Are All Boundaries Valid?

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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Are All Boundaries Valid?
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You Don’t Need Your Partner’s Agreement to Break Up With Them

I hear some version of this very often, usually from women:

“I want to break up with my partner, but they don’t want to so I guess we’re staying together for now.”

“I want a divorce, but my husband wants to keep working on the marriage, so I’ll try it.”

“I tried to end my relationship, but it didn’t really ‘take.’”

Sometimes people want to break up and then they change their minds. But often, they don’t really change their minds–they just believe that breaking up, like getting together, is something that has to happen by mutual agreement.

It doesn’t. You can end a relationship (platonic, romantic, and/or sexual) at any time, with or without your partner’s agreement, with or without explanation, with or without “working on it” first, with or without meeting with them face to face, with or without apology.

“But ending a relationship without any of those things is a dick move!” Maybe? But the majority of the time I see it happen that way, it’s happening that way for a reason. The dumper may feel unsafe around the dumpee, they may know or suspect that the dumpee will try to pressure them into staying if they sit down for a conversation about it, they may have already told the dumpee many times that they will need to leave if things don’t change, and now they’re done.

It’s definitely easier if both partners agree that it’s time to end the relationship and what their interactions should look like going forward, and it’s great when that happens. But you can’t force it. If there’s a disagreement, the partner who wants less intimacy gets their way–not because the other partner’s desires aren’t valid, but because doing it any other way is a boundary violation. If you want us to hug and I don’t want to, then we don’t hug. If I want us to go on a date and you don’t want to, then we don’t go on a date. Otherwise, I would be forced into a hug I don’t want and you’d be forced into a date you don’t want, and that’s not okay. It’s not okay for anyone to be forced into a relationship, either.

Here someone often brings up “compromise.” You want physical intimacy with me and I don’t. What you really want is sex, but since you know it’s clearly wrong to pressure someone into sex, can’t we “at least” cuddle? If I wanted to, sure. But as I said, I don’t want physical intimacy with you at all. Cuddling isn’t a “compromise.” It’s a violation of my boundaries.

Likewise with ending relationships. Sometimes both exes want to stay friends after the breakup, and that’s great. But sometimes, only one of them does, and it becomes easy for the other to pressure them into a friendship as a “compromise”–especially if the person who wants the friendship is the person who just got dumped. “Can we at least be friends, then, if you won’t date me anymore?” “Fine, I guess.”

Charitably, I could say that the reason this happens is because people are modeling their breakups on their other Big Relationship Decisions, most of which involved mutual agreement or at least compromise. In healthy relationships, people take all the big steps–becoming “official,” moving in together, getting engaged, whatever–because they both really want to. Maybe to them that means that a breakup should only happen when they both really want to, too.

Healthy relationships also involve some amount of compromise, because needs don’t always perfectly align. If I really want to go out with my friends but my partner is sick and can’t cook dinner for themselves, I might stay and make dinner for them–not because I want to stay home and cook rather than going out with my friends, but because I care about my partner and want to help them.

If you’re really used to making these kinds of decisions–and most people in serious relationships are–then deciding to break up can feel similar. You’re pretty sure you want it to be over, but your partner reeeeeally wants you to stay, so you figure, “Well, I could stay for a bit longer, or I could stay as a more casual partner,” but then “a bit longer” turns into “indefinitely” and “more casual” turns into “exactly the same as it was before, except with more resentment because I thought things were going to be more casual and you’re still expecting them to be the same.”

Less charitably, though, there are some bigger issues going on. First of all, many people still think of relationships in terms like “obligation” and “duty,” which makes them very difficult to end or change. If you feel that you “owe” your partner a romantic relationship because they’re so nice to you or because they want it so much, how are you supposed to end it?

Second, women in particular (and, by extension, people perceived as women) are usually socialized to prioritize their partners over themselves. For many people, that means that even if you really want to break up, a partner’s strong desire to stay together overrides your desire to leave.

