of emojis to try and allow more indication of emotional state behind the words used. In direct communication, we often interpret body language and the context of a situation without realizing it. Noticing is a critical part of listening, and paired with checking-in and summarizing can help to avoid a miscommunication.
  4. Argue Respectfully: Participants in my classes sometimes mention that they want to stop arguing with their partner, and are surprised when I respond that isn't realistic, or even helpful. Life is all about conflict, and relationships are especially rife for arguments. Much of that has to do with the individual boundaries we all have, and how they interact (as mentioned in 1, above), which means avoiding conflict will only serve to create distance between partners - not bring them closer together. In fact, many individuals in my classes have partially ended up in a domestic violence intervention class because of patterns of avoidance in their relationship. Realistically, part of being healthy in a relationship involves understanding how to argue with respect. This gets into that same need to define the word, and the concepts behind respect. Within society, many define respect by incorrectly associating the word with authority or fear. How often have you heard someone say "you've got to earn respect," or "I respected my father because if I didn't there'd be hell to pay"? Earning "respect" is about authority - whether it be position, seniority, or station - all of these things are about climbing the ladder of hierarchy. If you have to "respect" someone or pay a consequence of some time, that is better described as "obeying" and failing to obey leads to something fearful or painful. I, instead, speak of respect as involving the ability and willingness to care about someone else's thoughts, opinions, and emotions. If you argue out of respect, you are looking toward a resolution that often involves mutual benefit of some kind - and an excellent tactic is to find the kernel of truth in someone else's perspective. If you find something you agree with, you can expand on it and eventually work together. This can be difficult if someone's perspective is about you, and you are not open to such feedback - but that involves another dynamic of healthy relationships (18 and 31). I challenge some individuals to find a perspective they disagree about with their partner - and defend that perspective. If you can do that, you can often work toward resolution rather than pressing toward winning an argument.
  5. Maintain Your Self-Care Needs: During program intake appointments, I have participants fill out an Adverse Childhood Experiences form, a depression screening tool as well as a mood disorder tool, in addition to other forms that contain risk assessment questions interspersed throughout the paperwork. When I give these papers out, I mention that if you don't take care of yourself, it's nearly impossible to care for anyone else. This is an important aspect of battering intervention, to navigate self-care and make sure it doesn't stray into the realm of selfishness. All human beings have needs and desires, and sometimes the two become conflated. We find something we want, and become convinced we have to have it - sacrificing relationships due to those desires. For many participants, this can come down to the topic of sex within their relationship. Failing to talk about sex leads to situations where an individual may not have sexual desires met - and that can be confused with a need, and justify cheating or other sexually hurtful behavior in a relationship. Beyond sex, I have found many men neglecting their physical health - not seeing a physician for routine health screenings, not taking medication for blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other health issues such as poor diet or not exercising. These self-care neglectful behavior can easily lead to relationship issues because on a whim, an individual with poor self-care can leverage a desire to a need, and use that to manipulate a partner. It is an individually responsible behavior to notice your needs and maintain them both with and beyond the support of a partner. Waiting for a partner to care for you isn't respectful or healthy. Making your needs superior to your partner's also isn't respectful or healthy. There is a need for balance, and both honoring your own and supporting your partner's needs. Maintaining your self-care needs is about introspection and consistency, and needs that involve emotional trauma and pain are incredibly important to recognize and address.
  6. Know Your Non-Negotiables: Rules we each have in how to live life, and define our values by what we think the purpose of life is overall. As a part of those values, we each have varying non-negotiables - boundaries we are unwilling to ever change. Often boundaries can be flexible preferences - say for example I prefer to eat Italian food, but I am open to other ideas about what to eat for dinner. When a participant in one of my classes attempts to blame their abusive or violent behavior on alcohol or drug use, saying it wasn't them, it was the substance - I use a gross example, asking the entire class of men how many drinks it would take for them to sexually abuse a child. Ever man suddenly says, with complete confidence, there aren't enough drinks in the world. The answer to this is that there is a non-negotiable behind not being sexually inappropriate with a child. No condition will make that choice acceptable. This means that assaulting a partner, hurting