We’ve all been told repeatedly that we should establish healthy boundaries, but how many of us know exactly how and where those boundaries get established?
And what’s the difference between a “boundary” and a “rule,” which so many people (including me) will tell you are less than ideal in a healthy relationship?
For a while, my standard answer has been “Boundaries are what you set on yourself, and rules are what you place on someone else.” It seemed more or less clear to me, until a recent discussion started poking some holes in that possibly overly-simplistic response.
“Then it’s my boundary that I only be in a relationship with someone who sleeps in my bed every night,” someone responded to the idea that telling their polyamorous partner that they were not allowed to have sleepovers with their other partner was a rule, not a boundary.
“Well, technically…yeah. That’s a boundary. But will you only selectively enforce it when your partner wants to sleep at another partner’s house? Or does it also apply to work trips, or spending the night at a family member’s home?” That’s just a rule in boundary’s clothing.
“Enforcing a boundary sounds a lot like an ultimatum,” someone else suggested.
And yeah, they were right. In the example they gave, it kind of did sound like someone was saying “Do it my way or I’m breaking up with you.”
My head was swimming, trying to make sense of it. My aunt, on the topic of love, has always said “when you feel, you know…” and I was starting to think that the concept of boundaries was as nebulous as trying to define the concept of love.
Then, another person posted a request for some assistance in defining their personal relationship boundaries in order to disrupt a pattern they’d recognized in their relationships that was causing them some grief. They wanted to avoid getting intimately attached to people whose relationship goals were not aligned with theirs, but didn’t know how to set those boundaries.
Well…that was easy. I went into a long, bulleted list of the boundaries I’d set when I’d reached that same conclusion nearly four years ago. As I listed them, one by one, my process and purpose for setting them became a little more clear.
That’s what led to the epiphany. The final understanding of how I know if something is a boundary or a rule, and why having boundaries is so important to my having healthy relationships.
I believe that boundaries help us prioritize compatibility over attraction and/or desire. Where a rule tries to force someone to conform to your desires, a boundary only invites in those who are willing and able to meet you where you are.
The big thing for me was recognizing that it isn’t about right or wrong or blame or good or bad – it is all about compatibility. I had to let go of the fallacy that I am the perfect partner for everyone. That is word-for-word something I used to believe about myself. “I can be the perfect partner for anybody because I’m willing to be whatever they want me to be.”
That was me, living a boundary-free and regularly miserable existence just five years ago.
Today, I know that’s not true. I’m a terrible partner for a lot of people. Amazing as I am, I’m not a good fit for every charming guy that shows an interest in me. It’s not about judging them, but about recognizing that we’re not on the same page. It’s okay if they want casual sex. It’s okay if they want to be able to go on a date with every crush that piques their interest.
A boundary is not about limiting another person, but accepting and honoring that compatibility with the person you desire is not guaranteed. In reality, I don’t think my boyfriend thinks of any of the things I consider my “boundaries” as rules he has to follow. For him, they are all the ways he relates to me naturally.
That’s what compatibility feels like.
Not three days later, in yet another group, someone else helped me solidify this understanding by sharing about their own struggle about a casual friend who they were very much attracted to, but who continued to push at and try to break down their sexual boundaries.
I realized that I recognized that impulse as something I used to experience somewhat regularly. The prioritization of desire and attraction over compatibility is what led me to every single heartbreak I’ve ever experienced. And that’s not to mean that I’ll never experience heartbreak again as long as I have boundaries…
But it’s a little like bug spray, right? It’s the difference between one sneaky little mosquito getting through and waking up with bites all over your calves and ankles.
So – how do you identify and enforce your boundaries?
Finding mine started with examining the patterns of my past unsatisfying relationships and digging beneath the surface to understand deep down what it was I needed, and how it could be cultivated in my next relationship.
Some questions to ask:
- Why do I feel crappy?
- Why did that person’s actions or words make me feel crappy?
- What have I interpreted from this person’s actions or words about how they feel about me?
- What is it about me that reacts this way to what they said or did?
- Is this a thing I want to change or address about myself?
- What words would I use to describe how this situation is making me feel about myself or about how this person feels about me?
- How do I want to feel?
- Is that a need?
- What rules for myself would I have to set in order to support that need?
And that’s the thing. One of the boundaries I set using this process was the declaration that I would only rope bottom for a partner who set an intentional time to play with me. Years ago, I’d already set the boundary of only playing with people I considered friends. This new boundary came about after a pattern had emerged of my play partners telling me “well, if you’re there and I’m there and I have time, I’ll tie you.” Meanwhile, they didn’t appear to have any trouble setting dates in advance with other partners to “do a thing” on a particular night. They were expecting that I’d be there, and could fill in an open slot if someone else cancelled.
That made me feel undervalued. It made me feel like a benchwarmer.
Did I still want to tie with them? Hell yeah, I did! These were great rope partners, skilled in their craft, with whom I always had a great time! But their approach to tying with me was not compatible with making me feel how I wanted to feel about myself.
Of course, I let them know. I let everyone know that I enjoyed playing with them and the next time they want to play, all they had to do is reach out to me in advance and schedule the time.
It’s been three and a half years. The only one who contacted me to schedule time is now my romantic partner. I’m still friends with the others, but I am no longer tying with them. I am also not feeling like a benchwarmer. I don’t think any of them are particularly heartbroken over not tying with me anymore either. The power to do so had been given to them. All they had to do was text me “Can we tie next Thursday?” and they’d likely have gotten a response in the affirmative.
Perhaps when our tying relationship had first started, we were on the same page about what we wanted – but somewhere along the way, our needs became divergent and I learned to stop letting my desire for rope time with awesome rope tops take priority over my feeling good about myself.
This will happen with your new relationships as well as your long-term, existing ones. It is applicable to romantic, sexual, casual, familial, work, and amicable relationships. Setting boundaries can help erase blame and promote autonomy and personal responsibility without creating resentment. As soon as you start realizing that you are no longer happy the majority of the time in your relationship, it may be time to do a little reflection; and whether or not the effort to regain compatibility can be accomplished without force.
Because, as I’ve said in this other post about the concept of rules:
If you’d be happy with the bird in the cage whose wings you gotta keep clipping, then you do you.
I wouldn’t be, neither as owner nor bird.