While it’s always important to identify and assert boundaries, this can be easier said than done — especially since we don’t always know our boundaries in the first place.
In this stream, sex educator Roan Coughtry, MSW, talks about why our inability to set boundaries may be a systemic issue, but then how we can explore and define our boundaries.
There are different kinds of boundaries: physical, emotional, mental, energetic, spiritual, sexual, etc. A boundary is who you choose to share energy and space with and when, and how. Boundaries can make us feel safe and understand where we end and where another person begins. With healthy boundaries, you’re less likely to lose yourself emotionally in a relationship, you’re less likely to overstretch, and overcommit.
But society influences our boundaries as patriarchal society tends to favor and respect the boundaries of those in power. Being able to say “no” is an act of power and more marginalized groups — such people in trans bodies, female bodies, fat bodies, queer bodies, non-white bodies — are taught by society not to claim that power. Being unable to say “no” is more than just a personal thing. It’s a systemic issue.
Communicating your boundaries can be difficult if you don’t know what they are, or have been raised not to think about boundaries. You can tell your friends, family, and partner that you’re figuring some things out, and hopefully they will be patient and supportive as you do some exploring. When it comes to sex, a partner should be patient enough until you know what is a “yes” and what is a “no.” Coughtry recommends Girl Sex 101, by Allison Moon, as a helpful resource to learn to define boundaries.
Once you do define some boundaries, communicate them to a partner upfront. Setting boundaries early in a relationship can also help negotiate risk level, especially when it comes to safer sex. Perhaps your boundary is that you will never sleep with someone unless they’ve been tested first. Boundaries can change depending on the person, depending on your mood, situation, environment, etc. “You deserve to be respected,” says Coughtry. “You absolutely deserve to discover what your boundaries are and change them and assert them.” If your partner asserts a boundary, remember it’s not personal or a sign of rejection. It’s important not to pushback on boundaries.
That said, if a partner has a boundary that isn’t compatible with yours — perhaps you love cuddling, and their boundary is no cuddling — you can create boundaries around that, too. Maybe there’s boundaries where you can’t shame them for not wanting to cuddle and they can’t make you feel needy for wanting cuddles. If a partner has a boundary that isn’t working for you, it’s important not to shame or judge them for it, but simply check in with yourself and think about if you can remain in the relationship.
No matter what our boundaries are, it’s important they be respected. It’s important to respect other people’s boundaries as well without pushback. The more we grow into ourselves and get clear on our boundaries, the healthier we can feel in ourselves and in our relationships.