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31 October, 2009

Hold the Line

After talking with my compatriot over at WrongBot, I have come to the conclusion that, no, I didn't just miss that day in middle school: I'm not the only one who's never had a word of advice on how to draw emotional boundaries or even, now that I think about it, on what emotional boundaries are. I want to spend a moment on that topic before my next post.

This might be a little tricky, since I've only become consciously aware of this phenomenon in recent years, and by its very nature, it's not something that gets tested often in my life. I've tried to find some papers defining the terms more neatly, but I don't know the jargon I'd need to put into the search field. What I mean to describe with the term "emotional boundaries" is the ability to regulate one's own emotions such that one's emotional state does or doesn't depend on emotional input from another person. If you have a mentor whose every word you hang on and she makes an off-hand comment derogating the essay you just wrote, does it wring your heart out or do you incorporate her criticism and move on? If you have a lover who doesn't make that last moment of physical contact before you part, do you spend the rest of the night unsatisfied? (Oh, curse that dopaminergic system!) I submit that it is a laudable goal to become emotionally self-contained to some degree; but, at the same time, opening oneself to emotional input from someone trustworthy can improve the depth of one's emotional experience. Is it possible to have the highs without the lows? I actually don't know; I simply try not to make myself vulnerable to anyone unless I think she'll treat me right.

In a romantic relationship, there's a huge range of feeling possible. If you had a crush on someone in middle school, you probably remember the heart-crushing emotions surrounding that person's thought and behavior: did she feel the same? Did she even know you liked her? Did she even know your name? I remember the first time I asked someone out, which was also the first time anyone turned me down. I'd spent weeks working up the nerve, and afterward, I felt destroyed. I thought I'd be happy with that person, and without her, somehow I couldn't be. In hindsight, the whole debacle following that encounter is horribly embarrassing, but it serves as a useful contrast to later experiences.

Later on, with Alma (hooo, I'd almost forgotten that I was trying not to drop real names into the ol' search engine soup!), the experience was different ... but only because we were both desperately in love. I use that adverb purposefully. If either one of us had had a change of heart back then, the other would have felt horrible emotional damage; we depended on each other, rather than on ourselves, to provide an emotional foundation. I think that he grew out of that stage a little before I did, but in the beginning, we trusted each other to deliver emotional gratification to such a degree that, if we hadn't both been engaged in the project, it would have been right to call our behavior insane. Perhaps some of you have experienced this.

Then, with Zoe, it began similarly. I was effectively single, at least while at college, and when someone promising came along and actually seemed to be working out, it was just days before the walls came down. When I say "walls", I mean my emotional permeability. Normally, if I meet some random person, I'm influenced by the expression of their emotions; I do pick up moods from other people, and if I have to deal with someone unpleasant, it upsets me. That's totally normal; one sees the same phenomenon in other primates, and some of the neural systems involved have been described in an impressive level of detail. The mirror neuron system is a part of the brain that fires along certain patterns when you perform an action - lifting a glass of water, for instance - and fires in the same way when you see someone else perform the same action. It's a powerful, and relatively new, line of research, but it's born incredible fruit. People are pursuing it as an explanation for learning, for empathy ... so, you can see how it would be relevant to the subject of picking up on others' emotions.

In a close romantic relationship (and any emotionally intimate relationship, really), there's even more at stake. The emotions that you feel might be triggered by any number of things, but they happen in you. They come from you, no matter what external reason you have for feeling them. It's easy to forget that, though, and even while remembering it, someone to whom one is emotionally anchored can shake one's emotions. In a relationship with a powerful, intimate emotional link and little or no oversight of that link - hey, you remember middle school - one's partner can cause catastrophic pain even through an accidental phrase or expression. That's why these boundaries matter. If we let ourselves open our emotional control boards to the wrong people, it can be deadly.

Oh - and, happy Hallowe'en! Say hi to the dead folks for me.


  1. I think I've figured out why I was having so much difficulty understanding your terms the other night: I prefer emotional self-containment over exposure, and so I think of instances in which I've been emotionally vulnerable in relationships as mistakes.

    To tell you the truth, I'm a little baffled as to why anyone would want to put themselves in that position at all; this question is probably a little beyond the scope of a blog comment, but what do you (and, presumably, other non-robots) get out of it?

  2. When I'm in a relationship with someone who isn't going to rip out my heart and shit on it, I get more intense (and more varied and rich) emotions by surrendering to the experience. There's a turning point, which has occurred consciously in one case and unconsciously in others, at which I decide that I'm going to throw myself into the relationship and just enjoy the hell out of it. Surrender really is the right verb, I think. It's satisfying. I find it emotionally rewarding to think that whenever we have sex, or speak with each other, or make eye contact and share a private joke, in addition to whatever we're saying, there's an unspoken addition: we're in this together.

    And, hey, you of all people ought to remember that vulnerability can be sexy. In fact, think of it as a very subtle 24/7 power exchange.