a partner in some way while intoxicated has nothing to do with the substance, but instead has to do with the ideas in a person's mind about what is okay to do. If someone fantasizes about hurting their partner verbally, or even thinks about responding to a conflict with physical assault - it's not that much of a leap to make that choice directly. In relationships, we have certain boundaries that could make a relationship untenable, completely incompatible. It is important to get to know someone else in several ways before fully committing due to this point. If you know what is not negotiable in your life, you can communicate it directly, and you have a better chance of being able to navigate and learn other's non-negotiables. I often say during classes that it is better to choose a partner by the things that irritate you that you can accept and enjoy as a quirk of their personality as opposed to only choosing partners by the fun you have together. Some conflicts may never be resolved because each person is not willing to change a part of their rules in life.
  7. Show Appreciation as Often as Possible: Demonstrating caring for others is a major component of respect, and the foundation of caring is appreciating. Appreciation is about value, showing someone you value them, and by doing so adding value to their own life. Appreciation can be small gestures of love, gifts and services, expressions verbally or non-verbally, or an ongoing attitude. Ideally, there will be a mix of how you demonstrate appreciation in a relationship, but it takes mindfulness and noticing to fully value your partner.
  8. Learn to Navigate Hard Times With Dignity: Life is full of ups and downs, challenges and successes. When it comes to difficulties, some people are able to be dignified in the face of bad and hard times, while others lack dignity altogether. Dignity is about maintaining a sense of self-respect when challenged. As mentioned in #4 above, respect is caring about someone's thoughts, opinions, and emotions - self-respect is doing that for yourself. It's easy to get wrapped up in struggles and lash out, attack others to try and get out of problems, turn to self-medicating and develop substance abuse issues or other poor self-care quick fixes. Recognizing that things are not going well, but knowing what you need to do to press forward and maintain connection to your values despite experiencing pain is the very essence of dignity. Slipping on individual values due to personal struggles can lead to disconnecting from your partner, hurting that person you may have had great value for, and ultimately hurting yourself as a result.
  9. Share Your Life With Your Partner:  All relationships evolve over time, but occasionally during that evolution the couple becomes so comfortable one or both become bored and stop sharing with each other. Sharing life is definitely about shared experiences, but also about the events that happen in each person's life. Work events, personal successes, hobbies (#15 goes into this more in depth), family interactions, struggles, new learning and education are all examples of categories that individuals evolve and grow separately from their partner - and ideally these experiences are shared between both people. It doesn't necessarily mean your partner is involved in everything, but that you make efforts to talk about and share things with your partner. For example, if one person goes on a work trip and as a part of the trip goes to a delicious restaurant, when back together with his or her partner there's talk about that restaurant and perhaps even efforts to go together at a later date. 
  10. Be Flexible With Chores: Unpleasant tasks are a part of everyday household maintenance, and while people tend to have tasks they are okay with doing no one tends to love doing chores. As part of a respectful and healthy relationship, chores tend to be divided between partners. A part of this distribution hopefully involves some sort of agreed upon distribution, either by quantity of chores or by the weight of the duty itself (perhaps food preparation and meal planning is not the same weight as taking the garbage out to the street). Regardless of this distribution, how do a couple work together to finish all the tasks? If someone is feeling overwhelmed, or runs out of time to complete a task, does the other person fill in or assist? When assisting, does the other person want high praise and exaltation, or does the task as a part of both demonstrating appreciation and being a partner? Throughout life, chores ebb and flow as well as ability and desire to complete certain tasks. Can the chores be renegotiated and redistributed as needed, and is there ongoing discussion about meeting household needs without making such discussion contentious? If someone is failing in their duties, what is the process of arguing respectfully about those needs? These are important questions to both ask and act out of when considering the completion of chores.
So completes the first ten items on the list of Healthy and Respectful Relationship goals. Part two will be published in a few days. Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions about any of these, and please see the attached document which lists 30 of 31 that will be discussed in the weeks to come. I have designed it so if you wanted to use it for your agency, you may edit it to place your details. Please do not remove the box with the history of the document and my contact information, and if you make changes to the listed items, please discuss with me first.


