I came to a difficult realization recently: a boundary I thought I had was not, in fact, a boundary. You see I had what I thought was a solid set of limits around a particular safety issue. I stated them and they were accepted, but when it came time for me to enforce them, I faltered. Not because I was coerced or manipulated or otherwise challenged – I simply realized that if it came down to this set of limits forcing a difficult decision on my part, I wasn’t going to make it . . . and that was not a boundary, it was a want I was scared I wouldn’t find agreement on, so I issued an ultimatum to ensure I would.
My actual boundary was just a touch outside of my stated boundary, but enough outside to warrant a mea culpa.
I will tell you I had to swallow a pretty big lump of pride in order to make the resulting phone call that revoked the “boundary” before anyone had to make any big decisions on their end. And while I’m grateful I realized my mistake prior to it causing harm, it led me to examine a number of boundaries I consider myself in possession of.
If you bring up the topic of boundaries in a group of two or more people, you’ll get just as many explanations of what a boundary is in relation to a rule, or an agreement. Here’s my take:
- A boundary is an edict you have for your own behavior as a result of your individual limits
- A rule is an edict you attempt to levy against another in order to dictate their behavior
- Most rules can be reframed as boundaries, but the transfer of labor to the person who has the boundary makes rules a lot more attractive if you can get someone to agree to them!
Some folks find the following example helpful:
- Boundary: I will not be connected on social media to someone who is out about being polyamorous because anyone who sees my connection to them might surmise that I, too, am polyamorous and that is a hard limit for me
- Rule: my partners are not allowed to indicate on social media that they are polyamorous because folks might assume the same about me since we are connected
- Rule reframed as a boundary: if my partners choose to be out on social media about being polyamorous, I will remove our visible connections on that platform in order to keep myself safe
TL;DR – boundaries keep you safe and are solely under your control; rules transfer the responsibility for keeping you safe onto others
So why wasn’t my set of limitations a true boundary? I certainly formulated it to keep myself safe, it wasn’t challenged by anyone, and I was entirely able to enforce it by making a difficult decision . . . but I wasn’t willing to, and that’s the difference. If you aren’t willing to enforce your stated boundaries, then that’s not what they are. And that’s an important thing to know about yourself.
I don’t believe in rules for relationships. I believe that relationships find their balance in an environment where individuals are allowed to show up as they please and compatibility isn’t manipulated by a set of commandments each individual must adhere to. This doesn’t mean folks shouldn’t be nice to one another or not take each other into consideration, but it does mean that I don’t expect my partners not to do a thing just because I wish they wouldn’t. Not even if I really, really wish they wouldn’t. If it’s a safety issue for me, I can have a boundary, but that becomes my responsibility to follow through on.
Boundaries can be really difficult to enforce, so just because you feel like you’d struggle to follow through doesn’t mean it’s not a true boundary, it just means there is a lot at stake for you. That’s okay. Over the years I’ve had to hold firm and process a fuck ton of grief when my boundaries meant I had to walk away from people I did not want to leave. I also have experience with giving folks second chances when the boundary crossing occurred in a moment of weakness and the other individual acknowledged their role and resolved to do better. This doesn’t mean I didn’t have a true boundary; it meant I was willing to give someone close to me another chance to show up well in our relationship.
My boundaries keep me safe, because that’s what they’re designed to do.
What I learned about my boundaries in this most recent situation is that I’m better off if I view them as dealbreakers. My relationships are the deals I make with individuals for us to be together in some capacity, and my boundaries are not secrets. My boundaries need to be the things I absolutely will not accept in my life, and nothing more.
And that means I have to ask for the other things I want, and risk hearing a “no” in response. Uuuuuggghhhh . . . why can’t everyone just be scared to lose me and do everything I want instead? That would be GREAT!
Okay no, that’s awful – but take a look at what you may have floating out there as a “boundary” and ask yourself if perhaps you’re just counting on that very thing being true to keep someone else from doing a thing you simply don’t want them to do. And if you think there might be something like that in your relationship? Well, maybe just look at it. You might come to the conclusion that you don’t need it to exist as a stated dealbreaker, because really it’s just a want, and wants are okay to have.