“Boundaries are an essential part of life. They delineate and maintain needed borders and separations, making differentiation possible at every level. Boundaries both contain and preserve the integrity of what they are safeguarding, be that physical, psychological, emotional, social, or spiritual. Without them there is no relationship and therefore no development, no evolution. But despite this clear truth, we often fall into the trap of believing that boundaries hold us back, preventing us from being free…”
~ Robert Augustus Masters, Boundaries Make Freedom Possible
My friend and mentor Marcia has a great metaphor for boundaries. Boundaries are like skin. Skin protects us from bacteria, contaminants- it keeps the bad things out. It also holds our bodies together and keeps the good things in. It has elasticity and can stretch and squish for short periods of time (this is called the Resilient Edge of Resistance, think of it as a plus/minus margin around your boundaries). Push that edge too far, and we reach our limits- the skin breaks. It is semi permeable, so we can let good things in (like sunlight and moisture) and sweat the bad things out. And without skin around us, things get messy.
Similarly, without boundaries, life gets messy.
I often hear people talk about Boundaries, Rules, and Agreements in their relationships- but what does this mean? Are they all the same thing? I don’t believe so.
Here’s how I define them:
Boundaries: Things that I set for ME, based on my needs, wants, and nos.
Rules: Things we agree to, without the input of others, based on OUR needs wants and nos.
Agreements: Mutual Accords that support the needs, wants and nos of everyone involved.
“There is no way to dissolve the ego in its entirety. It is intrinsic to human functioning. This is why the ego bashing fundamental to the spiritual bypass community is so dangerous. They invite seekers to shed aspects that are essential in their daily lives. Instead, let’s make a conscious distinction between the healthy and the unhealthy ego… What we need is to support the development of a healthy, balanced ego. One that knows where it ends and the other begins. One that celebrates one’s value, without imagining itself ‘all that’. One that honors the self, without a need to dishonor others. A healthy ego is not the enemy of the sacred. It’s the foundation that it stands upon.”
~ Jeff Brown
Ultimately, we all have to develop our own clear boundaries around what we want to nurture in our lives, and what we want to keep out.
So, what is a healthy boundary, versus an unhealthy one?
Essentially, it boils down to this one question: Is it about you or is it about trying to controlling others?
Authentic boundaries are not about trying to control others. They are about recognising and honoring our core needs and developing strategies when what we need is less, or none, of something. A boundary marks out what I say No to in order to make space for my Yes.
We might not always realise we have a boundary. Figuring out one’s boundaries means listening to our insecurities, stories, and seeing our jealousy as clues to unmet needs.
Boundaries are not up for negotiation with others. Within a relationship one’s boundaries may be at odds with others’ needs in relationships, in which case, we need to explore Rules, which create shared strategies for how to explore boundaries and needs that may be at odds, or Agreements, where we mutually agree on how we might explore that resilient edge within our boundaries.
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with having rules. They create boundaries for a relationship to exist within, and preserve the thing they serve. Rules are about more than one person’s boundaries; they represent a contract of honoring and proactively defending a boundary, whether it is one’s own, one’s partner’s, or one that needs to exist in the relationship.
There is a misconception that Rules are inherently abusive. I think this has come from is unskilful communication of the rules as if they are ultimatums; from an attitude of “you must/must not” rather than “If you want to do this thing, then here’s the parameters I can do that within.”
Rules can also bring up programing we have around obligated behaviours, and Internalised stories around needing to capitulate to desires of others.
However, sometimes rules are needed- though they don’t need to be in place forever. When partners have experienced a loss of trust or intimacy, or some other form of disruption to the natural flow of their relationship (eg moving, birth of a child, loss of someone close), rules can be useful as a means to establish or re-establish a solid foundation of connection and intimacy from which to expand upon later.
As with boundaries, recognising the core needs driving a rule are important. An unhealthy rule would be one that is not disclosed upfront to others interacting with the people who have created the rule. For example, in open relationships, “You can’t have sex with your other partner if I’m not there.” is unhealthy. It pushes on the third party’s sovereignty. However, it can stem from a place of both partners needing to feel emotional safe and secure in their relationship as they open up. A healthy version of this same rule, would be “We will only date people who are open to including both of us in sexual experiences.” In short, a healthy rule is conditional, and not unilateral; a healthy rule does not try to control others, nor the people in the relationship, rather, it sets the parameters by which the relationship may interact with those not in the relationship.
Many of us may have experienced unhealthy rules imposed on us as a child. I was not allowed to climb trees. This was my mother’s rule. Her core need stemmed from experiencing a chronic illness which meant that she needed additional care, and if I were to injure myself it would have been a huge burden on her. A healthier way this rule could have played out would have been to say I could climb trees only if I had an adult or older kid with me for supervision.
Agreement can be defined as “harmony or accordance in opinion or feeling”. Agreements can also be a synonym for consent.
Rather than a contract, a ‘relationship agreement’ can be seen as an expression of one’s harmony with, or consent with, an opinion, feeling, or action.
