In a previous blog post, I discussed the difference between rules, agreements, boundaries, and limits. I didn’t spend a lot of time discussing why it’s so important to have exact language and, more importantly, to make sure you and whomever you are talking to have the same definitions of these words. I’m going to go over all of these again and help you understand where people get lost in not being pedantic about their use.
Manipulation and Intention
First I want to point out the difference between doing something intentionally to hurt someone else or get them to behave in the way you want them to, and doing something because that’s how you learned how to behave, and you don’t know any other way. Manipulation is when person A attempts to influence person B in some way so person A can get what they want. Sometimes person A does this without care or consideration for how much it might hurt person B. When person A does this with malice and likes to intentionally hurt person B, we might colloquially call them a sociopath, psychopath, narcissist, or gaslighter. Most of us are actually person A, in that we are trying to influence others to behave in ways that are better for us, we just aren’t doing it with malice towards person B. Remember that it’s extremely difficult to tell if someone is manipulating in the first way or in the second way. Sometimes we try very hard to be kind with our influence by working towards agreements, and if that doesn’t work, we need to move to boundaries and limits to protect ourselves.
Rules are the most authoritarian version of this list. One person (or group) decides unilaterally what the rule is and then has power to enforce consequences of the rule. This set-up creates an inherent power imbalance. If you are a community leader, by virtue of your rule making and enforcement, you have power, and it’s important that you understand that power. It comes into play if you get involved with someone in the group that isn’t a leader that you could kick out if you break up. It also unintentionally comes up in relationships when one person 1. Tries to tell someone else how to behave without getting their buy-in and enacts unstated consequences, or 2. Doesn’t state their expectations and then punishes the other person based on those unstated expectations.
Lack of buy-in. The way I see this the most in nonmonogamous relationships is when one person pulls veto power. You may think you had an agreement about veto power, but ultimately when that card is played, it comes out as a rule – “You will break up with your other partner”. If that person decides they no longer want to abide by the agreement, it becomes a big problem.
The other way I see lack of buy-in play out is when someone states they have a problem with something and assume that means the other person is just going to change their behavior. Often the first person gets frustrated and says they thought they had an agreement when really all they had was silence. This is a couple communication problem. Neither party is negotiating in good faith. The first person isn’t getting positive consent to the agreement before assuming it’s in play, and the second person isn’t communicating their discomfort with the request.
Unstated Expectations. Many of our expectations about how people “should” behave comes from our culture, family of origin, or our wider social group. We don’t often realize we are even holding these expectations. We go into a relationship with them and then get angry or frustrated when someone doesn’t have the same expectations. I see this one come up more around communication expectations. Think of the expectation: “If you were excited about me, you would chat with me more often.” In reality, that other person might be just as excited about you, but they have an exhausting job, hate being on their phone for long periods of time, and/or prefer to keep all their chatting to in-person conversations. You might get angry with someone over lack of communication before you even understand where they are coming from.
In all of your relationships, you want to be able to come to agreements about what is acceptable behavior within the relationship. If you haven’t talked about whether or not something is an acceptable behavior, then you haven’t made an agreement. You really can’t assume anything. Even what monogamous people consider cheating isn’t consistent. Something doesn’t become an agreement unless all parties involved have discussed the item, been fully honest about their opinion on it, and have said “yes, I am willing to behave this way.”
A couple places this ends up getting lost in translation is when two people make an agreement with each other that affects a third person, and then they just expect the other person to play into their agreement. This might look like two people agreeing to stop using condoms, but not talking to any other partners about it, or how that might affect them and their condom use. Now I know this is a big point of contention in some online poly circles. If two people want to stop using condoms, they should have that freedom without worrying about others getting angry, as long as they communicate within their agreements with others. Unfortunately that’s not how things work in real life.
People often mix up boundaries and rules. In boundaries, it’s important to understand that you only have control over yourself, your behavior, and your emotions. You might hope that your boundaries convince someone else to behave better, but ultimately, they are about you taking action to protect yourself in specific situations. In the previous example, if you don’t want to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t use condoms with your or other partners, then it’s up to you to get out of the relationship if the other person is saying they will never use condoms in the ways that feel safe to you.
