In Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs, and a head with two faces. When the gods split them apart, each half could do nothing but want the other, constantly lost and searching for their missing piece. As Plato writes in Symposium, “[Each] one longed for its other half, and so they would throw their arms about each other, weaving themselves together, wanting to grow together.”
By many people’s metrics, a relationship is measured by boundaries that have come down. The first kiss. Becoming exclusive. The first “I love you.” Meeting the parents. Moving in together. And usually with the idea that, eventually, two people’s lives become like one and there’s nothing left standing between them. Boundaries are one of the few relationships in our lives that we get into with the firm intention to one day end. Which is maybe why it’s so frustrating to be reminded that, for as much as we may want to take the next step, there are almost always four members in any relationship: us, our partner, and each of our boundaries slamming into each other. For as done as we might be with our own boundaries, our partner comes with their own baggage, quirks, walls, standards, and expectations for how they should be treated, too, all screaming to be listened to.
As we start off in any new relationship, that feeling of butterflies in our stomach is often tinged with the fear that one of them will land on a landmine. “How long should I wait to text?” “What do I say? Hi? Hey? Heyyy?” “How soon is too soon to invite them in?” The beginning of a relationship is practically built around navigating boundaries, both because we don’t want to risk crossing someone else’s and messing up a good thing, while at the same time feeling fully aware of our own emotional needs. Even understanding why we feel the way we do can be complicated, with boundaries, or lack of boundaries, coming from all different, highly personal parts of our lives, like –
- Conscious decisions (“I don’t kiss on the first date.”)
- Family norms (“Give your grandfather a hug, it’s rude not to.”)
- Cultural norms (“Don’t be a prude.”)
- Religious standards (“I’m waiting until marriage.”)
Boundaries are all about fulfilling our needs, but they don’t look the same from relationship to relationship (or even from partner to partner). It makes it easy to feel like “boundary” is just another word for “barrier.” Like they’re not as interested, or else not interested at all. Like this person who’s supposed to be with us for the ride is suddenly shoving a stick in our bike wheel.
Feeling like your partner’s boundaries spring up at unexpected times or don’t make sense when they show up can be confusing. Most of the time we’re not trying to push someone’s buttons or push them away, which is exactly why clear communication can be such an important and powerful tool in a relationship at any stage – especially new, unexplored relationships. Starting a conversation about boundaries means starting a conversation about the ways both members of the relationship expect to be treated, “[serving] as an outward expression of a person’s core values and beliefs and [reflecting] what they need to feel safe, respected, and loved.” Or, put more simply, Resource Group Clinical Director Maria Karolenko, LCPC, describes this discussion as laying the ground rules of “Yes, I accept this” and “No, I do not accept this.” This might encompass everything from –
- Personal Privacy (“I don’t want you going through my phone.”)
- Relationship Privacy (“I’m not comfortable with your friends knowing about that.”
- Work-Life Balance (“Please only call me at work when it’s an emergency.”)
- Conflict (“I’m not okay with you yelling like that.”)
Rather than push us apart, this conversation can help to improve a relationship. As we learn about our partner’s needs, we learn more about our own, too. What makes them them? What experiences have they been through? What are they looking for? What am I looking for? Our ability to accept them as they are, with the boundaries that come included, doesn’t just show compatibility, but respect for our deeper understanding of them and their needs.
We can see this in the rising popularity around affirmative consent. Like we agree to the Terms and Conditions when downloading an app or sign to accept an important package, affirmative consent requires a clear flow of communication that everyone is active, engaged, and interested. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center defines affirmative consent as “an affirmative agreement to engage in various sexual or non-sexual activities. Consent is an enthusiastic, clearly communicated, and ongoing yes. One can’t rely on past sexual interactions, and should never assume consent.” While initially criticized when it was first implemented on Antioch College’s campus in 1990, affirmative consent has since changed the ways young people are thinking about sex and the ways boundaries can inadvertently be crossed. In a poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post, 93% of college students believed that a “sexual activity when both people have not given clear agreement” either was or could potentially be sexual assault.
Instead of stiffly agreeing, like trying to date a lawyer while still in the courtroom, this affirms our partner’s boundaries, as well as our own. Freedom to say “yes” when we mean yes and “no” when we mean no creates honesty and trust between people, telling our partner, “I hope you feel worthy of your thoughts and feelings and personal space, because you are.”
As we learn more about our partner and the edges of their boundaries, though, we may find parts of ourselves that don’t overlap with them. For example: “My partner says she feels smothered by how often I contact her and that she only wants to talk on the phone every couple of days, but that makes me feel really distant and unhappy.” Who’s in the wrong? No one! All boundaries deserve to be respected, but this can also be the start of a bigger exploration for both partners around their boundaries, their emotional and physical needs, what makes them comfortable and uncomfortable, and if there are any areas of their comfort zones where they’ve gotten stuck. Marriage and family therapist Maysie Tift, MFT, describes this by saying, “When boundaries are too rigid or inflexible, problems can occur.” Regularly being aware of our boundaries gives us the chance to reassess how they fit into our current situation. This doesn’t mean making them too flexible, or even having no boundaries, but finding a version of ourselves (and creating a safe environment for our partner) where we can be open to the life we want.
Sometimes when we see boundaries going up, it feels like distance when what we want is to get closer. We worry that we won’t be as liked or loved as we can give back. One of the scariest moments in any relationship is when we realize that we’re not all one half of a perfect whole, looking for someone who understands us completely, like Plato said. We’re not the perfect fit for each other, we’re just two regular people who want to like and support one another through life’s ups and downs. But by doing that, our partner tells us, “Here I am; here are all my buttons; here’s how you can get me to leave when you’re done with me; here’s how you can hurt me whenever you want. Do with it what you will,” and they trust that we’ll use this information to protect them instead.
For some help getting started, Scarleteen has compiled a great checklist that you can use with your partner to learn about each other’s boundaries.
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