When It Comes To Relational Disappointments—Do You Have 'Boundaries' Or Are You 'Bitter'?

"Bitterness is how we punish ourselves for other people's sins."—Matshona Dhliwayo

Love & Relationships

Sometimes I get asked, what's the one thing that I wish women would master, when it comes to matters of the heart. It might surprise you, what tops the list, pretty much every time—knowing the difference between when you are setting a boundary and when you are operating out of sheer bitterness. What's unfortunate is, this topic seems to be tackled so little, that when it comes to understanding what boundaries vs. bitterness means, very few seem to be able to make clear distinctions. In fact, the irony is that, more times than not, what someone calls a "boundary", it is the direct result of something that happened that made them, well, bitter. What's even more ironic than that is, if we had set boundaries in the first place—purely out of the desire to love ourselves as well as possible and not as a knee-jerk reaction to pain—we could probably avoid many of the things that resulted in us becoming bitter in the long run. Here's what I mean by that.

What a Relationship Without Boundaries (Typically) Looks Like


Take the last relationship—whether it was romantic, a friendship or even work-related—that totally disappointed you, for example. When you stop and think about all that went down, did a part of your devastation ultimately have to do with having a lack of boundaries? If you're not sure, here are some signs you probably didn't establish as many boundaries as you should've before the relationship ever began:

  • You felt taken for granted
  • You didn't speak up when you should have
  • You were the one who did most of the giving or most of the work
  • You constantly said "yes", even when you didn't want to
  • You allowed your own feelings and needs to be dismissed
  • You engaged in controlling and/or manipulative and/or gaslighting tactics far too much
  • The situation ultimately did more harm than good

If any of these things happened, my condolences. No, I mean it.

I totally know what it's like to be in an unhealthy relationship, all because the situation lacked firm and healthy boundaries. Know what else? I also know what it's like to be so out of touch with why boundaries are necessary that I allowed the "fallout" of the dynamic to leave me bitter. In other words, I know what it's like to spend so much time blaming the person for what they did (or didn't do) that I never took ownership for it being, in part, due to never having set boundaries with them from day one.

Coming to that conclusion was a big reality check for me. But you know what? It also made it easier to forgive those who hurt me, to work past the bitterness and get to a place of not putting myself in similar forms of toxicity. I'm telling you, you start to enter into the world of "big girl relationships" when you stop being so mad at what someone did to you and, instead, as an act of self-love, start spending time wondering what you can do to avoid feeling disappointed and disillusioned all of the time. And sis, that starts with knowing the difference between boundaries (being relationally proactive) and bitterness (being relationally reactive).

How to Know a Relationship Has Left You Bitter


There is a Scripture in the Bible (Hebrews 12:15) that warns us that bitterness can cause trouble. After checking out some of the indications of what bitterness looks like, I'm sure you'll be able to see why:

  • Bitter people can't forgive and they hold grudges
  • Bitter people remain stagnant in their pain
  • Bitter people generalize everyone
  • Bitter people misdirect their hurt, frustration or anger
  • Bitter people dish out what they can't take
  • Bitter people don't know how to compromise
  • Bitter people have an "all or nothing" mentality; even when it's unrealistic to be that way
  • Bitter people are ungrateful
  • Bitter people make mountains out of molehills
  • Bitter people tend to be hypocritical (they contradict themselves…a lot)

There's not nearly enough time or space to touch on all of these points, but let's look at how a few of them can cause people to think that they are actually setting a boundary, when really all that they are doing is operating from a space of pure bitterness.

Bitter people can't forgive and hold grudges. It really does baffle me, how many people want to be forgiven but refuse to forgive others. Bitter people are like this. They have been hurt so much—or they forgive so little—that if you do one thing that offends them, they are out. Oh, but let them do the same thing or worse and suddenly they are only human and/or the "offendee" needs to get over it. Forgiveness—if it's true forgiveness—isn't easy. As someone who is still figuring out, it's also a process of acknowledging what happened, accepting that nothing can change it, resolving to pardon the offender and then figuring out how to move forward. Bitter people? They don't want to entertain doing any of this. They'd prefer to hold the person—and themselves—hostage by nursing a grudge, harping on the issue and controlling the dynamic by never letting it go rather than releasing the matter and then establishing boundaries until trust can be regained and the relationship can potentially be restored. To a bitter individual, the boundary is that there is no hope for reconciliation…ever. Meanwhile, a person with boundaries accepts that they make mistakes too, so they tend to pay more attention to character and repeated patterns before making a final decision.