Finally, many people are manipulative and controlling in their relationships. I’m not just talking about abuse, although the line between these behaviors and abuse can be very difficult to draw. A manipulative and controlling partner can easily make it seem like breaking up with them is a grievous and unacceptable offense, not a necessary step that you need to take for your own self-care and wellbeing.

So when I hear things like, “I want to leave but they want to keep working on it, so I’m staying,” that raises a red flag. Why do their preferences override yours?

I’m often hearing about how so many people “these days” just quit relationships at the first sign of trouble rather than trying to “work on it.” From where I’m sitting, I don’t see a lot of that. I see people deciding that they’re no longer invested or safe in certain relationships, so they end those relationships.

If you still love and care about someone and want to be with them, but you’re having issues in your relationship, it might be worthwhile for you to try to “work on it.” (But even then, you don’t owe them that.) If you no longer want to be with that person, there is no “working on it” to be done. You can’t “work on” the fact that you don’t love someone and don’t want to see them anymore. You can’t force yourself to want something you don’t want. And even if you could, you don’t owe them that.

“But what about the people who suddenly up and quit a perfectly good relationship without even talking about it?” What about them? Jerks gonna jerk. I’m less worried about occasional jerks than I am about an entire society full of people, especially women and people perceived as women, who feel obligated to stay in relationships they don’t want. Besides, any relationship that someone wants to end is not a “perfectly good relationship.” If it’s a relationship you don’t want to be in, it’s not good, even if the reason you don’t want to be in it is 100% about you and your own issues.

I should mention: getting dumped sucks. (Usually.) You deserve support if you’re going through that. But the person who just announced that they no longer want to be in a relationship with you doesn’t owe you that support, and they especially don’t owe you any further intimacy just because it hurts you to lose that intimacy. It sucks and I’m sorry, but you’ll need to find support somewhere else and in some other form.

And if you’re the one sitting around waiting and hoping that one day your partner will finally agree with you that it’s time to break up, know this: you don’t need their agreement.

It takes two to tango, but only one to leave the dance floor.


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You Don’t Need Your Partner’s Agreement to Break Up With Them

5 Ways to Navigate Consent with a Partner Who Has Trouble Setting Boundaries

New Everyday Feminism piece!

More than I regret any of my nos, I regret quite a few of my yeses.

To this day, I don’t understand why I’ve said “yes” to some of the things I’ve said “yes” to. Even after I discovered feminism and sex positivity, I kept agreeing to intimacy – physical and emotional – that I didn’t want, or quickly realized I didn’t want. The longer I went without admitting that I didn’t want it after all, the harder it became to speak up.

It didn’t help that when I did speak up, my partners were often confused – and even angry. “Why didn’t you just tell me before?” is something I heard often.

If that sounds a little like you – I hear you. You have a long journey ahead of you, but you’re not alone in making it. These resources can help.

And if that sounds a little like your partner, this article is for you.

Navigating a relationship with someone who has a hard time saying “no” challenges your ability to respect both your partner’s boundaries and their autonomy.

You want to trust their words and take them at face value, but you know from experience that that’s not always possible. You can do your best to create a safe space for your partner to let you know when they’re not okay with things, but they may not be ready to meet you in that space yet.

If your partner is a woman or is perceived as one, they are especially likely to have difficulty with this. Our society teaches women that their boundaries are invalid in many ways.

However, people of any gender may have a hard time setting boundaries because it’s not easy even in the best of circumstances. People with a history of trauma or abuse may have grown up with the belief that their boundaries won’t be respected no matter how hard they work at setting them, so why bother?

As much as you might want to, you cannot undo the things that made your partner who they are. You can work with them to build a relationship that honors that history while also helping them to heal.

Here are five ways you can try.

1. Remember That Only Yes Means Yes

When you’re involved with someone who has a hard time saying “no” directly, it’s important to be aware that responses like “okay,” “that’s fine,” or “I guess” probably do not mean “yes” – especially not when combined with non-responsive body language, lack of eye contact, and a monotone.

Unless your partner has made it clear to you that they intend for these types of response to communicate consent, it’s safest to treat them as “no”s.

