In the language of human relationships, “setting limits” means letting people know what is acceptable to you and what is not. This doesn’t just apply to serious matters, like domestic violence or breaking one’s vows—limits for small things are important as well.

Setting limits is an expression of your human value, of your self worth, in matters small and large. By setting limits you say: “I am a worthy person. I deserve to be treated in a way that feels good to me.”

For example, if being tickled by your spouse is not fun for you, therefore not acceptable, regardless of how amusing it is to your spouse, then setting limits is saying, “That’s not fun for me. I don’t like to be tickled. Please don’t do it again. Thanks, Honey!”

That is fine and generally accepted by most people, however, there is a second aspect to setting limits, which is less recognized yet just as important. Only by setting limits is it possible to give wholeheartedly and graciously. And the ability to give wholeheartedly and graciously is one of the basic components of true and lasting love.

How does this work? Well, let’s say your husband wants to be affectionate and playful, but you’ve had a rough day at work/with the kids, and you desperately need some private time. If you’re not good at setting limits, you’ll probably try to force yourself to be affectionate and playful, which of course won’t work because you’re too stressed to relax—the end result being that you feel pressured, resentful at your mate for “demanding so much” of you, and further stressed. Your spouse won’t have much of a good time either because they can feel your resentment whether or not you voice it.

If you know how to set limits, however, you can operate quite differently in a way guaranteed to further the love, not squash it. You can say, for example:

“Honey, I’d love to spend some fun time with you, but right now I’m very stressed from my day and I need to unwind. How about if we do our separate thing for about a half hour, and get together after that?”

You can then go off and do whatever you need to unwind, de-stress and nurture yourself, without your husband or wife feeling abandoned. Now when you get together with your spouse, you really are ready, willing and able to be there for them, and to give graciously and wholeheartedly of your affection and playfulness.

Often when we love someone, we are tempted to do everything they want when they want it because we’re afraid they’ll abandon us if we don’t. But when you give to another at the price of hurting yourself, you do not give graciously, you give against a background of resentment, which inevitably comes out in the form of martyr (“I do everything for you, can’t you love me just a little?”), victim (“Nothing I ever do is good enough, nobody loves me.”), or sour grapes (“Love – schmove. It’s always the same: I give, they take.”). I is that underlying resentment which distorts love, damages it, and eventually drives your loved one away.

When we fail to set limits, giving becomes a problem. We either give too much or too little.

Set limits: take responsibility to insure that your needs are met so that you are free to give fully and joyously. Learning to set limits is a skill. As you practice it with your friends and loved ones, in addition to your beloved spouse, you will earn their respect and pave the way to truly loving relationships.


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