If you find that one person is constantly breaking agreements, then you often have to move to boundaries. If you have an agreement with your partner that the two of you don’t use condoms, but you both always use condoms with other people, and they keep not using condoms, then it’s time to move that agreement to a boundary. Your boundary might now be that you require condom use with that partner, or you stop dating that person if they don’t want to start wearing condoms. Or maybe you end the relationship because they can’t hold an agreement.
Boundaries are great for protecting yourself, but they can only go so far. If someone is absolutely determined to step over your boundary to get what they want, there isn’t always something you can do about it. Stealing, cheating, stalking, and r*pe are examples of utter disregard for the boundaries of others. Having good boundaries will protect you from most people, though sometimes at the cost of that relationship. If you struggle to keep up boundaries because you have a fear of abandonment, it’s important to work on that fear or you will keep struggling with having boundaries.
Let’s get clear about the difference between a limit and a boundary. Limits are temporary, moveable boundaries that you may not always be able to communicate well with others as things are fluid, or you may not always know yourself when you’ve hit a limit. I, for instance, can only take so many hugs when I go to a party. This is a limit. The amount of hugs might depend on how my day has gone and how ready I am to be social. I may decide before I show up that I don’t want any hugs. It’s up to me to tell my friends (politely) that I’m not up for hugs today. I may not need to tell them anything if I feel like I’m up for all the hugs. Now, if I never wanted hugs from anyone ever, that’s a boundary, and I “should” only have to say it to someone once, and if someone tries to cross the boundary, I leave. However, I don’t expect people to know my limits and what they look like, so if they try to hug me, I don’t view it as a boundary crossing, I view it as something I need to communicate.
If you are used to one person constantly pushing over your limit, even when you’ve told them what your limits are, you might find that you end up with a boundary out of sheer exasperation.
One thing I often see in relationships is one person asks the other person to do something, and the other person does that thing for two weeks and then reverts back to old behavior. Not all of the time, but some of the time, the other person says they didn’t think this was a permanent change. This may be confusion over what is a limit and what is a boundary, especially when there is a gray area on a behavior someone isn’t motivated to change.This is where using the phrasing of boundaries vs. limits helps out. If you don’t specify, one person might be considering your ask to be a temporary change, while you are communicating a permanent change. This most often comes up when one person doesn’t like the change you are asking for.
Why The Pedantry?
There are people out there that really dislike when another person asks them what they mean by a word. But being on the same page as someone else is essential to good communication. Even more important is understanding when a word is vague, or when someone might have a different definition of a word. One of the reasons I emphasize applying an exact definition to all of these words is so you can call people on it when they are weaponizing one, or when they are causing themselves undue stress by thinking they are accomplishing something when they are not.
Using the words wrong. I often see people use many of these words interchangeably. Sometimes that’s just an indicator that someone doesn’t really know better. The most difficult one is when people use the word “boundary” and don’t realize what they are actually doing is trying to enact a “rule”. They either want all the power of enacting a rule, but spin themselves in circles when they can’t force other people to behave in ways because they don’t actually have that power. Or, they aren’t willing to be the one that enacts the behavior a boundary crossing triggers.
People weaponize the word boundaries when they claim they are a victim when you decided not to change your behavior in response to something that’s actually a rule. Let’s look at an example. If you live with several roommates and you say “My boundary is that my bedtime is 10pm, and everyone needs to be quiet.” That’s you trying to enact a rule without getting feedback from others. Everyone else in the house might go to bed at 1am and not be interested in being quiet at 10pm. You don’t get to tell others how to behave, same as they don’t get to tell you.
The more you create a shared understanding of language with partners, the more you’ll be able to avoid many of the tripping hazards that plague people new to nonmonogamy. These assumptions about meaning happen to everyone, even experienced poly people, but you can prevent a lot of the frustration, hurt, and disconnect, if you work from the beginning to make sure you’re all using the same word to mean the same thing. Even if you have been doing this a while it can be beneficial to check in with your people to see how they define different words. An easy place to start that Carrie often uses with her clients is asking each other how they define the word date. What constitutes a date? How do you know if you’re on one? What are your agreements around communicating if you are going on a date with someone new? If you both don’t define the word date similarly, this can lead to confusion and pain if Partner A feels blindsided by the Partner B suddenly going on “dates” that don’t count as such to Partner B, but do meet the definition to Partner A.