When my kids and I moved into a 38-foot converted bus on a commune for a few years, we had 240 square feet of living space. My physical boundaries became tiny! All of my movements became tighter as my body adapted to living in a minuscule space. It took a couple of months of head-bumping and hip-bashing, but I learned to navigate precisely and efficiently within a very small radius.
When we left the bus and moved into a sprawling house in San Francisco, I noticed acutely the feeling of ‘too much space.’ I felt ill-confined, like I was wearing clothes that were way too big. I didn’t know how to fill that much space with my movement. Like a goldfish in a small bowl, my body had adapted to smaller physical boundaries Re-expanding my personal space was uncomfortable. It was a couple of months before I could walk down the middle of the hall, without pressing myself to the edge of the wall. My physical boundaries defined the way I experienced my life.
For many of us, our emotional boundaries, or lack thereof, define how we experience our partners and our relationships.
What are boundaries?
Basically, boundaries are the edges of our experience. Your skin is the boundary to your body. Your door is the boundary to your house. The amount of time you can stay at a family gathering and feel well is your emotional boundary.
Boundaries welcome in what we want in our lives, and keep out what we don’t want. They are a tool of discernment. They are a strategy we use to keep ourselves safer, and to tend our emotional well-being. Boundaries help us be adults, as we care for our desires and needs, and create the lives and relationships that serve our highest potential.
There are many different types of boundaries: physical, energetic, time, space, emotional, and sexual, among others. In order to understand boundaries, it’s important to know the sensations of having them in our bodies. It’s hard to know what we have not felt.
For example, babies love the sensation of being bundled: it makes them feel safe and contained. Adult boundaries can do the same for us.
The most important boundary any of us have is our capacity for saying “No.”
If you grew up in a reasonably well family, you learned that you could say “no” and still be loved and feel like you belong.
If you grew up in a household where saying “no” got you in trouble, or was ignored, or you survived an abusive or traumatic childhood, your most basic boundary was violated. You may have learned that it’s not safe to say no, or it’s futile because it doesn’t get honored anyway.
In my somatic sex therapy practice, I frequently meet couples who are close to ending their relationships. What often comes to light is that one or both of them do not really believe that they get to say “no” to their partner. They don’t believe that they get to stand up for their needs, even if their partner is unwilling or unable to meet those needs.
Someone may feel obligated to meet their partner’s requests, or go along with their partner’s desires, even if they don’t want that thing at all.
(Here’s where consent as a clear binary “yes” or “no” system becomes confusing. Because if you ask me to do something, and I don’t want to but I say yes anyway, because I don’t believe I can say ‘no’ to you, am I consenting?)
When boundary violations happen over and over, blame and resentment eventually build up. And it is resentment that, over time, sucks the lifeblood out of relationships.
As an adult in consensual relationship, when I do not say ‘no’ to what I do not want, I become complicit in the violation of my own boundaries. I am allowing my protective barrier to be breached, by not clearly refusing that which does not serve me. I get it; It’s so easy to wish that my partner could read my mind and honor boundaries I haven’t verbalized. And it’s unfair to expect partners to do this.
Part of being an emotionally-responsible adult is learning where your boundaries are, and verbally communicating them. It is also about doing the work of honoring everybody’s boundaries; your own, and those of your lovers, friends, parents, children, partners, co-workers etc. It is frequently easier to respect other’s stated boundaries than it is to verbalize our own.
It is fair to expect that adults with whom we share consensual relationship honor the boundaries we verbally state.
Chances are, if I set a verbal boundary, and someone disregards it again and again, my person-hood is not being well-held within that relationship. It is then my responsibility to take action that supports my well-being. It might not be the most popular opinion, but here it is: In adult, egalitarian relationships, your boundaries are yours to uphold. If someone isn’t respecting a boundary you have stated, it’s your job to protect yourself.
I know it would be nice to say your boundary once, and then everyone respects it in perpetuity. And the thing about boundaries is that we don’t just get to set them, and be done. They have to continually be reinforced. We have to be willing to stand up for our boundaries. We have to be willing to reinforce the consequences of violating our boundary. For example, “If you continue to touch me in that way, I will not have sex with you anymore.”
Often once we set a boundary, folks will initially, or periodically, need to “check” and make sure it’s still there. This is especially true with folks who struggle with their own boundaries; if you are willing to compromise yours, it can be validating for them. Especially in the beginning, folks can react to our setting of personal boundaries as an affront. As we carefully tend our boundary, they tend to shift their freak out, once they realize our boundary is there to stay.
Just like a farmer who has to tend to their fences so the cows don’t get out, tending to our boundaries is part of our mental hygiene.
In my experience, the best part about learning boundaries has been the sense of personal agency I feel. If I don’t like something that’s happening in a relationship, I can name it and either it changes, or I move away from it. Learning to have boundaries has set me free.
If you’d like to learn more about boundaries, like how to know where yours are, how to articulate them to your partner, and how to stay connected while doing so, I’m teaching a 3-part class starting this month for lesbian and queer couples. You can participate in-person in San Francisco. You can also participate virtually from anywhere. We’ll learn and practice boundary skills for connection, so that your relationship can thrive.