Friday, June 29, 2018

The Dearth of Meaning and Escalation of Harm

In my battering intervention classes, I follow the Emerge Model. The curriculum I use includes some from Emerge, but also has several lessons that I have created over the years for various reasons. Emerge tends to use the "Relationship History" with each participant to look at patterns of harm and where things may have gone downhill in a relationship. While I think that is an excellent individual activity, I don't think it works as well for everyone and have a few other options of lessons for those who might benefit from a different sort of introspection.

I will often use an "Empathy Letter" activity for those who are still in their relationship, and want to work to repair and make things better. That activity has places to give feedback on methods of owning up to hurtful behavior, describing motives, understanding impacts, and working on specific repairs. Identifying patterns alone may not help an individual who needs to consider ongoing shifts in how to have conflict and how to identify personal responsibilities to a partner.

For those participants with a very obvious pattern of harm, I use a "Cycle of Harm" that allows an individual to identify a build up of thoughts that promote abusive, violent, and hurtful behavior - and the thinking after that harm that keeps the cycle going. Even though I am not a fan of the Emerge "Role Play" activity, I still do that on occasion to address participants with a "here we go again" sort of conflict history.

However, over the past two weeks I have been working with a man, and for the purposes of this story let's call him Frank. Frank is in his 50s, and his longest relationship was in the early 90s which lasted approximately three and a half years. Most of his relationships last for a few months, and the relationship where he threatened his ex-partner was a total of two months of being together. I knew after hearing his brief description of his relationships that a relationship history wouldn't really work well. Same with an empathy letter as he was not in a relationship to repair. A cycle didn't work because he had different hurtful things he did in different relationships. With all that in mind, I decided to address a thicker topic with him that is hard to encapsulate, but is a powerful activity in its own right: an assignment on boundaries.

Boundaries are an under-addressed topic in battering intervention classes. Sure, we set boundaries as far as class rules, norms, and policies but we don't often take time to look at how participants set their own boundaries or notice them in others. Boundaries are these limits we have in our minds about a variety of things, a multitude of personal rules, thinking on how the world and life in general work. We often address boundaries in fractured ways - discussing masculinity, talking about motives for violence, methods of power and control. Sometimes, we even focus on respectful and healthy boundaries and how to manage conflict without violence or abuse. We just rarely bring it all together to discuss an individual's unique set of ideas that spur their actions in relationships.

I asked Frank to talk briefly about his relationship with his ex-partner where he threatened her. He talked about discovering her cheating on him, and the first time he gave her the benefit of the doubt because they had only been together two weeks, and her contact was with an ex-partner she had children with. The second time he found out, he left her threatening voicemails that he couldn't remember details of but did remember saying something to the effect of "I hope you lose everything you have in life." He also stopped by her house, noticing another man's motorcycle in her driveway. He was charged with stalking and cyberstalking alongside making threats.

His description was a bit vague, but also succinct and with a two month relationship there were more details than I might have thought. In moving the activity forward, I had a brief discussion with the class about what boundaries were. They joined in and provided different angles to the idea of personal rules and limits, which got the ball rolling in the direction I had hoped.

Frank was pretty easy to talk with, and came up with physical boundaries relatively quickly. He knew that he didn't like close talking unless it was something "important" and talked about how one woman he was with would come up and whisper to him and it would irritate him quite a bit. He had some definite dinner rules about not chewing with your mouth open, no smoking or playing with a cell phone at the table. He was fine with chores, and enjoys keeping his house neat, clean, and smelling good, and overall he wants a partner who is independent, works full time, and still is able to keep up with chores. He talked about a woman he never met in person who asked him "would you prefer a woman who worked part-time and kept the house spotless, or a woman who worked full-time but wasn't able to keep up with cleaning." His immediate response was to not consider her as relationship material, but also to shake his head and say that if you can't do both (like he does) then there's something wrong with you.

