"I don't understand what happened," Todd told me (Dr. Cloud). "It seemed that Mary and I were doing so well, and then she just came in one day and told me that she didn't want to be with me anymore. She was very angry about a lot of things."
"Did you have any warning?" I asked. "Did she give any signs?"
"Well, sometimes I could tell that she was sort of pouty about things. There would be things I did that she would not like, but I never thought it was a big deal. Like when I would be late, or go out with my friends without telling her. Or, sometimes, I would cancel on her to go play basketball if a good game came up. That kind of thing. But I never thought it was a big deal," he mused.
"Sounds like it was a bigger deal than you saw," I said.
Then I heard Mary's side of things. It was a little different to be sure. "I got to a place where I just couldn't stand it anymore. He was so inconsiderate," she began. "He would just not show up for things we had planned. I asked him to let me know, but he never would. He would always have a reason like 'The game just got put together,' or something like that. It was never his fault, but he chose his sports over me."
"Did you tell him?" I asked.
"I tried a few times, but he really wasn't listening. And, it never made a difference in his behavior. He just would do pretty much what he wanted to do, and I was supposed to be fine with it."
"Did you ever try to give him any kind of boundaries?" I asked.
"Like what?" she asked me in return."
"Like tell him that if he were not on time or did not keep the date, he could forget getting together that night, or that week. You would make some plans that you could depend on," I asked.
"That seems really mean," she said. "I could never do anything like that. It is too harsh."
I did not tell her that it seemed a lot less harsh than a sudden breakup without any warning.
The issue in Mary and Todd's relationship is a common one. There is a person in the relationship who is probably not that bad a person. But, he (Todd in this case) or she has been allowed to get away with taking advantage of other people's niceness and not being responsible to the relationship. Usually, there is a pattern of inconsiderateness.
In dating, this can be the inconsiderate behavior that Mary dealt with. Or, it can be physical pressure, or attitudes, or any other way that one person hurts another short of something evil.
The formula that Mary did not know is this. In relationships, you get what you tolerate. Why, we are not sure. In part it is because people who allow people to get away with things seem to attract the kind that would want to get away with less-than-considerate behavior. Another reason seems to be that whenever we do not have good limits with each other, there is a regression on the part of the person who is enabled to be less than mature.
In any case, you can bet that for the most part, especially in the world of dating, you will get what you tolerate. And, if you are like Mary, you will get enough of it that you cannot tolerate anymore, and then you will be alone again.
We think that there is a better way. Set your limits early on. Make them clear. Enforce them and stick to them. In short, nip it—whatever the problem is—in the bud, and do not allow that weed to grow in the garden of your relationship.
If you are someone who allows yourself to be treated in a certain way in the beginning of a relationship, you are allowing certain things to get a foothold in the relationship and they will grow. There are two dangers to this. One, if the person is someone you will grow to love, you don't want those dynamics present in the relationship at all. Second, if the person is not someone you will love, then you want to have them run into those limits and go away sooner rather than later. It is always better to "nip it in the bud."
Set the tone early in how you expect to be treated, so that the person knows that he or she is dealing with someone who has self-respect and will not tolerate being treated poorly. This will weed out selfish people, and discipline sloppy ones. Both are good things to do.
Get more helpful advice to build the best dating relationship and find the love of your life in Boundaries in Dating by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.