One of the trickiest parts of polyamory is determining whether or not something you’re doing affects someone else.
In a more simple relationship system, like monogamy, this is a great deal more straightforward. You have one person’s concerns to consider.
In polyamory, you start having to consider how decisions could impact metamours (your partner’s other partners). And also how all of your metamours’ decisions potentially affect you. Well, things get a great deal more complicated.
They weren’t just being cute with that “it’s complicated” relationship status. Polyamory gets interesting. But first, the basics of boundary setting!
Boundary Setting 101
Asserting boundaries is about establishing what you are or are not okay with.
Boundaries are particularly important in achieving healthy relationships with others.
Boundaries are very individual. They call them personal boundaries for a reason.
But as a starting point here are some basic healthy boundaries to keep in mind:
Not allowing others to manipulate or force you into doing things you don’t want to do. And not doing so to anyone else.
Not tolerating others yelling at you or calling you names. And not doing this to others.
Not blaming others for things that are your responsibility. And not tolerating inappropriate blaming from others.
Understanding that your feelings are separate from another person’s, although you certainly can have empathy for their situation.
Being able to request space (physical, temporal, privacy, etc) and allowing others to request the same from you.
To a lot of recovering people pleasers, setting these boundaries can seem daunting. Even controlling. But boundary setting is different from controlling people, which is about telling other people what to do. Especially when it has little or nothing to do with you.
Here are some simple boundary-setting statements:
“I’m not willing to argue with you right now. I’d be happy to talk to you later when we’re both calm.”
“I’m sorry, but I won’t be doing that. I won’t be loaning you any more money until you pay off what I loaned you before.”
Whenever possible, use as non-blaming language as possible. Be firm, but not on the attack. Generally speaking, “I” statements come off as more diplomatic than “you” statements.
So rather than saying, “You’re always snooping through my stuff,” try saying:
“I feel violated when you look through my things. I need some privacy in a relationship. Otherwise, I feel like I’m under a magnifying glass. Please do not go through my things without asking.”
Bear in mind that it’s possible to use “I” statements in an aggressive or ineffective way. “I feel that you’re always snooping through my stuff,” or “I hate that you’re always snooping through my stuff,” are both blaming and ineffective.
While you might feel that blame is warranted, blaming others put them on the defensive, which makes them less likely to listen and accommodate your needs. Avoid blanket generalized statements including words like “always” and “never.” These feel particularly unfair to a person receiving them. It’s a rare person who does something always or never. And the exaggeration aspect undercuts the truth of what you’re saying.
Instead, focus on your feelings.
When setting boundaries, it can be helpful to share the potential consequences of violating that boundary. However, be honest with yourself and your partners as you do. Don’t threaten things you aren’t willing to follow through on. If you say you’ll have to leave a relationship over a certain behavior, be prepared to do so. Conserve these consequences for the worst violations. And especially after repeated violations with no efforts to improve.
Thankfully, proposed consequences need not be so dire. Using the last example about snooping, you might tell your partner that if they don’t stop looking through your things, you will have to lock your things up. Or change your passwords on a computer.
If you find that the issue of invasion of your privacy is widespread and particularly troubling, causing you to feel disrespected in a way that harms your relationship, you might pursue counseling. Or, as mentioned, there is always ending the relationship (just don’t start there if you can help it).
If at all possible, it’s best to discuss what your boundaries are before they’re violated. I’m aware of most of mine due to past relationship experiences I’ve had. I find it goes more smoothly if you can preemptively share those with new partners. Not only are new partners less likely to violate those boundaries, but if they do? The resulting discussion usually entails less conflict and drama if it’s not completely new information to them.
Second-Degree Boundaries and Beyond
Okay, now that we have a basic intro to boundaries, we’re all set to tackle polyamory with them, right?
Hold on there.
We have officially arrived at the tricky part.
Traditional boundary-setting tackles first-degree boundaries, that is, your direct interactions with another person.
What about second-degree boundaries? Your metamour’s interactions with your partner? It’s easy when they don’t affect you at all. But what if they do? How about beyond the second degree — your metamour’s other partners?
What’s particularly difficult about polyamory is not only figuring out how to set boundaries that keep you emotionally healthy. It’s doing that in a multi-person system where things still affect you. But without meddling in stuff that has little or nothing to do with you. Many people seek out polyamory as a relationship style because they connect easily with others.