Many people have pushed back against the enthusiastic consent model. Asexual folks and sex workers especially have argued that consent need not be enthusiastic to “count.” Nonverbal consent can be established between close partners, too (and can also be quite enthusiastic itself).

While it’s important to listen to these narratives, we shouldn’t use them as an excuse to ignore potential signs that someone is not really consenting. If you’re not sure what it means when your partner responds to you in a particular way, ask.

Read the rest here.

5 Ways to Navigate Consent with a Partner Who Has Trouble Setting Boundaries

You Are Responsible For Yourself, We Are Responsible For Each Other

One of the principles I try to live by is that we are all responsible for our own emotions. What this means to me is that, while assholes obviously exist and while we should be able to ask our friends, partners, and family for help when it comes to managing our emotions, ultimately it’s not anyone else’s job to keep us from having negative feelings.

My experiences with depression have shaped that view and without them I probably wouldn’t feel so strongly about it. Depression taught me that just because I feel hurt doesn’t mean someone is hurting me. When I broke down sobbing because a partner wanted to end our conversation so that they could go hang out with their friends, they weren’t hurting me. When I felt like shit about myself because a friend got a job and I didn’t have a job, my friend wasn’t hurting me. As a teenager, I would’ve tried to get that partner or that friend to comfort me, or even blamed them for “making” me feel bad. As an adult I’ve learned that while it’s not fair that my brain is the way it is, it’s still ultimately my responsibility.

If depression taught me that I have to take responsibility for my own emotions, polyamory gave me a chance to practice. Polyamory–at least, when practiced with self-awareness–upends the idea that just because you feel jealous, then your partner is “making” you feel jealous*. In traditional monogamous relationships, even just hanging out with a friend of the same gender as your partner can be considered unfair and wrong because it can cause your partner to feel jealous**. In polyamorous relationships, people are intimate with multiple partners and those partners are expected to take responsibility for any jealous feelings they happen to have–even if they ask for support in managing them.

It’s important to distinguish between asking for support and making someone else responsible. Asking for support might sound like, “I want you to go on that date you’re so excited about, but I’m feeling insecure and it would help me a lot if we spent time together afterwards.” Making someone else responsible might sound like, “I don’t want you going on that date. You’re never this excited about anything we do together” or “You’re making me feel like shit. Don’t you care about me?”

Unfortunately, some people think that being responsible for your own feelings means that you don’t get to ask anyone for help with them–or that you shouldn’t be mindful of the people you care about and how they feel. That’s usually the pushback I get when I talk about my rules-free approach to polyamory: “So, what, you’d just go on that date even though your partner’s sitting at home and crying because they feel so bad about it?” Well, no. First of all, I try to avoid dating people who have that much difficulty with me dating other people, because that sounds like an issue of incompatibility. But sometimes things like that happen randomly, and in that case, yes, I would probably stay home. Not because we have a “rule” that my partner can “veto” my dates, but because I love my partner and care about them and I have chosen–even though it’s not my obligation–to stay home and help them feel better.

(And as a sidenote, when communicating that to the person I’m canceling the date with, I would take responsibility for my own actions. Some poly people pull out lines like “Sorry, I can’t go out with you tonight because [other partner] doesn’t want me to,” so that they can conveniently make their other partner out to be the villain even as they supposedly change their plans to care for them. I would say, “Sorry, we need to reschedule because I need to support someone who’s having a hard time. Seeing you is important to me too–what other day would work?” I would not, unless I know it’s okay with my other partner, go into detail about why they need support. That leads too easily into crap like “Oh, you know [other partner], they just get soooo jealous, so I’m always having to stay home and comfort them…” Ick.)

I’ve heard from other poly people that there are, in fact, a lot of poly folks out there who do claim that “you are responsible for your own emotions” means “so I will never do anything to help you through them.” Personally, I haven’t interacted with any–probably because I tend to obsessively avoid asking anyone for support in the first place–but I believe that they exist.

I guess if I had to pick one approach for myself, I’d choose extreme independence rather than controlling people to cope with my emotions. But thankfully, I don’t have to. To me, the corollary to “We are all responsible for our own emotions” is “We should be mindful of our impact on others.”

