Follow-up to “Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing.”
[Content note: abuse]
When I discuss the importance of respecting people’s boundaries, I sometimes encounter this pushback: “But aren’t some boundaries wrong? What if someone sets boundaries in a way that’s abusive?”
I can think of a few examples of boundaries that someone might place in this category: boundaries around receiving criticism or being educated about a social justice issue, boundaries around providing some minimum level of emotional labor or support to one’s partner, boundaries around which emotions you can handle hearing from someone.
Most of these apply especially/specifically to close relationships, which is usually the context in which people bring it up. Is it really okay to tell a partner that you can’t handle them expressing anger at you? Is it really okay to tell a friend that they can’t tell you if you’ve hurt them? Is it really okay to tell someone that you will not be able to listen to anything they have to say about their mental illness?
In particular, folks are concerned that such boundaries will be set not because of genuine triggers or sensitivities, but out of laziness or neglect–“I don’t feel like dealing with this, so I’m going to set a boundary that says I don’t have to.”
First of all, let’s acknowledge that it’s really hard to distinguish “okay” boundaries from “not-okay” boundaries if we’re judging by how much the boundary hurts someone else. Many (if not most) boundaries have the potential to hurt. It probably hurts people when I tell them to stop giving me unsolicited advice–advice that they no doubt meant as an expression of care and concern, but that I nonetheless find insulting and want them to stop. It certainly hurts me when I want to vent to someone about my problems but they ask me not to because they’re not in a good place to listen. But I don’t think anyone would say there’s anything wrong with these boundaries.
In particular, many people feel very hurt when a partner sets a boundary regarding sex–for instance, “I don’t want to have sex tonight” or “I need to figure some stuff out and don’t want to be intimate for a while.” Some people even consider it neglectful or abusive for a partner to choose not to have sex with them. While that’s obviously really entitled and coercive in and of itself, any boundary can be rejected on similar grounds–“You’re not giving me what you owe me,” whether that thing is sex or open ears or a willingness to adjust based on criticism.
That leads into the thorny issue of what, exactly, we are entitled to from each other, versus what is up to individuals to give or withhold. If your boundary is that you won’t give someone something that they’re truly entitled to, that’s likely abusive. For instance, children are entitled to care from their parents or guardians. If you’re a parent or guardian, your boundary cannot be that you won’t care for your child. (If it is, then you should–and will–lose custody.)
But outside of parent-child relationships, which are a special case, there’s very little that we can persuasively claim to deserve from a specific person–as opposed to people in general. I deserve love and respect, but that doesn’t mean that you–you specifically–must love and respect me. If you won’t do that, I have to find someone else who will.
There are things that we’re entitled to in relationships, such as the right to set boundaries and the right to express how the other person has made us feel. But if the other person sets boundaries like “You can’t tell me if I’ve hurt you,” I don’t think the solution is to try to force them to listen to it anyway. I think the solution is to run away.
But what if you can’t “just leave” because the relationship is abusive? Well, in that case, the primary problem isn’t the person’s “invalid” boundaries; it’s the abuse that keeps you in a relationship that can’t possibly work.
This is why I think that a better question than “Are some boundaries wrong?” is “Are some boundaries incompatible with having a healthy relationship?” Yes, I think some are. I think that if your boundary is that you will not hear the other person’s feelings, including feelings about you and/or the relationship; if you will not provide them even a minimal amount of support and emotional labor; if you cannot handle having boundaries set with you–then you aren’t prepared for a healthy relationship.
And some people pass through periods like that in their lives due to trauma or grief or whatever else, and that’s okay. Their boundaries aren’t wrong. They’re just not particularly conducive to relationships (platonic or otherwise), and rather than shaming them for having those boundaries or simply trampling over those boundaries as if they aren’t there, you should give them space to move through that.
But can’t you abuse someone by setting a boundary?
I’m not sure. Most definitions of abuse focus on the fact that it is an attempt (intentional/aware or otherwise) to control another person. Depending on the type of abuse (and they often go together), an abuser might control their target’s finances, location, body, property, behavior, emotional expression, or even (in the case of gaslighting) their perception of reality. Abuse is too much closeness, not too much distance.