And while this can be great, poor boundaries aren’t just about letting people walk all over you. They can also involve succumbing to your Inner Buttinski.
Three Buckets of Control to Sort Them All!
An important distinction to make is between things you can control, things you can kind of control, and things you can’t control at all.
Let’s think of this as 3 buckets.
In the first bucket are the decisions you consciously make. Simple stuff like what you choose to wear in the morning. And more complicated stuff like how you talk to your partners. Maybe you can’t always control your initial emotional reaction to something, but you can control the actions that you take based on that emotion.
The second bucket is the influence bucket. Let’s say a friend or loved one asks for your advice about something. You can tell them what you think, but they still make the decision what they’re going to do with your input.
The third bucket is stuff you can’t control. Weather. Traffic. The actions of strangers or of people who don’t care at all what you think.
Boundaries and the Buckets of Control
First-degree boundaries are set in the first bucket. You choose to tell the other person what you want or need to happen. And you control the way that you deliver that message.
When it comes to whether or not people abide by the boundaries that you set, that’s the second bucket. You’ve influenced them by sharing your viewpoint, but they control how they respond to that.
However, if they violate that boundary or do not accept it as legitimate, you are back in the first bucket. You control what you say or do next. What consequences or possible solutions you offer.
The tricky part of second-degree boundaries is that you may very well see behavior from your metamour towards your love that you would never, ever tolerate were it done to you. Maybe your meta continually cancels dates with your love without notice. It’s hurtful and inconvenient for them.
Can you set a personal boundary with your metamour as a second-degree one? “I will no longer allow you to see my partner if you keep canceling on them last minute.”
Well, you can do this. But you really shouldn’t. Buttinsky Sign! That’s not your relationship.
It’s understandable that you’re frustrated. When you love someone, you feel empathy for things that hurt them. I wrote a bit about these kinds of dilemmas in The Hostage Situation. If it doesn’t directly impact you in a logistical way, be there for your partner. If they want your input and you feel comfortable giving it, help them figure out how to address this with your metamour. But otherwise, chill.
Now, if the frequent cancellations are impacting your plans and you find that you’re inconvenienced by multiple reschedules that your partner has to make with the flaky metamour, then it’s entirely appropriate to set a personal boundary with your partner surrounding the rescheduling. It’s entirely inappropriate to expect you to accommodate for someone else who is not keeping their commitments. If you want to, fine. But you may find you want or need to set a boundary around it. But with your partner. Not your metamour.
That’s the key, really. Whenever an issue further on in the relationship system (web, polycule, poly family, etc) is impacting you, look at what personally affects you. And when looking to negotiate those agreements, work first with those who are in your immediate sphere.
Don’t run from conflicts that you need to address. But don’t go rustling through the bushes looking for something to fight.
Good Partner Selection is Key
I get a lot of different questions from people who know I’m polyamorous and think it would be a difficult way to live.
But I’m never asked about what I’ve found to be the trickiest part of polyamory, for me.
It’s trusting your partner to make decisions.
I’ve seen some impressively complex polyamorous rule systems in my day, but it’s impossible to cover everything. And, as most lawyers will tell you, it’s not just about the rules but about how they’re applied to real life scenarios.
Especially when two or more rules are in conflict with one another. Which happens with elaborate rule systems. Or maybe there aren’t any established guidelines for this situation. People end up making judgement calls.
And that’s what I’ve found to be key in all of this — selecting partners whose judgement I really trust. That I trust so much that I would trust them to pick other partners who will also exercise reasonable judgement. And those partners, so on.
The thing is? As I move away from people I know well, those who I personally select and trust, I move further and further towards that third bucket of control. I don’t have a lot of control over who anybody else selects. And certainly not over what a metamour does or doesn’t do.
So I select direct partners whose judgement I trust an awful lot. Who seem to make decisions as reasonable as my own, or maybe even better. Because I know that as we move down the line, the soundness of personal judgement may be diluted.
Accepting that Third Bucket, the Uncontrollable
That third bucket? The one you can’t control? It’s a killer.
If all else is equal in a polyamorous relationship, that third bucket is a bit larger than in a monogamous one. But that’s only if you proceed on auto-pilot.
If you’re doing it right, you bolster the first and second buckets as well as you can.
An important part of that is setting appropriate boundaries. And respecting the boundaries set by others.
Act ethically yourself.
And don’t forget to let others know what you need.