It was my last evening of training for my crisis line volunteer work. So, while this topic was brought up in the context of sexual violence advocacy work, the topic spoke to me with how it applies to relationships.
Our trainer drew a heart on the board and asked for things that we might reserve parts of our heart for. People called out Self-Love, Family, Friends, Work, Activism, Dancing, Spirituality, Romance, etc. She segmented the heart with lines and wrote each facet inside a segment. She then discussed how when we let a facet of our lives (in this instance, work or advocacy work; the implication being that we are essentially putting other people and their problems first) take over and allow our boundaries to be crossed, other pieces of our lives and things that we love are taken over and diminished. She started erasing the lines and the words of the other things that we reserve our hearts for. We start reserving less and less time and energy for other parts of our lives; we start giving less priority to other things in our lives that give us meaning and nourishment. Our self-care and ability to love ourselves lessens as our boundaries give way to this other thing (in this case, direct service advocacy and/or work). The lessen: keep your boundaries clear and stick to them so that you can take care of yourself.
This caught my attention because of the word “boundaries;” it is a word commonly used between J and I and in the open community. Tonight’s discussion gave me an opportunity to reflect on what boundaries are and what purpose they serve.
For me, a boundary (in a relationship) is something that I have for myself or something that I want in my relationship with J to establish expectations. The boundary can deal with an emotional, physical, sexual, or logistical (time, scheduling, financial, etc) aspect of a relationship. The goal of boundaries (for me) are often to alleviate anxiety around a new situation until that anxiety is reduced, to establish trust with new romantic partners, or to prioritize my primary relationship. For me, boundaries can be important in retaining my sense of what my primary relationship with J looks and feels like. J and I differ on these ideas a bit I think; I don’t think he needs the same kinds of boundaries and I am not so sure boundaries mean the same things to him.
Time is probably my biggest boundary right now, and has been for a while. Because time is finite and holds emotional meanings, it is difficult for me to think about spending less time with J than I otherwise would because another relationship was taking precedence. Another boundary is around emotional intimacy. While I have never said that I don’t want J to have a deeply emotional relationship with another partner (in fact, I make a point to verbalize that I want him to have this because it is important to him), it is the more difficult kind of intimacy for me to deal with him having. Therefore, I have had to express and relate my feelings of being challenged and I think that has had the effect of J moving more slowly with secondary partners. It has become somewhat of a “soft” boundary in this way, in which J knows that I need some building up of trust and comfort in order to relax and have my anxieties reduced around this new partner and relationship. J, on the other hand, has very few boundaries of his own; I’m not even sure I could pinpoint one. What happens when the boundaries of two people don’t match up perfectly? For example, in the case of J and I: I have a harder time with him having emotional intimacy with other partners and he doesn’t have any problem with me having emotional intimacy with others. I think what I have discovered for us is that we have to meet each other in the middle. Neither of us can have a satisfying relationship if we don’t try to compromise and work together. I have to work on pushing my boundaries slowly (through working on fears and insecurities) and he has to work on patience, reassurance, and working with me. I know for some couples, though, boundaries are set by one partner instead of both partners. While this works for some couples, it doesn’t work for us.
Rules, as opposed to boundaries, are to me things that establish codes of conduct or parameters around behaviors. I think we only have one main rule right now: condoms must be used with other partners during vaginal sex (and anal sex if we had anal sex with other partners). We have discussed how this rule could be changed in the future if one or both of us had a long-term partner. For now, though, and the foreseeable future, this is pretty non-negotiable. Other rules we have are related to keeping each other informed (“in the loop” as we like to say) about our interests in and attractions to other partners, so that we can each stay appraised of how those relationships are unfolding and what direction they are moving in.
So to bring this post back to my original thoughts: boundaries are important to establish within myself. Both in terms of the kind of work I am doing and engaging with to keep myself emotionally healthy, and also in terms of how I engage in my relationships. Boundaries are made apparent to me when I feel very uncomfortable about something. They don’t mean that they are untestable or can’t be pushed or recreated; they do tell me something about myself, about my insecurities or fears, and give me a chance to be explicit with J and others about my comfort levels, needs, and desires. I know from experience that when I let a boundary be crossed (because I don’t speak up when I am uncomfortable), I end up feeling used or violated or displaced or devalued in some way. I let someone else’s desires take extreme precedence over my own feelings. Boundaries should be more mutually discussed and managed (at least in our relationship). It is extremely important to make them clear to retain a sense of cooperation in my relationship and ownership of my feelings and experiences.