The trouble with lacking healthy boundaries is that you can get away without having them for a long time. And when I say a long time, I mean a REALLY long time. We’re talking decades.
If you’re a doormat or a people pleaser, you didn’t become one overnight. You grew into this from your social environment, from situations you were in, the people around you. And it’s largely invisible to most of you. It seems normal to give everything you have, even if the recipient doesn’t deserve it. After all, a good person gives without expecting in return, and you want to be a good person, don’t you? We all do.
A lot of times, you reach the point of burnout and emotional exhaustion before you reach that “aha!” moment and find that you have to implement an entire sea change of boundary adjustment, which essentially involves renegotiating practically every relationship in your life, one way or another. So what tends to happen is that you go on these “boundary campaigns” where you start trying to set boundaries with everyone on everything, doing it all at once, with a brand new skill set that hasn’t even had time to fully develop.
It’s understandable because once you see that you’re being taken for granted or pushed around in ways that are unfair, it’s an impossible thing to un-see.
But far-reaching boundary campaigns? Well, they’re typically a really ineffective and exhausting strategy, especially since you’re heaping huge emotional labor on top of a state of existing burnout. Not only that, but since you’re new at it, you’re not going to have the ability to fix everything overnight.
What you really need to do is to start and think small and take one thing at a time — AND you need to be prepared for what you’re going to do when the person violates the boundary you’ve set and messes up — because it’s going to happen. Real behavioral change is HARD and takes time. Even when someone is on board, we get into patterns.
As always, the devil is in the details. It takes patience and sustained attention to tell whether real progress is being made and if the overall trend line is up — it takes so long to change and there are so many setbacks along the way it can be tricky to know if a person is genuinely trying or if they’re fucking around and goofing off and have no intention of changing.
It also really depends on the level of interpersonal entanglement (are they your domestic partner? a close friend? a coworker? an acquaintance?) how much work you really want to put into sorting all of this out.
I ran into this myself. After I went to therapy and especially after I went back to school to study psychology, I suddenly realized that a few of my friends were kind of jerks to me and to others, in ways that were subtle enough that they escaped my notice. I found myself angrily ruminating back on interactions we’d had where I’d been mistreated, things we’d made up about some time ago. Of course, while we both undoubtedly played a role, at the time I was the only one who apologized or admitted fault, and they “felt like they could forgive me with time.” The new lens on everything was troubling. I wasn’t sure what to do with this information though since it seemed bizarre and unnecessarily dramatic to bring up an old fight out of the blue. However, with my new perspective, I felt freshly wronged. I decided to move forward with caution without dredging up the past and to keep an eye towards how they were treating me in the present day, informed by how they had acted before.
It wasn’t long before the same patterns came out again, and I was able to address them and respond accordingly as they happened.
It is important when considering boundaries to understand the difference between boundary-setting and being a control freak. This is for a couple of reasons.
- When you start to assert your rights to not be subjected to certain things, you may very well encounter people who will say that you’re being controlling or out of line by doing so. This can be confusing and derail you, especially if you’re new to healthy boundary-setting (if you’re a people pleaser, odds are really good that you’re also really suggestible and easily convinced, especially by people close to you). This certainly happened to me. Knowing the difference can help sort what is valid criticism out from resistance from others who are losing former control of you.
- There are actually people out there who control others by setting “boundaries” that aren’t really boundaries.
So what’s the difference between setting boundaries and being controlling? Thankfully, it’s pretty simple, at least in theory.
Asserting boundaries is about establishing what you are or are not okay with. Controlling people is about telling other people what to do, especially when it has little or nothing to do with you.
One particularly trying example from my own polyamorous experiences came about with my ex-girlfriend Michelle. I had moved to Cleveland from Maine to live with Michelle and her husband Rob. While I was excited about what I was building with them, I thought it foolhardy and reckless to move halfway across the country for romantic relationships that may or may not work out (because after all, they’re relationships, and not all of them make it) without any support system in Cleveland. Therefore, I put a lot of focus on becoming friends with Rob and Michelle’s friends so that I would know other people in town. My thinking was threefold:
- Their friends were really cool people and fun.
- Only knowing Rob and Michelle would probably actually put MORE strain on those relationships and more pressure on them to entertain me.
- I’d still have some kind of social support structure if we broke up.
It all seemed perfectly reasonable to me. But not to Michelle. One such example of when this fell apart was when she and Rob were out of town and I went to a strictly friends-type dinner with 4 people, including one person she’d had a falling out with a few years ago. Someone tagged me on Facebook, which was how Michelle even knew about it. The dinner itself was such a small footnote to me that it wasn’t even something I thought bore mentioning. But Michelle launched into an angry tirade. She insisted that I had betrayed her by dining with this person and that I was a selfish asshole who was out to hurt her. While she never forbade me from seeing this person again, it was heavily implied.
This is controlling behavior.
To compare, setting a boundary would be if Michelle stated that she herself were unwilling to have dinner with this person and if she found herself at dinner with them to reserve the right to politely leave. That’s setting a personal boundary.
Anne Katherine has a solid primer on the subject of boundaries, Where to Draw the Line, with a lot more examples and greater depth on ways to practice this. It’s important work. Setting boundaries isn’t just about romantic relationships — it can change your whole life.
Just make sure to pace yourself and take things one step at a time. You didn’t get here overnight; you don’t have to fix it overnight either.
Further reading on boundaries and polyamory:
As well as these articles by other polyamorous writers:
- Polyamorous Misanthrope, Boundaries
- Polyamory on Purpose, Hard Boundaries and Soft Boundaries
- Polyamory (For Us), The Difference Between “You Will” and “I Won’t”