What are boundaries anyway?

Red clay tennis court with a yellow tennis ball on the white boundary line.

Boundaries are a really important part of all relationships, be they friendships, kinship, romantic or sexual. They help you to ensure that you are treating yourself and others with respect and dignity. Fundamentally, boundaries are about honestly and directly expressing the treatment you will and will not accept from others. This means being clear about your values and feelings and knowing what is and is not acceptable behaviour to you.  Many of us, especially those of us who have a history of abuse, struggle with boundaries, and the next post will be about my own relationship with my boundaries, but this one is really just about what boundaries are and are not. One tricky bit is recognising the difference between boundaries and rules. A key distinction between the two for me is this:

Boundaries are about what an individual person will and will not do, usually expressed using ‘I will’ statements; conversely rules are about other people, usually expressed using ‘you won’t’ statements.

Boundaries aren’t evaluations of whether something is right or wrong. They aren’t moral judgements on situations. They aren’t a tool to punish behaviour that is disliked or even unwanted. I can have a boundary that says, “I won’t live with people that cook bacon,” but that doesn’t mean that cooking bacon is some kind of moral failing. The purpose of a boundary is to distinguish things that are and are not OK with me. I don’t have to convince anyone that it is reasonable to have any individual boundary – it is enough that I have it and that I am willing to take the necessary action to maintain it.

The thing is, lots of us have boundaries like this that we rarely or never express. Sometimes we don’t know that we have a boundary until we trip over it. For example, I never realized how much I hate other people pressing ‘snooze’ on their alarms in the morning when I’m in bed with them until I slept with someone who needed to get up before I did and just kept on snoozing their alarm. It felt awful to me! I got a headache which can only be about the irritation and anxiety I felt. Now, I have to be honest, I do think it it rather rude to keep snoozing your alarm and waking up your sleeping partner, but my emotional reaction was WAY out of proportion to the judgement I have towards that behavior. I very quickly realized that I never want to sleep with someone who presses snooze on their alarm in the morning. It is a boundary for me. In practice it is one that is hard for me to enforce,  because it takes some cooperation. I have to express to my potential sleeping partner that I won’t sleep with folks that snooze audible alarms, and ask whether they are able to agree not to do that when they sleep with me. They then get to decide whether that is something they can agree to or not. Most people say yes, but then if they have an early morning and they know they are going to be snoozing the alarm a few times then they just sleep elsewhere. This is a situation I am DELIGHTED with. On the other hand, if someone agrees not to snooze audible alarms but then does, there are consequences. They demonstrate that I can’t trust them to treat me with respect. I usually won’t sleep with them for a while, and if we are going to rebuild trust to sleep in the same bed again it will usually take a lot of conversation about how they are going to be able to respect this boundary in the future.

This example sounds trivial, but actually my problem with others snoozing alarms is not all that dissimilar to a lot of other situations that come up in relationships in general and non-monogamy in particular. There are often boundaries that are interpersonal and mean you have to trust the other person to treat you in a way you find acceptable.

Boundaries, rules and agreements are part of relationship life, and they can be painful.  Even though a boundary is about your own personhood and safety, it can impact on other people too. You may have boundaries that are incompatible with an important relationship in your life, and that truly sucks.  Here are some examples of situations where someone experimented with agreements and rules and ultimately uncovered their boundary and the actions needed to maintain it.

A monogamous friend of mine mentioned a boundaries problem with her live-in husband. She wants to pee in peace. Her husband used to frequently walk into the bathroom when she was on the toilet, and she simply couldn’t stand it.  She asked her husband to agree that he would respect her privacy by not coming into the bathroom while she was on the toilet. He refused, saying that sometimes it was urgent or important and he had to interrupt her. She instituted the rule that he wouldn’t come into the bathroom when she was on the toilet unless it was an emergency. Despite a marked absence of emergencies, he carried on interrupting her in the bathroom. She decided that she had a boundary. She did not want to share a home with another adult that invaded her privacy by entering the bathroom when she was on the toilet. When trying to make an agreement and instituting a rule didn’t work, she decided to enforce her boundary by buying and installing a lock in the bathroom door. Now she locks the bathroom door and he stands outside talking to her through it.


We will respect each others privacy by not entering the bathroom when someone it on the toilet.


You won’t come into the bathroom when I am on the toilet.


I will not share a home with anyone that comes into the bathroom knowing I am on the toilet. In order to maintain living with my partner I will install locks on the bathroom door and use them when I am in the bathroom.

The same friend (who, for the record, said I could share these stories) had another issue. Her husband liked to look through her phone messages and emails. She wasn’t so keen on this. Not because she had anything to hide, but because she wants to be a separate person to him with her own relationships. She tried to make an agreement with him that they would not look at each other’s messages without permission. He wouldn’t agree and said that if she didn’t have anything to hide, she didn’t need privacy. She instituted the rule that he would not look at her phone or computer without her permission. He ignored the rule and continued to anyway. She realised that her boundary was that she didn’t want to be in an intimate relationship with someone that looks at her computer or phone without her permission. In order to protect her relationship, she decided to install passwords on her phone and computer to stop her husband from taking actions that would mean she had to leave the relationship.


We will respect each others privacy by not looking at private messages on their phone or computer without permission


You won’t look at my phone or computer without permission


I will not be in an intimate relationship with someone that breaks into my computer or phone to look at private content there. I will maintain privacy on my computer and phone by using a password.

Many people would be horrified at the idea that a partner would walk in someone on the toilet, others might think that is not an issue at all. Boundaries aren’t about whether the action, in and of itself, is problematic. They are about whether it is problematic for you.

Safer sex is one area that people often struggle to differentiate between agreements, rules, and boundaries. Within safer sex conversations it is often most useful to look at specific activities rather than the identities of the people involved. Most partnered sexual activity carries some emotional and physical risk, and barriers do not protect against all sexually transmitted infections. Nevertheless, there are some practices that are physically riskier than others, specifically those that involve fluid transfer. Penis in vagina and penis in anus sex without barriers is most likely to transmit a host of infections, and as such many people make rules against this kind of sex without barriers.


We will not have penetrative sex without barriers involving a penis with anyone.


You won’t have penetrative sex without barriers involving a penis with anyone


I will use barriers for all sexual contact except with people that are not having penetrative sex involving a penis.

Having explicit and well-communicated boundaries does not end all conflict, and it doesn’t mean that people never behave in ways that aren’t OK with you. It does help you to express your individuality and tell people how they can treat you well. This is often empowering and helps you to live authentically in relationships with a minimum of resentment.

I’d invite you to think about how agreements, rules and boundaries work in your relationships.

Do you have clear and defined boundaries that say what is OK or not OK with you, or do you rely on norms to determine what works in your relationships?

Do you have a sense of boundaries in relation to romance, sex, conflict, emotional expression, shared space, household duties, routines, dates and privacy?

Are there areas where you find it difficult to state and maintain boundaries?

Are there areas where you prefer rules and agreements to expressing boundaries?

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