In the group, this led to some head nodding and agreement with some of the other participants. I don't think this is much more than a declaration of personal preferences. Those sort of boundaries can become problematic if an individual isn't able to notice incompatibility soon into developing a relationship, or holds on to an idea of "training" someone to do what they want. Frank was straightforward of his beliefs, and seemed quite able to keep a relationship from happening if he saw warning signs rising.

His emotional boundaries pointed out a few details that were important for him to know of himself, and know how to communicate in a relationship. He said when he became angry, his "filter turns off." Again, many of the participants nodded, seeing that experience as similar to their own. We discussed briefly how respectful and healthy communication involves the ability to filter negative self-talk, and choose methods of responding to anger without causing pain or fear in another person.

With emotion, however, we also discussed how he felt loved in a relationship. His methods involve giving gifts, helping someone out, and feeling loved when the other person expresses appreciation. Of course, this is a set-up for any number of negative self-talks, and direct as well as indirect harms when another person does not show appreciation just as he might want them to. He categorized his way of showing love as giving gifts, a playful "smack on the ass," giving compliments, and doing "gentlemanly" polite things. In the class we discussed the concept of "love languages" and how we all as human beings have ways we want to be loved, and ways we want to show love to others - and the complexities of interacting with someone who might have different ideas on that topic. How do you negotiate situations where your love language doesn't match?

This is where we got into brain mapping territory, and considerations of selfishness. I asked the group how many thought people, in general, were selfish. Most hands went up quickly. I asked them to identify how they saw selfishness in others. A truck driver said people drive without caring about others, and just being in their own worlds. Another participant said his wife just wanted to go out with her friends and didn't care what he thought about it. Another agreed and said his partner wouldn't do chores but expected him to. They all agreed with the idea of double standards and hypocrisy as selfish.

Then I asked them how they were selfish in their own lives.

They had a harder time with this. I gave some simple examples in my own life, how I ate the last two delicious smoked ribs in the fridge without asking my partner if she wanted them. How I procrastinate and the selfishness behind that. Eventually I got a few examples, but it was harder for some reason. Well, actually it was hard for a very specific reason.

We are all self-oriented. We see the world, hear the world, experience the world through our own minds. We can put ourselves in other's perspectives, sure, but in reality - such empathy is fantasy. I can never inhabit someone else's life, I cannot fully understand other's experiences. I read something recently that discussed how our personal concept of self is unique to us. Every single person we interact with has a concept of us as individuals. Some of those concepts overlap, but by in large, our own self-concept is unique to us and no one outside of yourself will ever fully know what that is. This makes it easy to come up with reasons, excuses, explanations for personal behavior while readily jumping to judge others.

As human beings, we disconnect ourselves from others at the drop of a hat. When our concept of someone conflicts with how another person is acting, we can easily deny their experience, their reasoning, their opinion. We can discount their emotions. We can remove any regard we have for that person in favor of judging what we absolutely know is true because we see it through our perspective.

In relationships, these disconnects can add up. It takes a lot of work to maintain a connection with someone, to actively seek to see and care about their point of view. And when you don't? Controlling behavior, abuse, violence, general harm are easy territories to jump into.

Moving into mental boundaries, Frank talked about how he would get quiet when he was stressed, how he hated it when people assumed he spoke Spanish or thought they knew his heritage. He hated "stupidity," "liars," and "saggy pants." We also discussed boundaries of exciting things, how we express passion for things we love - and for Frank he loves motorcycles, engines and mechanics, and his mom's chocolate pie. How does someone take a subject like "stupidity" and apply it to people and situations? How does someone categorize a "lie" from another person? How does someone communicate how they express stress in their life? We had a discussion about how people responded when hungry. I get loopy, and have a hard time making decisions or engaging in conversation. Others get "hangry" and yet others feel sick. How do you communicate your responses to something as simple as hunger in a relationship, and how do you talk about the PROCESS of your life to explain the CONTENT more accurately? The answer is many people do not, and that is an easy place to again create disconnect and harm.

