It’s a dance—move too close, and you get your toes stepped on. Keep people at arm’s length, and you might lose contact entirely.
Shakespeare's romantic comedies often end with the cast dancing around the stage together. This is to show that after enduring ridiculous confusion, the characters' relationships have settled into normalcy. Elizabethan dramas used dance to represent the way people in healthy relationships interact with one another, moving joyously in response to the music of life. Nowadays psychologists use the words functional boundary setting to describe the same thing. It loses in translation, don't you think? The clinical phrase just doesn't convey the subtlety with which humans observe, interpret, and respond to one another's social signals: A frown from the boss, and we mash our noses to the grindstone. A friend's shoulder slumps half an inch, and without thinking we pat it encouragingly.
These actions follow the rhythms of people who instinctively set healthy boundaries. Those of us who aren't exactly Fred Astaire trip over ourselves in relationship after relationship, in part because we pick up boundary-setting habits so early that most of us aren't even aware of how we move. Happily, it's never too soon—or too late—to become a better dancer. Here are four common dance errors (a shrink might call them dysfunctional boundary-setting patterns) that may sound as regrettably familiar to you as they do to me.
The "Please Tread on Me"
This is the dance of supplication and submission broadcast by pleasers, folks so desperate to be loved that they'll do pretty much anything for anyone. Pleasers end up being mildly pitied by most people, but narcissists cut right in and exploit the hell out of them.
The symptoms of the "please tread on me" syndrome include exhaustion, constant complaining about being used, fear of conflict, simmering resentment, a sense of helplessness, and a history of relationships with demanding, selfish partners.
The Herky-Jerky Tango
"Why does everyone I date turn out to be a jerk?" This is the classic cry of someone who's doing the herky-jerky tango. This dance is often performed by shy people who are scared to let others near, and so project the message "Stay away!" Often they are a little reserved, even a bit prickly. Normal people follow the shy person's lead, respectfully keeping their distance. Only socially insensitive louts barrel on through to partner them.
Signs that a person might have fallen into this rhythm: social anxiety, loneliness, being unable to meet people they really like (where are they?), and feeling they have to settle for unfeeling clods as friends or romantic partners.
The FOO Fandango
As children we learn to fit in with those people who resemble our families of origin (acronym: FOO), the way a key matches a lock. When we meet someone whose behavior matches the social moves we're used to, we fall right in step. This may be great for The Brady Bunch. Not so for the rest of us.
The most obvious indication of a dysfunctional FOO fandango is the tendency to repeatedly befriend or date people who share negative characteristics of family members, especially patterns like addiction, abusiveness, dishonesty, and secretiveness.
The Kiss Me, Kill Me Two-Step
In this tricky and intense dance, people will attach to others they've just met, recognizing one another as soul mates, even beginning to talk, dress, and act alike. At best this bonding phase ebbs into disappointment. At worst it leads to a massive falling-out that severs the relationship and leaves the soul mates bitter enemies.
People who take part in this boundary dance often feel instant attraction to certain individuals, a nagging fear of abandonment, a history of feeling betrayed, and the habit of nursing grievances. It’s a dance—move too close, and you get your toes stepped on. Keep people at arm’s length, and you might lose contact entirely.
If any of these descriptions rings a bell, you can become more aware of how you participate in the general dance of life with the help of a therapist. But if you have the nerve, there's a quicker way to get feedback: Talk to people you trust. There is a trick; the less well-acquainted you are with those you ask, the more useful the information.
I first did this when I was teaching a group therapy class, and it's become a standby technique in the seminars I've run since. If you're not planning on attending any personal-development programs, you might work up the nerve to ask for feedback from a coworker, a few acquaintances, a 12-step group (obviously, people with whom you feel unusually safe). Explain your boundary issue first, then ask for input. Something like "I keep having the same kind of argument with different people [or dating the same kind of loser, etc.]. Do you see anything I'm doing that's contributing to this dynamic?"
Humans are astonishingly attuned to interpreting one another's social energy, and you'll likely end up with a pretty clear consensus. "You always look down and mumble when I talk to you," they might say. "I feel like you're not interested." Or: "You're so helpful and polite, even to awful people. Frankly, you're kind of a doormat."