At first, that might seem like a contradiction. Which is it? Am I supposed to deal with my own hurt feelings, or are you supposed to avoid giving me hurt feelings in the first place?

I think it has to be a little bit of both. I think that in a world where people are careless or intentionally cruel with each other, dealing with your own hurt feelings is going to be a massive burden. I think that in a world where people refuse to place the ultimate responsibility for their feelings upon themselves, trying to take care of others is going to be a massive burden too. The only way this works is if we meet in the middle.

That’s true on a micro level, too. If you’re in a relationship with someone who doesn’t seem to care about how you feel or about avoiding making you feel bad, then no amount of taking responsibility for your own feelings is going to make you feel okay about being in the relationship. You’re going to feel hurt all the time, and you’ll get resentful, and you’ll start to wonder if you’re “crazy” for feeling this way, and your partner may or may not be gaslighting you with crap like “I didn’t ‘make’ you feel anything; you’re responsible for your own feelings.”

Likewise, if you’re in a relationship with someone who thinks it’s your job to keep them from feeling bad, then no amount of caring for them is ever going to solve the problem, because while you can do your due diligence in making sure you don’t hurt them, you cannot keep another human being from feeling bad ever. (Even if you could, that would be way too much work.) You’re always going to feel like nothing you do is ever enough (because for them, it isn’t), like you’re a terrible partner and a terrible human being in general, like you’re no good at relationships.

In a healthy relationship, partners trust each other to care about each other’s feelings and act accordingly, but they don’t feel like they’ll be helpless if their partner happens to be unavailable to support them at any given point in time. (Yes, I recognize that some people think that it’s perfectly healthy to actually depend on one partner and no one else for support, to the point that you actually believe you will not be okay without that support. I just disagree.) If you actually believe that you cannot manage your own emotions without your partner, it will be very difficult for you not to manipulate them.

And in a healthy relationship, partners know that they will support each other when they can, but they do not feel entitled to that support. In that mindset, a partner who chooses not to support you at a given point in time is not (necessarily) doing something wrong or withholding something that is deserved. In that mindset, you support your partner because you care about them and you want to, not because that’s your duty as a partner.

If you’re having disagreements in a relationship (romantic or otherwise) about how someone’s actions are making someone else feel, you may be disagreeing about something more fundamental: your beliefs about what share of the responsibility of managing one’s feelings belongs to the person having the feelings versus the person who triggered*** the feelings.

At that point, it may be more useful to discuss that underlying disagreement first, and see if you can agree on what responsibility you have to each other to manage each other’s emotions.


* There <em>is</em> such a thing as deliberately acting in a way that elicits jealousy from others. But that's not the subject here, except insofar as it obviously falls under things you should not do if you're taking the "being mindful of your impact on others" part seriously. ** #NotAllMonogamy. Obviously monogamy is not incompatible with taking responsibility for yourself, but <em>traditional</em> monogamy tends to discourage this. *** My use of the word "triggered" rather than "caused" is intentional here--I use those to mean slightly different things. If you say something mean (intentionally or otherwise) to someone, you cause them to feel bad. If you choose to spend the night with your friends rather than with them and they feel upset at you because they're lonely, you didn't cause them to feel bad. What caused them to feel bad was their loneliness; your actions were just the trigger.

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You Are Responsible For Yourself, We Are Responsible For Each Other

How to Get the Most Out of Therapy

Drawing of a therapy session in progress.
Credit: Guy Shennan

When you spend a lot of money on things, they usually come with an instruction manual to help you use them in the most effective possible way. Unfortunately, therapy doesn’t.

A common misconception about therapy held by many laypeople (and, unfortunately, some therapists) is that all you have to do as a client is show up and then…some vague hand-wavey magic stuff happens, and then the client gets better. Many people think of therapy like this:

  1. Go to therapy
  2. ???
  3. PROFIT

Really, though, it’s more like this:

  1. Go to therapy
  2. Establish some rapport with the therapist before you can delve into the serious stuff
  3. Sometimes be really uncomfortable
  4. Have a lot of meta-conversations with your therapist–that is, talk to the therapist about the process of talking to the therapist
  5. Do homework (in some types of therapy)
  6. Get called on your shit by the therapist
  7. Be uncomfortable again
  8. Make changes in your life outside of therapy
  9. PROFIT

As a therapist, it’s tempting to say that you should just show up and let the therapist do their job and you’ll feel better. Sometimes that’s exactly how it works. But ultimately, you can only get as much out of therapy as you put into it.