Agreements help us to manage expectations, secure understanding of what values we bring to relating, and help us to create and respect boundaries.
Where I find agreements become limiting is when they only address a surface level want, and not the core need and/or wound that drives that want- the want being a strategy for getting a need met.
So an ‘agreement’ within an open relationship that says ‘we won’t sleep with someone on the first date’ is limiting, whereas an acknowledgement of the root need, ie ‘we both agree to ensure that the people we engage with are a good match for us because we value our relationship and don’t want to adversely destabilize it” gives more freedom, while honoring the core need.
An agreement does not need to control or limit another partner’s actions. It can invite engagement, not expect or obligate it. It would be a measure of integrity and accountability to one’s self. It’s an unfortunate piece of monogamy hangover that we default to thinking that an agreement means capitulating to someone else’s desires outside of what we ourselves desire.
I’m curious about agreements that are with ourselves, but would potentially support our partnerships. ie, this is how I promise to show up for you/us/relationships.
- I commit to doing my best to have the difficult conversations with my partners.
- I promise to work on cultivating depth in this relationship that goes beyond sexual chemistry.
- I will seek to listen to you and all my partners with empathy and compassion and I invite you to call me on it if you think I’m falling short in this.
- I promise to never hold you to my assumptions and expectations of how you ‘should’ be in relationship to me.
RELATIONSHIP ANARCHY AND CUSTOMIZING AGREEMENTS
There is an idea that relationship agreements immediately imply hierarchy. I think that this arises from the dominant narrative around relationships. Creating agreements in ANY relationship is, I think, not only valuable, but radical in the best of ways. Agreements are a way of forming known boundaries- or parameters- and boundaries grant a lot more freedom.
Relationship Anarchy preaches to customize your commitments. I have witnessed many people aspiring for Relationship Anarchy, and also needing stability and reliability. I also see people aspiring towards Relationship Anarchy, and not wanting anything that could be self limiting and thus strongly arguing against relationship agreements.
Relationship Anarchy exists outside of the default ‘relationship escalator’ norms, which I think often implies that there aren’t agreements. I’ve personally avoided them to a degree, but when I look back at the relationships I most regret ending, I deeply wish that a better container had been co-created thru non-escalator agreements.
So, what might Relationship Anarchy agreements look like? Is it possible to have agreements that are NOT self limiting, but that lead to a feeling of expansiveness?
“I came across a long time member of the community and his partner, and they replaced the wedding vows for them in this marriage ceremony they did, but they are so different from any marriage vows that I’ve ever seen that I think I would like to share them here.
They call them, instead of marriage vows, they say “Five Ethical Guidelines for Eternal Friendship”:
- Our friendship is based on the mutual acceptance of and support for our sexual nature and its freedom.
- Our marriage means no claim to partnership; it is an act of friendship and solidarity.
- Our contact is anchored in community. If we at any point become entangled in old, morphogenetic fields of marriage, we will not try to solve it between just us two, but will seek the support of the community.
- It is not a closed couple relationship, but a basis for our love to expand; the marriage is by no means a restriction to any other love.
- We commit for a common path of learning love, mutual support, and collaboration for a future without war.”
I believe we can make these kinds of agreements in specific relationships, and they do not need to be general. For example, if I know a partner’s primary love language is touch, I might choose to commit to being more present in touch with them.
There can also be agreements between two people that could affect both individuals- but if it isn’t tied to a shared vision/mission for their relationship, it’s not going to feel authentic; it will end up feeling forced, and will leave those individuals feeling limited.
If agreements aren’t rooted in their why, and with a clear vision of where they hope the agreements to take them, then they aren’t agreements at all. They are smuggled desires.
But what about our unspoken rules? You may ask.
If they are unspoken, they aren’t rules. They are assumptions. And functioning from a space of assumption is one of the most devastating things one can do within a relationship.
BOUNDARY PUSHING AND SMUGGLED DESIRES
Pushing a boundary is an oppressive action: it’s about all of ‘my wants’ and none of ‘your wants’. These often come from a space of fear and/or wounding. We push boundaries when we’re afraid to ask for what we want, because we think we might not get it, and the idea of not getting what we want feels devastating.
This might show up in the way we talk about what we want, implying the other person has agreed to that. Or it could be that we assume the other person wants what we want, and we begin to make future decisions based on that assumption.
This can be very painful to be on the receiving end of. And there can sometimes be an aggression that follows the experience of one’s boundaries being violated: the aggression is an attempt to re establish self identity, to edify an (ideally, healthy) ego . Giving acknowledgement to the person’s experience, offering reflections on what you see and experience of them can support a swift return to healthy relationship.
“We are not here to shed or abandon our boundaries, but to breathe integrity and strength into them, to fully illuminate them, and to make sure that they take a form that serves not only our highest good but also the highest good of all. We are not here to override or devalue our boundaries but to use them as wisely as possible… discovering the freedom in fully engaging our experience. Our boundaries stand as guardians on this path, with an authority that supports our growth and awakening.”
~ Robert Augustus Masters, Boundaries Make Freedom Possible