Bitter people slice immediately. Folks with boundaries tend to give things time.

Bitter people generalize everyone. I've said it before in other articles; every time I tiptoe out into Black Twitter and see the incessant "Black women ain't this" and "Black men ain't that" coming from my own people, it reminds me of why I enjoy the peace of not being on social media at all. No matter how long any of us have been on this earth, we don't know every human being, so no—we can't be out here generalizing an entire demographic of individuals (we get mad when white folks do that…amen?). This is a given to a lot of folks, but you know who doesn't believe that? Bitter folks. Let three people from a particular "group" disappoint them and suddenly everyone in it is trash. That's because bitter people tend to be too jaded to be patient and forgiving, let alone self-introspective. The way they see it, it's easier to resolve that all of those individuals are the problem instead of retracing their steps to see if boundaries, gut instinct and keen discernment could've resulted in a totally different outcome.

Bitter people tend to be hypocritical. I honestly can't tell you, just how many times that I have sat in front of a married couple who expected their partner to do things that they themselves won't do. The husband wants the wife to initiate sex more when he continues to drop the ball when it comes to being more romantic. The wife wants the husband to affirm her more when he can't get his foot in the door fast enough before she is criticizing him for something. Both people end up resenting each other—which is basically a manifestation of bitterness—because of it. And so, they decide that the way to handle their dissatisfaction is to continue to "hold out" until the other gives them what they want, when what they really should be doing is being the kind of spouse that they desire.

Do you see how, if you're in a bitter space, it can appear to be a boundary when really, it's anything but? If you'd like it to be made a little bit clearer, here's what setting firm boundaries looks like so that you can avoid allowing bitterness to set in as much as possible.

How to Know You’re Setting Good Boundaries


There is someone in my world who hurt me. I mean, really hurt me. For the past several months, they've been trying to set things right. I already know that if I hadn't have forgiven them, I would be out here making it hard on all of the new people who would try and come into my life. Instead, I've set boundaries with this individual. And boundaries are nothing more than limits. For starters, we didn't even begin the process of trying to rebuild our relationship until we discussed what got us off course in the first place, and they owned their part in it, which included an apology. I no longer go above and beyond like I tend to do with my other friends because we're not friends right now; we are two people who care about each other who are trying to heal. I don't put myself in the position to be hurt like I was before because I know what got me in the predicament in the first place; it's that they have a tendency to not do intimacy very well. So, we keep things lighter and more casual. I don't expect them to be or do what I once used to because their actions have proven that they are not ready to.

Still, I haven't totally shut the door because they aren't a bad person; they're really not. I own that I didn't establish certain boundaries and, also that I ignored certain signs that they lacked emotional intelligence and relational self-awareness at the time. By forgiving them, I don't see them as horrible or unredeemable. I see them as someone who simply shouldn't be as close to me as they once were. And you know what? Slowly, but surely, we're getting to being in the best place that we've ever been. Sure, time and us both growing play a direct role. Yet so does boundaries.

See, while bitterness puts up a barbed wire wall that is virtually unscalable, boundaries sets up a wooden fence that says, "Come this close until I say otherwise." And if the person who is on the receiving end of the boundary respects that, over time, oftentimes the boundaries shift. People with healthy boundaries are open to negotiation while bitter people never are. Bitter folks are too busy being annoyed, displeased, irritated, offended and vexed to consider being or doing anything else. Hmph. The sad thing is that it's pretty much only hurting them to be that way.

This is the kind of message that can be a, pardon the pun, bitter pill to swallow. But I promise you, if you become intentional about avoiding bitterness and setting healthy and realistic boundaries, you will be all the better for it. Disappointments will happen less. When they do occur, you'll learn from them easier. And the boundaries will keep you evolving rather than remaining stagnant. Bitterness is bitter. It's not worth it. If it's been your defense mechanism, for the sake of all that you're deserving of—please let it go.

Want more stories like this? Sign up for our newsletter here and check out the related reads below:

Why You Need To Grieve Your Past Relationship

The 10 Biggest Mistakes Women Make In Relationships

Should Someone Have To MAKE You Feel Loved?

6 Signs You're About To Let A Toxic Person (Back) Into Your Life

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ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

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