Continue reading “How to Get the Most Out of Therapy”

How to Get the Most Out of Therapy

When Including Friends with Chronic Illness Feels Like Ignoring Boundaries

Text reads, "Plans? Yeah, I know...I cancel, I postpone, I reschedule, I delay committing. Illness sometimes controls my schedule, but I am determined it won't control me! Please keep inviting me."
I’ve been seeing a bunch of memes lately to the effect of, “keep inviting your chronically ill friends to things, even if they always say no/flake out/don’t respond at all/etc.”

(Chronic illness here refers both to mental illness and to chronic physical conditions like fibromyalgia and fatigue.)

That’s a bit of advice that I’ve endorsed and given myself, especially having so often been that exact chronically ill person. I do think that those who are close to someone with a chronic illness and want to be supportive should, if they can, make that extra effort and try to get past their own feelings of rejection to try to include that person, because even if they always say no, the invitations may be a heartening reminder that they’re still wanted and missed. That’s easy to forget when you’re in the throes of a chronic illness flareup, especially if it’s depression.

Lately, though, this advice has been giving me cognitive dissonance and I think I’ve figured out why.

Continue reading “When Including Friends with Chronic Illness Feels Like Ignoring Boundaries”

When Including Friends with Chronic Illness Feels Like Ignoring Boundaries

Nonverbal Consent, Nuance, and Objectivity

[CN: sexual assault]

An academic I follow on Twitter recently quoted this tweet with a (presumably sarcastic) comment about how if it’s true that “consent is never implied,” then they and their partner have been raping each other for years.

(I have no desire to individually call out this particular person or get into an argument about them and their specific views, so I’m not naming them. It’s irrelevant. Many people believe this.)

I was disturbed by this even though it’s not a new opinion to me, nor a new type of response, that flippant “well I guess I’m a rapist then, lol!” as if it’s something to joke about. That still makes me sad every time.

I’ve noticed a tendency to conflate a lot of concepts in this discussion. “Active” isn’t the same thing as “verbal,” and “passive” isn’t the same thing as “nonverbal.” “Implied” isn’t the same thing as “nonverbal,” either. Consent cannot be “implied,” but it can be indicated nonverbally. I would know, because that’s how it works in most of my established relationships.

Continue reading “Nonverbal Consent, Nuance, and Objectivity”

Nonverbal Consent, Nuance, and Objectivity

Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing

Lately I’ve been disturbed by the tendency among many progressive folks to conflate boundary setting with tone policing.

When I tell people that I have a very strong preference not to be yelled at or called names, they say, “But isn’t that kind of tone policing?”

If it is, then I’ll have to admit to tone policing, because being able to set boundaries in my own space is important enough to me to risk pissing people off. In fact, as anyone who sets boundaries with any regularity knows, it’s a surefire way to piss people off no matter what kind of boundaries they are.

This is a complex topic so I will do my best to be nuanced about it. I’m going to state upfront (and I will return to this later) that tone policing is a real and harmful phenomenon, and that sometimes (not always) setting boundaries can include tone policing. That is true, and it is also true that the concept is sometimes misapplied in ways that are intended to justify cruel or even abusive behavior.

What is tone policing?

Tone policing is when more-powerful people dismiss the real concerns and call-outs of less-powerful people because of the tone they use. For instance, if I see a person of color posting “FUCK these racist-ass cops” and I respond, “You may have a point there but aren’t you being a little too angry about this?”, then I’m tone policing. Either the person has a point or they don’t; the tone is irrelevant to that. More-privileged people tend to assume that if someone is being really angry about an injustice that affects them, then their assessment of the situation is not to be trusted because it’s too clouded with emotion. In fact, the opposite is probably true; they’re probably so angry because it’s so damn awful. Not only is it perfectly healthy and appropriate for them to express anger at situations that are truly infuriating, but that anger can be an important signal to those who don’t experience that particular injustice, because it lets them know: pay attention. There’s something going on here.

