On Boundaries

September 28, 2012 § 3 Comments

When my best friend Emily recently got involved with a feminist guy who had great respect and consent skills for physical boundaries and crazy disregard and coercive skills for emotional boundaries, we ended up trying to articulate what boundaries were, since they were using the same language while having a conflict of values.  I think the story really serves as an example of how confused people are about boundaries, and how feminists can still behave in coercive, entitled ways when we don’t know where one person’s rights end and another’s begin.

Throughout their relationship, this guy showed incredible respect for Emily’s physical boundaries.  He made sure she wanted to hold hands, kiss, have some spontaneous moves put on her.  If and when she said no, he wasn’t reactionary.  He even made sure she knew he wasn’t secretly freaking out or angry, that it was okay not to consent.  In short, he considered her claiming autonomy of her own body to be her right and no harm to himself regardless of his desires and feelings.  He had good physical boundaries.  Their hookups were, as a result, great.

Simultaneously, he showed a complete lack of comprehension of mental and emotional boundaries.  He called her a lot.  He wanted to hang out everyday from the first day they met. He texted her at all hours, and when she asked for a week of space, he sent a text that started by saying she didn’t have to respond because he was giving her space. At one point, when she said how she would feel about a certain situation, he said that no, that was not how she would feel.  When she said she needed emotional and mental space – more time between interactions and less emotional intensity – he freaked out.  He said he tried to give people space in past relationships when they asked for it, but that giving them space conflicted with his need to interact.  The boundary of having someone available to him at all times was his concept of boundaries.

Those two needs and attempts at boundary setting are not parallel.  Boundaries are each person’s inherent right to their body, mind, and spirit.  Emily owns herself.  If she sets a boundary around her time, attention, or availability, that is her right.  Setting a boundary that you need to have someone available to you is not a boundary.  You cannot set your boundary in someone else’s space.  He can feel anything and it will be appropriate.  He can make his decisions based on the reality of what he’s feeling.  But to push at that boundary as a violation of your rights is just not okay.  And this same guy would never do the same thing physically.  He’s a feminist in that regard.

It is certainly true that the need to be heard, respected, cared for, and supported is a genuine human need.  Like touch, affection, and sex are needs.  But needs that involve another person have to met consensually.  And like physical boundaries, there is no giving up one’s right to consent.  Each moment, each decision is a choice.  The other person always has the right to reclaim themselves, to not consent.  Most people, even if they do understand physical boundaries, do not understand emotional boundaries.  As an example, I’ve never understood the phenomenon of people who, when told they are being broken up with, try to negotiate.  That to me evidences the very issue at the heart of what’s wrong.

Emily’s failed love interest is not uncommon, and he is not a bad person.  He was a very cool person in a lot of regards.  But he was a pretty abusive guy.  And his behaviors were counterintuitive to getting his needs met (especially consensually, though I personally do not think you can actually get your inherent need for love met non-consensually).  When you try to set your boundaries in someone else’s space, your behavior is entitled, and you are trying to violate someone’s rights.  Most people who do this do not think they are doing anything wrong.  They think that are getting what is owing to them, sticking up for themselves, or at best, sly.  If they don’t get what they want, they usually think they are being harmed and tell the person they’re trying to invade that they are being abusive.  If that person is also confused about boundaries, this is a recipe for scary dysfunction.

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§ 3 Responses to On Boundaries

  • Rairun says:

    My first reaction while reading this post was: YES! This is an issue I often have to deal with. When asserting my boundaries (around my own time, emotional availability, etc), I usually try to explain how I try to be respectful of the other person’s boundaries in analogous situations (for example, by giving them space even when I am lonely, or hurt, or afraid). But then I am often accused of being an independent manly man who doesn’t need anyone, as if I were trying to perform masculinity and put down “them weakly, needy women”. I’ve never, ever expressed my concerns in a gendered way. I’ve never suggested that being needy – and disrespecting boundaries because of those needs – was a female trait. The whole thing is incredibly hurtful, one of the few things that never fail to make my heart sink.

    Anyway, enough about what people do/have done to me. I also think it’s interesting to think about what I do to others. I used to think that respecting their boundaries was easy. I mean, I learned pretty early on how to deal with my feelings so that I didn’t NEED to inflict them on others. But in practice, it’s still hard and taxing to know how to act. When interacting with people, I always wonder whether they want me there. I don’t do this out of insecurity or self-loathing – I think I am awesome. It’s just that I’d have to be extremely self-centered to think this is a universally shared opinion. I am well aware that people I like and respect don’t necessarily feel the same way about me, and even if they do, that doesn’t mean they want to be part of my life. What I’m trying to say is that it’d be very easy for me to enter paranoid mode – am I trespassing, should I just go away and never come back? – so I’ve adopted a simple policy: I just do whatever I want within a reasonable limit, and trust people to let me know if there are any problems. It’s either that or isolate myself completely in fear that I am violating their boundaries.

    Another difficult point is knowing how to deal with people who don’t communicate consent clearly. I honestly try to be kind to people – if they violate a boundary of mine, I tell them it’s OK, they didn’t know, but now they do. So if I tell them I need to be alone, I expect them to respect that. But some people just don’t work that way. Sometimes you try to approach them, and they respond with silence – or they actively tell you to go away. My gut feeling is to do just that: go away, wait it out, and hope they will come to me when/if they are ready. But I’ve been accused of not giving a fuck far too many times because of that. I’ve hurt people so many times because I did what they told me to do. I know it’s not my fault, but I still hate hurting people I care about, so I try to adapt to them. It’s always uncomfortable, though.

    (Btw, I still haven’t watched the video you told me about, but I’ll get around to it. I got a new job and had to relocate, so the past month has been busy).

  • Well put. I’ve had a lot of those same issues. Your examples made me think of a few.

    I think now that the first person I was in love with broke up with me thinking I would fight it and talk him out of it. I think he thought I “didn’t love him,” because I let him break up with me without a fight. That was never part of my value system, even as a teenager. It was his right to break up with me, and not my right to stop him. People have some strange, indirect things going on in terms of relationships. But I have a feeling that the solution lies in actually doing what people to consent to, so they’ll sure enough figure out they should mean what they say, since that’s the only reality you have to go off of. I used to be very shy with my feelings, or assume they were obvious, that is, indicated by my actions or what could be assumed. (According to some things I’ve read in Meyers-Briggs, this is pretty typical of my temperament, INTJ.)

    That’s stressful to imagine someone (someones?) have confronted you about sexism in regards to being emotionally available or unavailable. For me, feminism comes down again and again to the ethics of consent. Gender shaming certainly happens on both sides of the coin, and it can definitely be a means of manipulation. I don’t mean that people don’t believe what they’re saying, just that they speak out of a reactionary desire to get what they want from someone. I suppose self-awareness is the key thing, knowing whether we are making a choice or cannot access our emotions and provide emotional support to others, and knowing whether we are being punishing by withholding in order to manipulate, and knowing whether we consider someone else expression their emotions abusive to us because we cannot uphold our internal boundaries and have not expressed lack of consent or gotten ourselves away from them.

    Lots to think about…

    Good luck with the new job and place!

  • [...] On boundaries in relationships, and how they can be emotional, not just [...]

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