What is a boundary? The most basic way I can define it is that a boundary is a condition I get to set about how others will interact with me–how (or whether) they will touch my body, how they will speak to me, what our relationship will look like, what kinds of things we will do together. Some people see boundaries as rules we set for other people, but I see them as conditions: do this [wear a barrier/discuss your STI results/check in with me every step of the way/let me know who else you’re sleeping with and what safer sex methods you’ve used with them], or else I will not have sex with you. Don’t do this [scream/call me names/talk about your sex life/comment on my body/use the wrong pronouns], or else I will not interact with you. You do have the option of disregarding my boundaries, but then I have the option of cutting off contact with you.
When conceptualized this way, boundaries cannot possibly be abusive because they do not control any aspect of anyone else or their life–except where it intersects with mine. Controlling what you do with your money is abusive; controlling what you do with my money is not. Controlling what you do with your body is abusive; controlling what you do with your body when it is interacting with my body is not. Telling you that you are not allowed to feel angry at me is abusive; telling you how I can handle hearing anger is not.
Generally, abuse harms because it destroys the healthy distance between one person and another, replacing one person’s thoughts, preferences, choices, and perception of reality with the abuser’s. When boundaries hurt, they hurt because they create distance, and it’s more distance than you wanted.
Obviously there are some murky areas here. For instance, some people are triggered even by appropriate expressions of anger because of past abuse. I’ve had times when even if a partner said to me calmly, “It made me angry when you made that comment about [thing],” that would be way too much. Had I known the language of boundaries, I might have tried to tell them that they cannot tell me that they’re angry with me.
I don’t know what to say here except that that’s your challenge to work through. As I said before, I don’t think that healthy relationships are possible if you restrict which emotions people are allowed to express to you. I also think that there will be potential friends and partners who accept such terms, and whether that’s healthy for them or not is their business.
Even if boundaries themselves can’t be abusive, the boundary-setting process can be. There’s a huge difference between, “I’m sorry, I’m not in a good place right now to listen to what you’re going through” and “Leave me alone, I don’t care about your stupid feelings.” There is also a huge difference between treating the person’s needs as valid and reasonable–but just not meetable by you in that moment–and treating them as invalid and unreasonable. If you’re invalidating your partner’s experience, that’s abusive.
If you’re concerned that you’re not getting this right, try checking whether or not you are taking responsibility for your own boundaries: “I can’t because I’m not in a good place right now” versus “I can’t because you’re too emotional,” for instance. No, they’re not too emotional. You are not currently able to process their emotions with them.
Usually when someone insists to me that boundaries can be abusive, the examples they give aren’t really boundaries at all. That’s not out of bad faith–abusers are really great at making their preferences seem like needs and your needs seem like preferences or inconveniences or even abuses in and of themselves. Here are some examples of boundaries that are not actually:
1. “My boundary is that you can’t have sex with anyone but me.”
I’m sure this is an unpopular opinion for any monogamous folks reading this, but bear with me for a sec. This isn’t a boundary because it is an attempt to control another person’s behavior outside of your personal bubble. In that way, it’s no different from saying “My boundary is that you can’t be friends with anyone but me.” Now, this may be a reasonable request in a monogamous framework, but that doesn’t make it a boundary. That makes it a request that the other person has to voluntarily agree to meet, and if they’re cool with meeting it, no problem. (A big problem with how most people practice monogamy is that it’s not truly voluntary because it’s considered the unspoken default. More on that in a future post.)
There are ways to restate this as a boundary: “I cannot have sex with you if you’re also having sex with other people because it makes me uncomfortable/because of STI risk/etc.” “I cannot be in a relationship with anyone who wants multiple partners.” While some may argue that the difference is semantic, I would argue that the difference lies in whose responsibility it ultimately is to meet your needs. Does your partner have to stop having sex with others whether they want to or not, or do you need to find a partner who is interested in monogamy?
(And again, if you say “Could you stop having sex with anyone but me?” and they say “Sure!”, then there’s no issue.)