Tone policing can also happen in a more interpersonal context. If a man I know refers to another woman as a slut and I say, “Whoa, what the fuck, don’t ever call a woman that!”, it would be tone policing for him to totally dismiss my concern and respond by criticizing my tone. Tone policers often also add a patronizing little bit about how “if you’d said it differently I would’ve listened to you,” proving that they are, in fact, perfectly capable of listening, they’re just choosing not to in this moment.

Anger vs meanness, intent vs impact

Sometimes the concept of tone policing is over-applied. For starters, people sometimes conflate anger and meanness. It’s possible to express anger without being mean. For instance, you can say, “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit,” or you can say, “What you just said is really messed up and really pisses me off.” Part of the problem of tone policing is that people will often misinterpret the latter statement as mean and overly angry, too, but they would be wrong. The latter statement is honest and direct and not intended to hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s intended to express anger.

If someone hears “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit” and responds with, “Whoa, it’s not ok to speak to me that way,” they’re often told that they’re tone policing and trying to prevent someone else from expressing anger. That’s not the case. The fact that someone has a boundary around being referred to as a “worthless piece of shit” doesn’t mean they’re unwilling to hear that someone is angry with them, or that they think the other person’s feelings are invalid.

And yes, sometimes the person who’s angry is so hurt that all they’re able to say is “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit.” It happens, and I think we should all, if we can, try to practice compassion for people who say mean things from a place of deep (often structural) hurt.

However, that doesn’t actually negate someone else’s boundaries. As we’re all fond of saying, intent isn’t impact. I don’t have to accept being called a worthless piece of shit just because someone else is legitimately upset.

Continue reading “Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing”

Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing

How To Make Talking About Sex With Your Partner Easier

I have an article up at Everyday Feminism about why it’s hard for a lot of people to talk about sex openly with their partners, and ways they can make it easier.

I have a confession to make.

Despite writing about sex on the Internet, facilitating workshops about consent and sexuality for dozens or hundreds of people, and being openly queer, feminist, and polyamorous, I sometimes choke up when it comes to talking about sex with one of my actual partners.

I want to tell them what I want, or to set a boundary around something I don’t want, but all of a sudden, words completely fail me.

I feel like a hypocrite – but I think there’s more to it than that.

Even in spaces that emphasize celebrating rather than stigmatizing sex, such as feminism and LGBTQIA+ communities, people often have trouble putting their ideals into practice and opening up when talking about sex with partners.

Being part of a sex-positive community can create a lot of pressure: If we’re really sex-positive, shouldn’t we be ready to spill all our deepest fantasies to whomever we want to sleep with?

Not necessarily.

If you have a hard time talking about sex with partners, you’re not alone.

There are a lot of reasons why people might have difficulty with it, and many of them apply across cultures and subcultures. After describing a few ways in which our experiences and the society we live in can make talking about sex challenging, I’ll suggest some strategies for making it a little easier.

5 Reasons Why Talking About Sex Is Hard

1. Internalized Sexual Stigma

Even if you really want to believe that there’s nothing shameful or inherently dangerous about sex, it’s not always easy to internalize that when you’ve grown up in a society that stigmatizes sexuality, especially that of anyone who isn’t a straight, white, cis, able-bodied man.

This can make talking about sex embarrassing or anxiety-provoking, and it doesn’t mean you’re a “prude.”

2. Not Knowing the Words to Use

Sometimes talking about sex is hard because most of the words we know sound either cold and clinical (like vagina and erection) or vulgar and pornographic (like cunt or pussy).

Of course, there’s nothing about these words that makes them inherently wrong or weird to use, and many people do enjoy using them. But if we’re used to seeing them in the context of a high school health textbook or a terribly inappropriate OKCupid message, it might be hard to use them in a more positive way.

