Much unhappiness and confusion happens in relationships when people disagree on what each person owes to the other and what control a person has the right to exercise over themselves or someone else. When couples (or throuples, or polycules of any configuration) in my office are in conflict over one thing or another, I often find myself explaining healthy individual boundaries.
Shortly into this topic, one of the clients is sure to object and ask, “But in a relationship, aren’t there some things we have a right to expect from the other person?” Yes, there are. But some expectations are healthy and some are unhealthy. The challenge becomes explaining what is healthy and what is not, and why.
In working to clarify my thoughts on this, and researching available information, I’ve learned that there is very little good, clear information out there on what are healthy individual boundaries in a relationship and even less available information for poly relationships.
One of the good sources I have found is Mark Manson’s article called “The Guide to Strong Boundaries.”
Manson says that good boundaries mean “taking responsibility for your actions and emotions while NOT taking responsibility for the actions and emotions of others.” He also says that good, strong boundaries are essential for a clear personal identity and healthy self esteem. I agree with both of these points.
A good source for poly relationships is Chapter 9 in the book More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory. In this chapter, titled “Boundaries,” the authors state that “poor personal boundaries can be damaging to the self.” They also state that, “If we make others responsible for our own emotions, we introduce coercion into the relationship, and coercion erodes consent.”
But what does this really mean?
If being in a relationship with poor personal boundaries introduces coercion and erodes consent, then allowing ourselves to be in that situation without defending our boundaries, without putting a stop to that coercion, is damaging to the self.
Therefore, I believe it is VERY important that we learn what we have a right to, what we are responsible for, what our boundaries are, and how to defend them.
I believe healthy boundaries begin with personal rights. This is not an exhaustive list, but rather what seems to me to be important for negotiating healthy relationships.
Each person has the right to:
full bodily and sexual autonomy
to be safe from physical, mental and emotional violence or the threat of violence
to have access to adequate food, water, air, and sleep
to the privacy of their thoughts and personal space
to determine their own interests and values
to decide how they want to spend their time and energy
to decide with whom they wish to be friends and whom they love
to be spoken to respectfully and treated with dignity
to express themselves, as long as while doing so, they speak to others respectfully and treat others with dignity
to control and to protect their possessions, livelihood, money and assets
to consent (or not consent) to be in a physical space, to interact, to have sex, and to engage in relationships
to withdraw those consents at any time
And, they have a right to the information needed with which to engage in informed consent provided in a timely, clear and honest manner
It is clear that these rights require certain behaviors from other people. In order to be in a healthy relationship, we need the other people in our lives to respect our rights. Which means:
They respect our full bodily and sexual autonomy
They do not threaten to or engage in physical, mental and emotional violence toward us
They do not interfere with our access to adequate food, water, air, and sleep
They respect our right to the privacy of our thoughts and personal space
The respect our right to determine our own interests and values
They respect our right to decide how we want to spend our time and energy
They respect our right to decide with whom we wish to be friends and whom we love
They speak to us respectfully and treat us with dignity, even when they are upset
They listen as we express ourselves, as long as while doing so we speak to them with respect and treat they with dignity
They respect our right to control and to protect our possessions, livelihood, money and assets
They respect our right to consent (or not consent) to be in a physical space, to interact, to have sex, and to engage in a relationship
They respect our right to withdraw those consents at any time
And, they provide the information we need with which to engage in informed consent in a timely, clear and honest manner.
To quote More Than Two, “The key with boundaries is that you always set them around those things that are yours: your body, your mind, your emotions, your time, [and] intimacy with you.”
With personal rights, come responsibilities.
First, of course, we have a responsibility to provide the things in the above list to others when we engage in relationships them. This is the heart of ethical interactions and ultimately healthy relationships.
But there are other responsibilities, too.
We are responsible for knowing ourselves. Knowing what we want, who we are, what we need, and where we want our lives to go. This includes knowing what is important to us and what we will not, or should not, compromise on in order to engage in a relationship.
We are responsible for developing the emotion regulation skills – that allow us to calm ourselves in difficult or upsetting situations so that we can continue to speak in a respectful manner, treat others with dignity, and refrain from violating their personal rights – to be able to hear our partners express themselves, even if the truth is difficult or painful to hear. And, to have the skills to accept their truth, even if it means we will have to give up something we want.
We are responsible for developing the courage to provide honest, timely, clear information when it is relative to their ability to give informed consent, even if we believe or fear our partner will withdraw their informed consent if we do.
And it is our responsibility to know our rights and identify our boundaries and defend them. It is our responsibility whom we allow into our lives, and what behaviors we accept from others, and it is our responsibility to shape our lives by pursuing the things we want and actively rejecting the things we don’t want. This does not absolve controlling people from blame. When people are manipulative or controlling, especially if they are threatening or bullying in their controlling behaviors, they are perpetrating a form of violence, and they are morally and ethically wrong.
The concept of personal rights helps clarify the concept of boundaries. In Part 2, I’ll explain what we mean when we say, “You are responsible for your own emotions and actions.” And why, “making someone else responsible for your emotions introduces coercion into a relationship.”
Alexandra Tyler is an LGBTQ, poly, kink, sex worker supportive mental health therapist in Atlanta. She specializes in treating trauma/PTSD, depression, anxiety, self-esteem issues and teaching relationship communication. Twitter @ATylerLCSW, Facebook @AlexandraTylerLCSW.CCH. CultivatingJoy.net
This article orginally ran in Q magazine. Read the full issue below: