Dance Illustration
Illustration: Thinkstock
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.