3. Cultural Scripts About Sex

In romantic films, the couple usually has an amazingly passionate and satisfying first hook up without ever talking to each other about what they like in bed.

Although we understand that movies aren’t real life, many of us nevertheless end up believing on some level that there’s no need to talk about sex explicitly, and that if the couple “really” clicks, they’ll automatically connect sexually without any prior discussion.

That’s just one example of sexual scripts and how they influence our behavior.

4. Bad Previous Experiences

Some of us are initially enthusiastic about discussing sex openly with partners, but after some bad reactions from others, we lose that openness.

I’ve had partners shut down in response to my attempts to tell them what I like or ask them what they like, or respond with “Uh, that’s weird.”

If this has ever happened to you, I can see why you might not feel too confident about talking about sex anymore.

When it comes to setting sexual boundaries, you may fear that the person will get angry or push you away because that may well have happened in the past.

5. Past Trauma

If you have a history of sexual trauma, sex may not be a topic that you can discuss casually, even with someone you’re close to. Conversations about sex may be triggering or just deeply scary and unpleasant.

This is not your fault, and you can heal with time. These articles may help you.

But whatever the reason discussing sex is tough for you (whether it’s one of these or one of many more), the good news is that there are ways to make it easier.

Here are a few you can try.

Read the rest here.

How To Make Talking About Sex With Your Partner Easier

"You're in my prayers."

[Content note: mentions of grief, loss, illness]

I follow The Best of Tumblr on Facebook for the cat photos and pop culture jokes, but recently I saw this:

[Text version here.]

I’ll admit that I used to subscribe to this way of thinking, even as an atheist. But a few things changed my mind: 1) understanding more about what it means to comfort someone, 2) learning about the dynamics of Christian privilege, and 3) listening to the experiences of those who found religion abusive.

First of all, the point of comforting someone who’s going through some shit is to help them. To help them, not yourself. While that doesn’t make intent totally irrelevant–I’ll get to that in a bit–it does mean that you need to at least try to help them in the way that they would want to be helped, not in the way that you would want to be helped. The Golden Rule is a nice thing to teach children but eventually we need more nuanced and empathic ways of looking at things.

That’s why, as I discussed in my previous post, “How can I support you?” and variants thereof is a great approach. But many Christians don’t even pause to consider that the person they’re speaking to might not be religious, and that–as I’ll also get to in a bit–is an example of Christian privilege. Much of the time, they’re not going out of their way to alienate and irritate atheists; they just conveniently forget that atheists even exist. The idea that someone might not pray, or care about your prayer, is simply invisible.

Where does intent fit in? Well, it can make a difference, but not a huge one. As I’ve written previously:

Not intending to hurt someone is different from intending not to hurt them. If someone accidentally breaks my nice vase, I might be glad in the back of my mind that they didn’t do it on purpose, but I might still be annoyed that they weren’t being careful around my nice vase, especially if they are often clumsy and break people’s things by accident. The analogy holds up for saying/doing bigoted things, too. People who say/do them rarely do so just once.

I’m not going to respect you just for not meaning to say hurtful things. That’s one of those bare-minimum-of-being-a-decent-human-being things. Actively seeking information on how not to be hurtful, on the other hand, is a rarer and more important habit to have.

The intent of phrases like “You’re in my prayers” can be especially difficult to parse. For many atheists, intentionally manipulative deployment of such phrases by Christians is a really common microaggression. They say it to us not because they don’t realize we don’t believe, but because they know we don’t. It’s a power move: “I know this means nothing to you [or even hurts you], but I’m going to say it anyway.”

That doesn’t mean that all (or even most) Christians say it for that reason, obviously. It does mean that almost all atheists have had it said to them for that reason, though. It shouldn’t be surprising that many atheists really don’t want to hear it anymore.

At this point, someone usually puts forth that, yes, sometimes referencing religion in these situations can be self-serving or even passive-aggressive and manipulative, and sure, it’s not ideal, but can’t we just assume good intent and force out a smile and a “thank you”?

