Polk folk tend to talk lot about relationship agreements, rules, and boundaries. Of the three I join Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickett in preferring boundaries. Unlike agreements and rules, boundaries are an internal matter. You decide what you are and are not willing to accept, and disassociate yourself from anyone who does not respect those boundaries. Unlike agreements and rules, boundaries are not imposed on others. Today I’m going to talk about boundaries a bit.
This isn’t a relationship blog. I’ve steered hard away from just about everything having to do with making poly relationships work, focusing instead on the way poly relationships impact the rest of life. So you might ask why I’m going to dive into a topic that for many is at the center of making relationships work.
But who said relationship boundaries are the only ones worth talking about?
What I’m calling “relationship boundaries” for lack of a better word, are the boundaries regarding what we will and won’t accept in a relationship. They cover things like STI risk (I will not have sex with you without a condom, and I will not have sex with you if you do not use a condom with your other partners), personal definitions of cheating (if you start a new relationship and lie to me about it, I can’t be in a relationship with you), and what we need need from each other (I need to feel special to you, if I don’t feel like I am special to you, I’ll be constantly afraid that you’ll leave, and I won’t be in a relationship where I’m constantly afraid).
Relationship boundaries are vitally important to poly relationships (or any relationship), but I’m willing to bet that everyone has other boundaries. Daily life boundaries like “I need to keep the kitchen sink clean or I get stressed,” “I keep kosher, so I won’t go out to a non-kosher restaurant with my friends,” or “I won’t be friends with anyone who makes fun of my hobbies.” Like relationship boundaries, these boundaries all different thing we need to be healthy in our day-to-day lives. Some boundaries may be more critical than others, some may be less firm boundaries and more what kinky folk call “soft limits,” things that you don’t like/mess with you a bit, but are okay once in a while with some prior discussion.
These are the kinds of boundaries we don’t really talk about in poly discussions, but can have a huge impact on our lives. Someone who has PTSD will have a lot of boundaries in terms of what they can and can’t deal with without being triggered. Someone who is an observant Jew will have a shitton of boundaries regarding what they can and cannot do on the Sabbath. Someone who is an atheist may have boundaries regarding getting involved with deeply religious people. The thing is, to someone on the outside, these boundaries may seem like personal preferences or likes and dislikes. It is only as we get to know people that we learn that they don’t buy Barilla pasta—and the reason isn’t the taste, but a long standing personal protest to Barilla’s corporate rejection of LGBT rights. We know that when we visit Joyce we can never leave our dishes in the sink, but it only seems like an odd personal quirk until someone forgets one day and she has a panic attack.
Boundaries like this are rarely relationship-breakers unless they are consistently disregarded. However sometimes we need to talk about them. When we do, I never here anyone use the word “boundary.” We struggle to explain and justify our needs, because it isn’t enough to just say “please don’t…” or “I can’t…” when someone does or asks something. If we don’t have a reason why we are being rude or peculiar or a party-pooper. Then we blame ourselves for not being willing or able to cross our boundaries, or we do cross our boundaries to make everyone else feel better and suffer for it later.
Boundary is a beautiful word. “I’m sorry, this is a boundary for me.” That’s all we need to say. Whether we are talking with a new date, long term poly partner, friend or family member. With that simple phrase we can say “this is important to me, and I need you to respect that.” We don’t need to explain anymore unless we want to. We can wait to explain when we are in a better place (physically or emotionally), or we can not explain until we know them better. Either way, just like relationship boundaries, they can respect these boundaries, or we can step back from them. After all, just because my not eating pasta with sauce sounds silly to you, doesn’t mean I need to subject myself to a possible flashback every time I go over to your house for dinner. I can just stop going to your house, and you can wonder why I don’t “like” you anymore at your leisure.