What are boundaries and why is it important to have them?
Boundaries are limits in a relationship that your friends, partners (and relatives) need to observe. They can be simple or complicated. They can address different aspects of a relationship – social, emotional, or physical, for example. And there can be different levels of boundaries that you set.
In the kink community, boundaries are set before a consensual relationship starts. The different levels are “hard no,” “yes,” and “maybe.” It’s easy to understand what hard no and yes mean – that the person simply will not perform certain acts or gives voluntary consent to them. The maybe category is a bit trickier. These are acts that the person is willing to consider or try, but hasn’t definitely either agreed to or ruled out. That’s why partners have “safe words” or other signals that indicate when a maybe isn’t working for them and they need to slow down or stop.
Boundaries are useful in nonsexual relationships too, and again have categories like hard no, maybe, and yes. For example, in romantic relationships I have a hard no against physical abuse, and I communicate that to all my partners. If one of them hits, slaps, or otherwise gets physically violent with me, that’s the end of the relationship. No explanations, no excuses, no second chances. I’m out of there. I’ve made my husband aware of this boundary and he respects it. He’s never crossed that boundary.
Unfortunately, at the time I established that boundary about physical abuse, I didn’t know about the concepts of verbal abuse and emotional abuse. In one significant relationship, I put up with these for quite some time. Verbal abuse and emotional abuse are two of the tactics of gaslighting. I put up with those for far too long before I was able to say, “I’m out of here.”
Dan once described boundaries to me using the metaphor of cookies. Suppose someone offers you a cookie and says, “Here’s a delicious chocolate chip cookie I made just for you. Yum, yum. Try it.” Only when you do try it do you discover that the cookie isn’t a chocolate chip cookie at all. Instead, it’s a shit cookie – something you definitely don’t want to eat. You set up a boundary about shit cookies. Just because someone offers you a shit cookie, you don’t have to eat it. And you really don’t have to say, “Yum, yum. This is delicious!”
What kinds of shit cookies are you likely to encounter? They can be insults. You don’t have to believe them. They can be other kinds of distressing – talking about you behind your back, for instance. You don’t have to respond or explain. Or they can be actions such as the aforementioned gaslighting, sandbagging, or saying one thing and then undercutting it with actions. You don’t have to put up with those. Refuse to eat the shit cookies. They are all bad for your mental health.
There are less drastic boundaries that you may have to set as well. If you have a friend who always calls you and vents at length about their problems but never listens to your problems or your advice regarding their problems, you might set a boundary: “You can call me with problems, just not after 9:00 p.m.” or you could set an unspoken limit that you will only listen to the friend for half an hour at a time. After that, you end the conversation and get off the phone. Perhaps you establish a signal that you have reached your limit: “My eyes just glazed over.” Your friend may even pick up on the signal: “Your eyes just glazed over, didn’t they?”
Or you might have a partner that has unreasonable expectations. Such a limit might be that you will be involved in disciplining the children, but you won’t do it all yourself. It could even be a seemingly silly one. I refused to iron my husband’s shirts because I felt resentful when he treated me like a laundress. He came to understand what I meant. And we worked out a solution: wash-and-wear shirts. Those I would gladly purchase. Problem solved.
Sometimes, however, there are people in your life who go beyond simple boundary breaking. They refuse to acknowledge any boundaries that you may have. People who hurt another family member, for instance, or who expect you to solve all their problems – not just asks for help, but insists on it and gets offended when you try to establish that boundary. It’s best to cut toxic people out of your life entirely.
But what if it’s a member of your own family who’s toxic? That makes the situation more difficult. You might cut off contact with the person, but have to see them at family reunions or holiday occasions. The toxic person might go behind your back and tell their side of the story to the rest of the family.
The only thing you can do in those circumstances is not to eat the shit cookies. Establish your boundaries and remain firm with them.
You’ll get a lot of pushback from other family members and even your friends. “But they’re family!” they’ll cry. “Family comes first, before everything else.” But that’s a trap. Family may be very important to you, but at some point you have to establish that ultimate boundary in order to protect yourself and your mental and emotional health.
Toxicity can eat away at your soul. It can destroy whatever good or even tolerable relationship you had with that person. It’s not worth it to try to understand a toxic person or to give them fourth and fifth and fifteenth and fiftieth chances to change. At some point, you have to draw the line and recognize that nothing you say or do will ever change that person. It’s not reasonable to expect you to change your feelings or your actions to accommodate them.
Setting boundaries and sticking to them – sometimes it’s the only way you can live with others or, more importantly, with yourself, at least in terms of your mental health. It takes practice and determination. But in the end, you’ll be mentally healthier. And you won’t experience the lingering taste of shit cookies.