Well, assuming good intent and being polite are definitely things I generally encourage because they make social interaction smoother and less stressful, but it’s a heavy burden to place on someone who just lost a loved one or got diagnosed with a terminal illness. I’m glad we seem to have all this empathy for socially awkward Christians who just want to comfort you the best way they know how, but how about some empathy for the person going through the fucking trauma? Maybe they’re not at their best when they’re burying their mother or lying in a hospital bed. Maybe that’s okay.

Further, being able to assume good intent is a privilege. It’s a function of your position in society and the experiences you’ve had as a result. That doesn’t mean it’s bad! It’s great! But not everyone can do it and it’s unreasonable and small-minded to demand that they do.

(This applies along all axes of oppression. When you see a police officer approaching, do you worry that you might die? If not, you’re probably not Black.)

Why might an atheist be unable to assume good intent from a Christian? Religious folks and more-fortunate atheists often erase or disregard the fact that many atheists have had coercive and abusive experiences with religion. Some consider their time in religious spaces to have been traumatizing.

And when you’ve experienced a trauma, little reminders of it can be overwhelming.

Before you rush in with #NotAllReligiousSpaces, remember that it doesn’t matter. Not all religious spaces, but theirs was. It would be good to see more religious folks and more atheists acknowledge this reality. Many are still dismissive or openly contemptuous of the idea that religion can be traumatizing.

Viewed through this angle, a certain amount of snappiness or impoliteness from an atheist being told that “At least your mother is smiling down on you from heaven” makes much more sense. But there’s another way in which Christian privilege plays out in this situation, and that’s in our (yes, atheists’ too) perceptions of tone and “politeness.”

Look at that post again. “Some egotistical shit about being an atheist” often, in my experience, refers to comments like “Actually, I’m an atheist.” Not “fuck you I’m an atheist,” not “take your religion and shove it up your ass,” but “Actually, I’m an atheist.” This is what’s so often perceived as “some egotistical shit” and people who say it are apparently viewed by some as “emotionally inept morons.” (Sorry, the ableist wording was not my choice.)

And while it’s apparently “egotistical” to reference one’s atheism in response to an explicitly religious comment, it’s somehow not “egotistical” to reference one’s religion in response to someone else’s trauma. It’s somehow not “egotistical” to offer unsolicited help that’s not what the person needs, without bothering to ask what they need, and then getting offended when that help is rejected as irrelevant.

This sort of double standard pervades all oppressive dynamics, and religion/atheism is no exception.

When a person with a marked/stigmatized identity does something someone doesn’t like, that identity often gets dragged in to explain it. That’s why an atheist getting snappy about a religious comment following a tragic loss is obviously snappy because they’re an atheist, not because they just lost a loved one and don’t have a lot of emotional energy left to micromanage their responses and perform politeness.

And, look, getting snapped at is an occupational hazard of interacting with someone who’s going through a ton of pain, whether it’s physical, mental, or some combination. If you want to support someone in pain, you need to set a bit of yourself aside and be prepared for some rudeness. That doesn’t mean you have to put up with it indefinitely, and it certainly doesn’t justify anything abusive, but you also don’t get to demand that they be impeccably polite and patient with you while they’re in pain, especially if you’re (unintentionally or otherwise) making that pain worse.

Just as people often try to help others in order to satisfy their own needs, people often reference religion to those going through bad things for the sake of their own coping. Watching someone go through a terrible illness or a painful loss is difficult, and praying or thinking about God’s Ultimate Plan can be comforting for those who believe in such things. So naturally they’d verbalize what they’re thinking. It’s not necessarily the grand selfless act this Tumblr post makes it out to be. Neither is it necessarily a cruel and manipulative act (though it can be); it’s very human to assume that others’ minds work the way ours do.

That it’s human doesn’t make it empirically accurate. It also doesn’t make it kind, let alone the kindest sentiment someone could possibly express. It doesn’t obligate someone who’s suffering a trauma or tragedy to put on a good face to spare that person’s feelings.

The kindest thing you could do for someone in pain is to set aside your own opinions on how they ought to be helped and help them the way they want to be helped.

~~~

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"You're in my prayers."