ANNIE FRAZIER HALLADAY
Setting strong boundaries with people is the key to good relationships. Right?
And when things go wrong, that bad thing happened to us because we didn’t do a good enough job enforcing our boundaries. Right?
That’s the way I used to think about boundaries, which seems to be pretty common. It implies that ‘putting up’ boundaries is the key to getting others to treat you the way you want to be treated. If someone is being controlling or problematic, acting entitled to your time or emotional availability, feels more strongly about you than you do about them, it’s your job to set a boundary with them and it’s their job to respect it.
And then what? If you ‘set a boundary’ and they continue to cross it, what now? You can, again, assert your boundaries with them. And then… do it all over again, I guess.
We talk about boundaries as a tool we can use to prevent others from hurting us. This implies that deep down, we believe that boundaries can in some way control or influence the behavior of others.
Asserting our boundaries will somehow get them to stop doing that thing that they’re doing that we don’t like. We could have a good relationship if they would just listen to my boundaries and behave in the way that I want them to! Setting boundaries is the key to others treating us in the way we want to be treated… right?
Except that people do what they do. People bumble, don’t pay attention and accidentally overstep. People are sometimes malicious and intentionally run roughshod over our boundaries. People run into boundaries that they didn’t know were there, or forget about them. Miscommunications happen. Power dynamics at play can cause others to repeatedly cross our boundaries because they face little to no consequences for it.
But... at the end of the day, we can’t control the behaviors of others- not even a little bit. People are going to cross our boundaries. It’s not okay, but it’s probably going to happen. The important part is how you honor your boundaries when they do.
Imagine you’re driving and another car pulls out dangerously close in front of you. Do you set a boundary to protect yourself from harm by:
A) Continuing to drive at full speed toward them. Expect them to notice the imminent collision and get themselves out of your way. After all, they are in the wrong and it’s their job to respect your boundary.
B) Hit the brakes. Accept that you can’t force them to stop pulling in front of you- and recognize that you don’t know if they even realize that you’re about to collide. Take control of what you can in the situation by slowing your own car down. Maybe change lanes so that you can get some distance from them.
Option A certainly helps us feel like we’re in the right. It feeds into our sense of moral justification, and allows a great outlet for blaming the incompetent people around us. Option B might not give us that same satisfying feeling of moral outrage, but the nice part is that we end up only expending energy to control what we can (ourselves), and not expending energy trying to control or, worse, blaming ourselves for failing to control what we can’t (others).
Reframed, Option A is the “hey you can’t do that to me!” boundary model that operates from an expectation of control. Option B is the “this is what I’m choosing to do now” boundary model that operates from a place of personal responsibility.
Ultimately, I think personal responsibility is the better option for avoiding a car crash.
If you’re not sure what kind of boundaries you’ve been setting, ask yourself these questions: Is the boundary setting you’ve been doing making your life better or easier? When you set a boundary, are you expecting it will lead to a change in someone else, or a change in yourself?
What I’ve learned is that good boundaries aren’t about other people’s behavior. Boundaries are about owning our own behavior. If they’re about finding where I end and you begin that means recognizing the difference between things that are my responsibility (me) and the things that are not under my control (you).
Once I started thinking about boundaries as the ways I choose to respond when things out of my control are causing me discomfort or harm, my life has gotten a lot easier.
I found a deep sense of empowerment came with this shift in my understanding- I feel more in charge of my own life and the way that my interactions with others play out. Recognizing that I can’t use boundaries to exert control or influence over others has made my life much less dramatic and traumatic- because I’ve stopped expecting others will do what I want them to. When I talk to people about how their behavior has affected me, the conversation is a lot less stressful because the only thing I'm expecting to get out of it is a sense of peace for myself- not a change in them.
Bad things still happen (again- people do what people do), but I feel empowered to choose what happens next and have a deep sense of agency and ability to use the power I do have to decide how I will respond, which is something I never felt when setting boundaries before.
Understanding boundaries is also a vital part of non-monogamous dynamics. When you’re starting from scratch and not following the script of monogamy, the burden to communicate is much higher. Practicing ethical non-monogamy brings out all your insecurities and patterns. I think they are the same insecurities that exist across all relationship types, but a monogamous dynamic can allow them to hide under the surface for a long time.
A common question that comes up with newly polyamorous people is this: What happens if my partner starts dating ____? (Friends, coworkers, someone I don't like, etc). Wouldn’t it be better to set boundaries on who we can and can’t date, and how deeply we're allowed to get involved with other partners, in order to avoid difficult feelings and to protect our relationship? This is sometimes called Veto Power- the power to Veto your partner’s romantic choices because they make you uncomfortable, or in an effort to protect the existing relationship.
While plenty of people do this, for me, this does not look like healthy boundary setting (and to be honest, I rarely see Veto Power sparing anyone from discomfort or breakups). To me, it looks more like an attempt to exert control over your partner in order to avoid your own uncomfortable feelings, including the discomfort that would come with parting ways.
To me, healthy boundary setting in that situation might look more like this:
“I’m finding that I’m uncomfortable with you seeing this particular person, because of X reason. In order to feel more comfortable with this situation, I’m going to set a boundary here by taking the time to do what I need to do in order to keep myself healthy, feeling safe and happy by doing these things…”
These things might look like seeking out extra support from friends if I need it when my partner is out on a date with them, or planning to be out of the house when they’re here together. It might look like making a plan to talk through the reasons for my discomfort or asking to work through them together. It might look like getting to know the other person better or in a different context, or even disengaging them for a little while until I’m ready to have a conversation that might be uncomfortable. It might look like choosing to step back certain aspects of my relationship with my partner until a mutual comfort is regained.
In navigating polyamorous relationships, specifically, here are some other examples of boundary setting that I’ve been through:
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Looking at boundaries from the lens of personal responsibility can be scary. It acknowledges the truth that ultimately, we are not in control of what happens to us.
But it can also create an easier life. When two people who are setting boundaries only for themselves, come together to make relationship agreements, it becomes very simple. When both people are acting from an empowered, non-controlling place, creating relationship agreements can be as simple as speaking those boundaries out loud and then working together to create a solution that works for you both.
Practicing boundary setting from this place of personal responsibility may even enable you to not need specific relationship agreements and instead lean into trusting each other to honor and communicate individual boundaries as they arise.
For me, this kind of empowered boundary setting has helped to shift my relationship discussions from a battle- each person fighting for the version of the relationship they feel is better- to a more gentle ‘catching up’ on where you’re both at, what the relationship looks like these days, and what you’re each feeling and needing.
Ask yourself: what would it be like to not feel like relationships are a battleground? What would it be like to feel empowered instead of victimized, even when someone has done you wrong? What would it be like to feel in charge of your interactions, rather than provoked into them? What would it be like to feel an inner sense of agency, even in the face of oppression or harm?
What would it feel like to love yourself enough to respect your own boundaries? To treat yourself the way you want to be treated by others.
Go on, I think you’ll like it.