One very important caveat: Do not, I repeat, do not rely on feedback from your nearest and dearest. These people are preselected to match your boundary-setting patterns. Your dysfunctions will be as invisible to them as to you. For instance, if a pleaser asks her boyfriend whether he thinks it's normal that she buys him silk sheets, while she herself sleeps on the floor so as not to disturb him, he'll respond that she's the healthiest, most normal person he's ever met. She'd get more helpful data from her dentist.
The Problem with Finding a New Tune
Dysfunctional relationships are rigid. Each person plays one role, and any attempt to behave differently is met by indignation or even aggression. This rigidity (which underlies "isms" like racism, classism, and fundamentalism) makes boundary setting delightfully simple: Folks who behave in prescribed ways are the Good Guys; everyone else is the Enemy. Of course, even a minor deviation can turn friend to foe, so to keep the party going, participants better repress all individualism. To many people, that seems a small price for the intimacy created by a black-and-white worldview. Unfortunately, since this closeness requires self-abandonment, it actually isn't intimacy at all.
Functional relationship skills begin with the realization that intimacy is rarely built upon stiff rules, that most things can't be reduced to black or white. Painters sometimes use a gray scale, a strip of paper that has white at one end and black at the other, with, for example, five gradually deepening shades of gray in between. They hold up this strip to see which value of gray best matches the shade of the color they're painting. Each object gets a gray scale value. (Pure white has a value of 1; medium gray, 4; jet black, 7.) Learning to evaluate levels of intimacy in a similar way is the first lesson of the healthy interpersonal waltz. It’s a dance—move too close, and you get your toes stepped on. Keep people at arm’s length, and you might lose contact entirely.
Start by creating your own intimacy gray scale. List the next ten people with whom you interact, and rate your level of intimacy with each one. Ideally, your relationships will be spread across the scale, with a few individuals at either extreme, and most people somewhere in the middle. If everyone you come in contact with is bunched at the low end of the scale, you're probably putting out such strong "keep away" signals that you're overly isolated. If everyone's at the high end, you may be so indiscriminately intimate that you're vulnerable to exhaustion and exploitation.
Both these problems stem from a dysfunctional, all-or-nothing view of intimacy. Dichotomous thinkers habitually shut people out to protect themselves, dive into ill-considered closeness, or both. The solution is to set boundaries that move most relationships into the gray zone. You'll have a few intimate relationships (three or four are about all most of us have) and a few acquaintances that stray through your space each day.
Next consider each of the people you've listed in your "intimacy gray scale" exercise. If thinking about one person makes you irritated or exhausted, you need to create more space in your dance with that particular person at this particular time. Try the following polite request, which I've used on everyone from chatty cabdrivers to my children: "Would you excuse me? I need some time by myself." People who can't or won't step back a bit when you say this are poor relationship risks. Don't try to persuade them to leave you alone. Simply decrease the time and attention you direct toward them until you reach a level at which your irritation disappears. Imagine moving from a cheek-to-cheek tango to a square dance, where you do-si-do with many people for short periods.
On the other hand, if you want to be closer to some individuals on your list, you'll feel curious and interested as you think about them. To increase intimacy, ask the questions that arise naturally: "How are you feeling today? How do you bake so well? Where do you get all your energy?" If the other person is willing to open up, this will trigger a pleasant interchange of gradual, mutual self-disclosure. If your questions are met by curtness, silence, or the phrase "Would you excuse me?" you can gently pull back and go looking for other dance partners.
There is one thing to remember: Social choreography is endlessly changeable. Unlike dysfunction, healthy intimacy pulls away, bounces back, creates infinite fresh configurations. Trusting the rhythm of each relationship, rather than insisting on robotic consistency, will keep you from panicking when someone's boundaries move a bit toward or away from you. Insist on continuous connection with just one individual: your own self, who knows where to draw the boundary lines on any given day, with any given person. Your heart is always listening to the natural beat and melody of relationships, and it always agrees with our man Will: "If music be the food of love, play on."