I had dinner with a friend tonight, and we got to talking about some heavy personal stuff. You know, those conversations that only happen when they are least expected. Those conversations that we rarely have, but would probably be much happier, healthier individuals if we had on a regular basis, albeit in a safe personal space. Those conversations which we pay therapists hundreds of dollars to have with us, because we don’t want to burden our friends too often, even if we are more than willing to be the recipient for same said friend. (That’s a whole other conversation…why we as women are so much more willing to give in relationship than we are to receive…but I digress.) In any case, we covered a lot of ground in our conversation, and learned things about each other that we hadn’t known before, even though we have known each other for quite some time now.

This friend of mine, Ms. A., is considerably younger than I am. However, I hardly ever think about that – we just relate well to each other. I don’t know if it crosses her mind very often or not. I think she’s an old soul, and as such I think that her age is just a number and not a true marker of her personal learning. (I also happen to think I’m an old soul, so maybe we’ve been through all this before, who knows.)

I only bring up our age difference because I realized that I fall into the trap of expecting my “Aha!” learning moments to come mostly from my elders. However, I had a real “Aha!” moment tonight. Ms. A was talking about her 3+ year relationship with her boyfriend, and how they work through issues. She said that at the very beginning of their relationship, they had had a conversation in which they laid down their boundaries for fights.

They set up guidelines for fighting, right off the bat.

Now, some might see that as an indication that fighting would be a cornerstone in a relationship. Some might just think that it’s gloomy doomsday thinking. I, however, think that it just might be the smartest thing I’ve ever heard when it comes to relationship advice. And it caught me very off guard to hear such sage advice from someone who, in the strictly mathmatical concept of years, is considerably my junior.

Stop and think for a moment. Setting out the guidelines for fighting means setting the parameters of how you’re going to work through a given issue at its most heated. When emotions are at their highest. These guidelines included the level of respect each person expected to receive from the other. Even when emotions were heightened and issues were hot.

Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

How often do we let things slide at the beginning of a relationship because we “don’t want to make a big deal of it?” But as time goes on, we start to be less forgiving of the other person’s faults and foibles, and we start being more willing to stand up for what’s important to us. However, that turns us into a different person than the one our partner started out with, and all sorts of problems ensue.

For me, setting boundaries for fighting (more politely called, “working through an issue”… but really, when you get down to brass tacks and you’re really pissed off at the other person, it’s fighting) at the beginning of a relationship looks like this:

I need you to treat me with respect. So I need you to not raise your voice at me, talk over me, bulldoze me with any perceived “rightness,” or otherwise make me feel dumb, incompetent, or small.  I will treat you with the same respect, not raising my voice, talking over you, bulldozing you, or otherwise making you feel dumb, incompetent, or small. We are both emotionally intelligent people*, not to mention that we are both just regularly intelligent people. (OK, I might figure out a slightly smoother way to say that last sentence, but whatever. You get the gist.) Therefore we can talk about our emotions and our issues without having to raise our voices. I need to be able to say to you, “I feel angry at you about X,” and have us talk about it. There’s no need to yell. We can take issue X and put it on the table, and talk about it objectively, like a cake. If there were a cake on the table, there would be many layers of it, all up for discussion, but neither of us would need to feel defensive about the cake, because it’s just a cake, not actually a part of either of us. We might have worked hard to make the cake, but it still isn’t an extension of either one of us. It’s a cake. And probably if we chose to discuss it at a time OTHER than in the middle of baking the cake, it would keep everything in better perspective. (In other, slightly more sane words, discuss issues when you are not right in the middle of it. Come back to it later, when no one is all riled up about it. Make intelligent choices about WHEN to have discussions about tough issues. And that often means NOT when you are most upset about it, right in the moment.)  We could simply talk about the cake objectively, and come to some sort of understanding together.

*It is one of my personal requirements for a partner in relationship, this emotional intelligence thing. I am not a Kindergarten teacher, and it is not my job to teach you emotional intelligence (or to not leave your wet towel on the bed, btw. Just sayin’.) This, on my personal checklist for a potential mate, is a requirement. It may not be for you. But it is for me. Just so’s we’ve cleared that up. (And I’ve said it out loud. Which will make it much harder to try and explain my way out of if I fuck it up and end up dating a 40 year old Justin Bieber. Are we clear? You can hold me accountable.)

Not so sure that was the best example. But I think – I hope – my point came across. And the thing about it all is the whole issue of accountability. If two people do not agree to be held accountable by the other person (not to mention God and everyone), there’s no point. If, when the other person does hold you accountable to some part of the Boundary and Respect Agreement, you flip out and start calling them every name in the book, the whole exercise was pointless. We have to open ourselves, and trust our mate enough, to be held up to the standard set out right at the beginning.

High standards, folks. Set them, be held accountable to them. Setting them requires a good dose of self-worth, and being held accountable to them requires commitment, honesty, trust, and at times, a hearty slice of humble pie. But in relationship the whole point is to trust your partner, to be open and honest with your partner. To value and respect your partner.

How often does our desire to win overtake our desire to treat our partner with the respect they deserve, and our willingness to adhere to (often) unspoken boundaries that have materialized in our relationship? Or if we’re lucky smart, to adhere to the boundaries we’ve set out in the beginning of our relationship? The whole deal is that you need to value and respect your partner enough to honour the boundaries you’ve agreed upon, and let that succeed your desire to “win” the discussion, debate, or argument. You need to treat your partner with the respect they told you they required, even when it is most difficult.

That’s what it takes, ladies and gentlemen. And that’s how I got schooled today. The concept of setting out those boundaries, those expectations, those requirements right away had never occurred to me. I am now of the impression that it might be the single-most important discussion you will ever have in relationship. Because everything you do in relationship after that will balance on that conversation…really…when you get right down to it. Every decision you make you can trust will be treated with respect, even if there is disagreement. There’s no more walking on eggshells, trying to hide anything from your partner because you’re afraid of how they’ll react. The way they will react is constrained within those boundaries that you’ve both agreed upon.

Lightbulb moment, let me tell you. And from a young whippersnapper at that! (That’s right, I’m sitting in my rocking chair as we speak.)

Bless you Ms. A. I’m very happy to have you in my life for many reasons.  But you just gave me one more. I love ya.