A long time ago in a galaxy right next door to the one I’m in, I learned an important lesson about setting and enforcing boundaries. As a poly person, I’ve had ample opportunities to practice all I’ve learned in that regard. So today I’m writing about boundaries and how they differ from rules in relationships.
To me, the concept is fairly simple to grasp but complicated to implement because while the concept is pretty rational, implementation involves FEELINGS.
Here is what I know:
Boundaries are created when you advocate for yourself. Rules are borne of wanting to control others.
Now, I’m a mom. I have a fair amount of rules because the job of parenting necessitates it. Rules keep the people I’m responsible for safe. But I am not responsible for my partners. I am responsible for myself, and responsible to them.
I see it like this – I have expectations of my behavior when it comes to interacting with my partners. I’m honest, I mind my motivations, I own my personality flaws, and I honor their importance in my life to the best of my ability. These are the ways I feel responsible to them. I’m holding up my end of the bargain! But, in no way am I responsible for them. Not their behavior or their feelings or their Other Relationships.
So that means it’s not my job to make rules for them.
Boundaries? I have plenty!
And the really cool thing about taking the rule I want to make to appease my own insecurities and turning it into a boundary? Well… I usually realize just how silly it is. To illustrate I’ll address an issue I ran into with a partner about 20 years ago: the “I don’t want you to take your other partners to the places we go” conundrum. One of my boyfriends was upset I took another partner to his favorite restaurant. Here were the options available to him to address his concern:
Rule: “you’re not allowed to take other partners to the places we go together”
Boundary: “I don’t want to go to places you take your other partners”
I was unwilling to consider the rule, and he decided he didn’t want to limit himself.
So, instead of limiting the behavior of another person, boundaries limit what you’re willing to do. And in that process, you might discover you have no desire to limit yourself in that way. That’s usually how it shakes down for me. I dislike restrictions that stem from insecurity. I think rules that attempt to address insecurities tend to only be band aids for issues that need to be addressed, and in the end breed resentment.
Sometimes boundaries are necessary to keep us safe.
Safer sex is an oft-addressed topic in poly circles. Many couples choose to go barrier free, and as such, each of them is accepting some additional risk as their non-monogamous partners may engage in activities that could transmit STIs with others. The use of barriers between couples can look like rules or boundaries, also. In my own relationship, I’ve asked to be made aware of any mishaps with barriers or if a decision is made to go barrier free with another partner. That information will allow me to decide how I want to proceed with my body – if I want to continue to be barrier free, or if I want to choose to use barriers moving forward.
Rule: “you’re not allowed to go barrier free with other partners”
Boundary: “I want the ability to assess and address my own risks if you have other partners you go barrier free with”
Again, the boundary dictates my behavior while the rule is attempting to dictate the behavior of another.
So I’ll leave you with a parting exercise if this is something you’re interested in working on. Try taking a look at some of the rules you have in your partnerships and rephrasing them as boundaries for yourself instead to see if they still make sense. Caveat: beware the ultimatum – the “boundary” that includes a punishment for not getting your way. Those can be avoided by asking yourself what your motivations are – a thing that’s good to do all the time anyway.
Have a happy poly!