Refining Personal Boundaries

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.

Photo by Kev Seto on Unsplash

The Heart is a Muscle

The heart is a muscle.

That’s a statement of obvious anatomy, but I think of the metaphorical heart as a muscle as well. One that flexes and contracts with a smooth strength as it navigates the emotional boot camp that non-monogamy can be at times. When you’re keeping pace to it’s beat and the endorphins are flowing, it’s a blissfully easy piece of equipment to have. But many of us feel one premature ventricular contraction away from uncharted territory.

If we dare to consider our emotional strength similar to our physical strength, we can begin to look at ways to maintain it in much the same way.

In non-monogamy, sometimes we can fall into a pattern of complacency where it’s too easy to ask someone else to do the work for us while these important emotional muscles simply atrophy from non-use. Asking partners to manage our pain points seems so appealing in the moment, but it does nothing to alleviate the pain long term when what that spot really needs is to be touched, worked on, stretched, and developed. 

My body has been through a lot. I know where my pain points are, and how I’m supposed to take care of them. I know which side is weaker, and which is stronger. The recommended stretches, optimal duration of workouts, professional advice, and healthy habits – all of these are things I’m aware of. Sometimes, I even avail myself of them in such a way that I make actual progress!

The heart is no different, because the heart is a muscle.

My heart has been through a lot. I know where it’s pain points are, and how I’m supposed to take care of them. I know when I feel weak and fall short of my own standards for emotional maturity, and I know where I am strong enough to feel good and stable and safe. When I take the time to stretch a little further, I am rewarded with more comfort in that flexibility the next time. The efforts expended in areas of emotional growth are balanced best with self-care in appropriate doses. My therapist provides professional advice during these workouts. My healthy habits make all of these things more possible.

When I stop taking care of my body, it does things that make me unhappy. I lose strength and my muscles atrophy. I lose my resolve to progress. I compare the weaker version of myself to the one I could have been if I’d kept up with my program. It’s harder to feel good when I don’t do the things I know make me feel that way.

The heart is no different, because the heart is a muscle.

When I stop asking myself to work on the areas of me that need to be built up in order to support the whole of me, other areas overcompensate. If I neglect my mental health, my compulsions will step in and manage my thoughts for me. If I relax my boundaries to make others happy, the part of me that once only had to check for cracks in the foundation now has to pick up the pieces and rebuild with compromised materials. But when one part gets stronger, the areas that had to take up the slack before can go back to their original jobs.

Recently I’ve come out on the other side of some intense emotional work, and I’m beginning to see the payoff. It’s like flexing an impressive bicep after a year of focused training – there is a sense of pride, but also a genuine strength that informs how a body, or a heart, moves through the world. 

Finding time and expending energy to keep my body healthy and strong can sometimes be a chore. It doesn’t always feel great in the moment. I get sore. I get tired. I have days when I just don’t want to and the couch looks so tempting with perhaps a quart of ice cream. But I’m better for sticking to it – stronger, more stable, and far more confident in my abilities.

And the heart is no different, because the heart is a muscle.