The real point of this article, however, is on spiritual space and boundaries. But before I get there, a small aside on the other two categories. Discussing sexual boundaries is important - ideas on family planning and children, sexual frequency desires, even overall methods of showing affection beyond sex. All are important to navigate in a relationship in direct and respectful manners. Relational space and boundaries are also very important - how do you see the idea of "partnership" in a relationship? What do you expect of yourself in a relationship, and what do you expect of the person you are with? How could expectations of self and partner lead to that hypocrisy we discussed before? More excellent questions to bring up and have conversations about in battering intervention.

The thing that shocked me the most, but maybe it shouldn't have, is that Frank had no idea what his meaning in life was. Yes, we have as a culture had several things we have popular media over that contemplate the "meaning of life." Monty Python had an entire movie about "The Meaning of Life." Douglas Adams made some hilarious commentary about the answer to "life, the universe, and everything" is 42, but we don't know the proper question. But it's not that much of a mystery, really.

Spirituality, in my experience and belief, is the concept of value. What do I hold dear? Why is my life better because my partner is in it? How do I add value to my partner's life? What are my morals, my ethics? Spirituality, in my experience and belief, is the concept of purpose, of meaning. What am I working towards? What is my contribution to others close to me, to the world as a whole? What purpose keeps me going and feeds my values?

In some people's lives, that answer can be tied to their religious beliefs. Religions have a multitude of tomes on values to ascribe to, rules to follow, rituals to practice. That is of great importance to many, and they structure their lives to constantly work toward specific goals in their relationships with others and community. For some people, their religion is a ritual, but not a value or a purpose. Going to church, synagogue, temple, whatever it might be - that is just a thing you do, not a thing you care about beyond the ritual itself. Others pick specific messages that support their world view and use those messages to convince or browbeat others into philosophical submission or fear. Others frame their lives through personal focus and try to influence others through their behavior.

But to not be able to identify a purpose? It wasn't just Frank. No one in my group of nine participants had an answer to their meaning in life. No one even mentioned their children or families as their purpose, and I was sure there would be at least one person to do that. In the silence following the question, I talked about where meeting a potential partner at a place you volunteer could be a great way to connect to someone with similar values and meaning in life. I got some scoffing at that - who has time to volunteer? I discussed how we always give time for things that have value. We discussed Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and the control over society through entertainment and I asked them if they were controlled by entertainment. Many of them agreed. Their excitement in life was over "stuff" and over doing things. Frank said he always knew what he was doing each night because of what television show was on. That was important to him.

It struck me as a bit of an epiphany. Are we, perhaps, not going deep enough in working to address domestic violence? Is there more to hurtful behavior than simply discussing violence? Where is self-respect in our discussions? How do we make health, compromise, caring, regard a part of participant's value systems, or even a part of what gives them purpose in their lives?

I'm not sure I have much in the way of answers here, but I certainly know that if you do not care about anything, if you have no purpose in life, there really aren't many barriers to hurting others, or hurting yourself. If your purpose has been compromised by "value slipping*" then what holds true for you? How do you build up family and relationship in a world dominated by personal perspective and justification at all costs? Where your reasoning is all about whether someone agrees with your world view or not.

I say in classes all the time, this work is never about giving answers - they are more individual to the person, and my answers won't fit others' situations. These classes are about asking the right questions. And with that - are we truly asking all the best questions during battering intervention classes?

Write up of the activity with Frank in class. Pardon my messy handwriting!


*"Value slipping" is a concept of violating a small part of your values and beliefs and after doing so, feeling guilty but moving on and then more easily devaluing other rules in your life. I give examples in group about someone who has a religious belief about not having sex before marriage, yet has sex multiple times before marrying someone. How does such an experience sour other religious messages or rules, and what does that slippery slope look like?