The more partners one has, the harder it is to mind everybody’s boundaries. — me.
Everybody talks about rules in poly relationships. To have them or not, what they should be, and how to actually follow them. I think it’s healthier to be mindful of our boundaries than to follow a set of rules.
What does it mean to be mindful of boundaries?
In order to be able to protect our boundaries, we need to know where exactly they are. If we know where the territory of what’s acceptable ends, any unsanctioned border crossing will set off an alarm.
How exactly can we find out where our boundaries are?
Feelings can help with this. Specifically, the emotions that we don’t like experiencing, like anger, sadness, anxiety, frustration, fear, shame, guilt, and disgust. Each of these emotions can signal a specific boundary that is being crossed:
Repulsion or disgust shows up when there is too much of something or someone. Or if something is getting too close to us — closer than we want.
This happened in one of my past relationships. I caught myself grimacing when I got a text from someone I was seeing about scheduling our next date. I realized we were seeing each other more than how often I would prefer, so I let him know that I’d like to switch to a less frequent meeting cadence. Catching that feeling of repulsion saved our relationship. At least prolonged it — we ended up breaking up for an unrelated reason a few months later.
The feeling of being annoyed or frustrated grows as something or someone gets closer to a boundary. Something doesn’t feel right, but we can’t tell exactly what it is.
This happened quite a bit when I was dating someone who had agreed to be able to exercise veto power if needed with their primary partner. I was dating them but, for some reason, couldn’t relax. It was getting worse over time — I became more and more frustrated. Finally, they said their partner didn’t want us to see each other anymore, and my feeling of frustration boiled over to the next level:
Anger and sadness show up after the boundary had already been crossed. These emotions show us when something happening does not align with our values.
I have been suppressing a lot of anger about a misbehaving child with a disability. I didn’t allow myself to feel it because of the following beliefs I was holding on to: “I’m not supposed to feel angry at a child because I am an adult and I am wiser,” “I am not supposed to feel anger towards a sick person, because it’s not their fault they are sick,” and “I should always be kind to children, no matter how horrible they behave and how much they cross my boundaries.” Then I realized that feeling angry is okay no matter who triggered the feeling. It’s what I decide to do from the anger place that could misalign with my ethics code, and I usually have enough restraint not to do anything unethical. Once I allowed myself to feel angry, the emotion came out in the form of tears and yelling. I immediately felt a lot better.
Shame and guilt are often an indicator that someone is trying to manipulate us. It’s as if that person is redirecting our anger at them for crossing our boundaries towards ourselves. We start thinking that it wasn’t something they did but something we did to deserve whatever happened that crossed our boundaries. If, after checking in with ourselves, we still don’t feel like we did anything that doesn’t align with our values, then it is indeed a manipulation.
There’s a Jewish saying — if you want to feel guilty — call your mother. I am lucky that my mom is very understanding, yet sometimes she still finds a way to make me feel guilty. She’ll say things like, “Are you sure you can’t make it to the family dinner on Sunday? Even your sister is coming all the way from Alaska. I guess family is that important to her…” I immediately start feeling guilty. When I’m calm and aware enough to catch myself there, I immediately know that what is actually happening is mom misses me and wants to see me. She can’t say it straight out or doesn’t believe that it would be enough to make me show up, so she uses manipulation. Then I say something like, “Mom, I miss you too, but I already have plans on Sunday. How about lunch on Wednesday instead?”
But what can we do if we’ve suppressed these feelings for so long that we stopped noticing them?
In my case, when I suppressed anger at that disabled child for so long, the key was to notice it. Once I did, I could allow myself to feel it. It’s okay to feel angry or sad. It’s okay to feel repulsed. These emotions cannot destroy or break anything if we simply experience them. It’s what we decide to do next that can be catastrophic. Often people skip the awareness of emotions and go straight into reacting from that angry space which leads to less than pleasant consequences. Emotions are actually very useful and healthy — they are the internal compass that helps us navigate the murky waters of what’s ethical, acceptable for us, and aligned with our true values and desires.
If it’s so hard that we can’t seem to notice when we feel some emotion at all, it might help to find a list of different emotions and take turns remembering how each felt in the past.
Lastly, it’s important to slow down and shift the focus to the present moment. When we spend more time in the now, it’s easier to notice what’s happening with our feelings.
What helps me come back to the present moment is asking myself, at random times throughout the day, this question: what am I feeling right now? I even have an alarm set that goes off every couple of hours to remind me about it.
Once we learn to recognize our boundaries, the next step is to protect them.
In a poly relationship especially, awareness of our emotions and, consecutively, boundaries being crossed is crucial. Without it, we can’t communicate our needs to our partners. And if we don’t communicate our needs, it will lead to exponentially growing frustration. Needs are boundaries, too, in a way — it’s something we have to meet to feel wholesome.
Once we learn to recognize our boundaries, the next step is to protect them. The only way I can think of to protect them is to communicate what they are and what would happen if they get crossed.
For example, I have a boundary around safety during play. It sounds like this: I will not have sex with you for three months and a clear STD test if you play with someone else in an unsafe manner. Of course, I also have a definition of what “unsafe manner” means.
Another boundary I have is my need for quiet time. It’s important to express and protect it with kids especially. I say, “I need to be alone for the next sixty minutes to be the loving mommy that you know I am. Please don’t interrupt my alone time. Otherwise, the sixty minutes will reset.”
I hope my examples were helpful in recognizing and protecting your boundaries. If you have any other tips — please share them in the comments.