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Your Bottom Line: How Crossable Is It?

We all have them or claim to have them. The lists of things that would spell the end of a relationship for us. This line moves and is evidenced by different things depending on the relationships that we are referring to.

Many of us will claim to have clearly defined line with a work colleague (“if she speaks to me that way one more time I’m out of here”) yet state that there is no line in our relationship with our children (“I will stand by my son no matter what he did”). We also have different lines for our friends, family and intimate partner.

For the purpose of this blog, I will restrict the following to intimate/partnered relationships.

It is worth taking some time considering what that line relates to and where that line actually is. As for too many this bottom line is unspoken and often interpreted differently by the other party.

Shocking as it may appear at first glance, this difference in understanding is common, and is created and maintained for many reasons. It turns out that there is not ‘common sense’ nor ‘common boundaries’ in relationships. Clearly, we all accept different things without ending relationships.

We often don’t know what our bottom line is until it is crossed. This then raises the question: If you didn’t know that it was your bottom line, is it reasonable to assume that your partner did? Is it reasonable to leave a relationship when your partner crossed a line that s/he did not know was there? It is fair to assume that s/he should have known that it would upset you, but it is fair to assume that s/he would have known that it was your bottom line and therefore relationship ending?

This is a far too complex question for me to answer for you. So instead, I vow to encourage you to consider your bottom lines and communicate these clearly to your partner. Not in a threatening way (“I swear if you do A,B,C I will be leaving you for dead!”), but in an informative and communicative way (“I need you to know that A,B,C are deal breakers / “bottom lines” for me, and I couldn’t continue in a relationship if those things happened”).

This all starts with the WHAT! – What does the bottom line relate to? Is it about honesty? fidelity? respect? safety?

You also need to be clear about the WHERE. Where is the line within the spectrum of the WHAT?

If you are referring to honesty, do you mean absolute truthfulness? Are white lies relationship ending? Where do well intentioned mis-truths fit in? Surprises?
What about fidelity? Are you referring to fully fledged sexual affairs? one-night stands? any physical contact? flirting? or simply an attraction to another person?

The WHAT and the WHERE of bottom lines must be clearly established and communicated with your partner. It may seem ridiculous, but couples enter therapy regularly on the verge of separation following “an incident” with one party very clear that “she crossed the line”, and the other “I honestly didn’t think that this would end our relationship”. In most cases the ‘offending party’ knew that it would hurt their partner but decided to carry on unaware that it was a bottom line.

Some of the complicating factors with bottom lines, which prevent them from being effective are:

  • empty threats… “If you do that again I’m leaving” when time and time again you don’t leave. Probably because this issue in question is not a bottom line, yet empty threats like these just undermine the communication about your serious bottom line.
  • crossed lines… so you have a clear line, you know where it is, your partner knows where it is, but when it is crossed you do nothing. This again creates confusion, and according to Mira Kirshenbaum much more serious issues:

“What happened next to people who ignored their bottom line was tragic. If there’s something that’s really a bottom line for you and your partner crosses it and you don’t act on it, then you’re performing an act of psychological self-mutilation. It’s as if you’d say, “I felt that that was completely unacceptable and part of me still feels that way, but then he did that and yet I couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything about it. So, what right do I have any more to say that that was my bottom line?” … And then in a weird, sad way you become a backdoor accomplice to whatever your partner does. It’s as if you were saying, “That’s ruined the relationship for me, but I give you permission to do it anyway and I give myself permission to do nothing about your doing it”. You might as well just say, “Let’s set things up so we can hate each other”

(“Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay, Mira Kirshenbaum, 1997).

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