In my view, framing monogamy as a boundary is one of those murky areas and I’m not really comfortable with it. The idea that your boundary can be what other people do with other people doesn’t sit right. The only reason most of us view monogamy as a valid boundary is because of the privileged status that romantic-sexual relationships hold in society. As I said, most people would recognize it as abusive to tell your friend that they shouldn’t have any friends but you.
2. “My boundary is that you can’t be angry at me.”
This isn’t a boundary because it’s an attempt to control another person’s feelings. Feelings and expressions aren’t the same thing; someone can feel angry at you without expressing that in a way you’re not okay with. Other people get to feel however they feel, and so do you. As soon as you get into the Dictating How Other People Get To Feel game, you’re well on your way to establishing an abusive dynamic.
3. “My boundary is that I feel unsafe if you don’t support me/have sex with me/agree with what I say/comfort me after you’ve set a boundary with me/etc”
This is a very insidious type of emotional abuse that, unfortunately, proliferates in progressive/feminist communities. The language of “feeling unsafe” is co-opted, usually by men with their female/femme/AFAB partners, to get your partner to do what you want.
First of all, your boundary cannot be that someone has to do something for you. That’s not a boundary; that’s you wanting someone to do something for you. And that desire may be very legitimate, and you may want it very badly, and you may indeed feel very bad (or even, in your perception, “unsafe”) if you don’t get it, but that doesn’t make it a “boundary.”
Second, you may only be interested in relationships where support/sex/agreement/comfort are things that generally happen, and you can leave relationships that aren’t meeting your needs, but you can’t claim that a partner who is not meeting your needs is violating your boundaries and you cannot try to require your partner to do any of those things. That’s such a perversion of what boundaries and bodily/emotional autonomy are all about that it makes me shudder.
This brings me right back around to how I started this article. Are some boundaries invalid? Is it invalid to say that you’re not okay with being called out, or listening to someone’s emotions, or supporting someone with their mental illness?
Let’s flip that around. Is it okay to say that someone else must listen to your call-outs or emotions or mental illness details? Is it okay to say that just because you’re angry at someone, they must hear that out?
Because if we say that that boundary is invalid, we’re saying that it’s okay to violate it because it’s not really a boundary at all. We’re saying that if we see a “no trespassing” sign on land that we know we’re allowed to access, we can legally and ethically disregard that sign and go there anyway.
On the other hand, we can say, “Your boundaries are valid, but I don’t see how I can have a healthy relationship with you that way, so I need to leave.” We can say, “I cannot date someone with this particular set of boundaries; thanks for warning me.” We can say, “If that boundary changes, let me know.”
It will be tempting to create a hierarchy of who gets to set particular boundaries and who doesn’t. “Okay,” you might concede, “if you have a Real Certified Trauma™ or Mental Illness™ then you can request that people not call you out or talk to you about being angry at you. Otherwise, sorry, you gotta do it.”
But here in the real world, there is not a single traumatized or mentally ill person who has not at some point believed that their trauma or illness is not real or valid. Most of us are still battling that fear every single day. Informal mental illness accommodations like these must be available to everyone or else very few of the people who need them will use them. There is no certification process for trauma or mental illness, and if there were, it would probably be monstrously unfair.
It’s also a rare woman or AFAB person who has not lived a lifetime of gaslightling. We are very quick to tell ourselves that we must not really feel the way we feel, and even that we must not have really experienced what we’ve just experienced. Boundaries must be easy to set, and they must automatically be treated as valid, or else they will never get set.
So, in conclusion: yes, there are complications to All Boundaries Are Valid. There are complications and nuances to everything. All Boundaries Are Valid is Boundaries 101, just like Atoms Consist Of Protons, Neutrons, and Electrons is Physics 101. You don’t need to get right into quarks and positrons and whatever-the-heck right away, especially if you haven’t yet learned about protons, neutrons, and electrons.
I’ve written often about the tension between getting the nuances exactly right and giving people information they desperately need. This is another example. Most of the people I write for have a lifetime of gaslighting and boundary violations behind them. Right now, they need to hear that their boundaries are valid. Once they’ve mastered that, we can get into the quarks and positrons of it.
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