In this factsheet, we’ll discuss:
- What is a boundary?
- Different types of boundaries (physical, emotional, sexual…)
- How to set boundaries, including phrases to use
- What to do when your boundaries have been crossed
- How to respect other people’s boundaries
What are boundaries?
The term "boundaries" has been thrown around a lot lately, confusing many, because what is a boundary really? Is it a rule? A tool? A limit? A preference?
A boundary could be all of the above. As psychotherapist Jessica Fern writes, “Our boundaries are the meeting point between ourselves and another—the point at which we can be both separate and connected.” Boundaries can be thought of as guidelines to personal fulfillment and self-protection. They can be felt as a sense of safe proximity, intimacy and sovereignty. Boundaries can be firm or flexible. They will change and evolve. Boundaries will be different for everyone.
To break it down a little bit more concretely, boundaries come in multiple forms: physical, emotional, sexual, financial, temporal, and material. Let’s look a little deeper at each type…
What are physical boundaries? How is a condom a boundary?
Condoms are a boundary by way of barrier; exactly what it sounds like. They are not a limitation, but an excellent tool.
Condoms have been a part of human history for a long time. One of the earliest documented uses of condoms was in 1564, a time when smashing could lead to a death sentence, as syphilis raged throughout Europe and was often fatal. In the 17th century, the reproductive role of sperm was discovered and naturally the church became outraged over the use of condoms because it interfered with procreation. Aren’t we glad it’s 2022? Condoms have historically been made out of all sorts of materials: tortoise shell, sheep intestine, linen (so breathable! obvs didn't work), oiled paper... Thankfully, nowadays we can enjoy the progress our ancestors have made. Modern condoms are not only an excellent means of protection against STDs and unwanted pregnancy, they are a great example of a physical boundary that can help us set—and understand—other forms of boundaries.
Condoms are literally a boundary. They are a physical barrier, a sheath that prevents the exchange of fluids. Using them is a decision we can make to 1) get things we do want (sex with someone) and 2) not get things we don’t want (whether that’s STDs, pregnancy, or irritating bacteria). This gets at the crux of all boundaries: they exist to help you experience what you want/need and to filter out what you don’t want/need.
Sometimes a physical boundary like a condom—a space between you and me—can even connect to a sexual or emotional boundary. We have friends, for example, who like to use condoms with new partners until they’ve established a certain level of trust and intimacy—raw sex is something to look forward and build up to. For them, condoms help pace intimacy, to not fall “too deep, too fast,” or to not catch too many feelings from someone who might just be a f*ck buddy. Reevaluating the need for a condom after a certain amount of time is an easy and fun way to go to the next level. Don’t forget, boundaries can be fluid and adaptable.
What are emotional boundaries? And how can we practice them?
Naturally, there are many interpretations of emotional boundaries. They encompass everything from creating a desired emotional distance to requiring a subject of conversation be off limits. Quoting Jessica Fern again: “Our boundaries guide us in navigating our relationships and they are directly related to the ways in which we are able to give and receive love.” Clinical psychologist Alexandra H. Solomon has described healthy boundaries as a balance, where you are able to both connect as well as be apart from someone, maintaining your own energy and sense of self (as your partner, friend or family member does the same).
You may have heard that someone has “bad” boundaries. We prefer to use less judgmental language and to think about “porous” and “rigid” boundaries. Porous boundaries might involve taking on other people’s emotions like a sponge (hi Pisceans!), over-giving to a point of self-depletion, or excessively unloading our emotions and perspectives onto another. While rigid boundaries could involve blocking energy and feelings coming your way. Certainly, this could be a valid self-protective mechanism, acquired for our emotional survival, but if we lack the capacity to turn a firm boundary on and off, we might miss out on good vibes and true, trustworthy love when it’s present in our lives. Rigid boundaries could also be a refusal to communicate or share ourselves with another, under-giving and self-restraint. This, of course, could create unwanted missed connections.
It is important that we consciously choose our own emotional boundaries instead of simply following societal scripts or the patterns we have learned early in life or during times of trauma. In order to do this, we must focus on identifying, communicating and negotiating our desires, fears, expectations and limits. Some of this work can be done alone or with a therapist, but in relationship matters, relationships themselves are often our best teachers.
Some examples of emotional boundaries include:
- Asking for that forehead kiss or cuddle after the first fuck
- Needing to move slow in a new relationship, and having your romantic interest respect your needed stated pace
- Being unavailable for a committed partnership for a period of time (for example, while going through a phase of personal growth and study, or while taking care of a sick family member)
- Not wanting to “trauma bond,” i.e. talking too much too soon about past traumas with a new person in your life
Emotional boundaries are so varied. Always move ethically, ask questions, have empathy and respect others and your own boundaries.
What are sexual boundaries? And how can we practice them?
Sexual boundaries are akin to emotional ones in many ways, but they offer physical structure and guidelines to follow in a relationship or sex act.
Sexual boundaries are as expansive or limited as you want them to be. It could be a sexual act someone isn’t willing to do ever or at least until a certain level of comfort/intimacy is reached. For example, no butt stuff, no slapping, only butt stuff, etc. It could be guiding someone right into your G/P spot and away from that ticklish spot you hate.
Sexual boundaries are particularly important for trans and nonbinary people as their genitals and their relationship to them differs from person to person. Sexual boundaries could include the language we like (and don’t like!) using in bed or for our body parts and what dirty talk is on or off the table. Listen to what your sexual partner is telling you, and don’t try to budge them out of their comfort zone without their clear and articulated consent. Do not make assumptions and do not operate based on what other people have shown you they enjoyed. Treat every new partner as their own individual with unique and special needs that you simply can’t wait to learn about!
Relationship structures are another example of a sexual boundary, whether you are into monogamous, monogamish, nonmonogamous, open or polyamorous relationships. All involve rules and sexual boundaries about who can fuck who, how, why and when. Requiring your partners to get tested for STIs regularly could be a sexual boundary, as could using a specific mode of protection.
How do we set boundaries of any variety?
Depending on how they have been modeled (or not modeled) to us, boundaries can feel scary; we may fear that setting boundaries will push the person we're interested in away. And yet, not setting a boundary can be a threat to our relationships with ourselves and our satisfaction in our relationships with others.
Some may fear they don't know where to begin the boundary-setting process. Below are some examples of how to phrase dating boundaries:
- I am not ready to commit.
- One glass of wine is my limit.
- I am not comfortable with sexting.
- I am not ready to tell you about my family.
- I am busy tonight, but I am free tomorrow!
- I need us to talk about STD testing and contraception before we have sex.
- I am not OK with you talking about our sex life in front of others.
- I am not ready to meet your parents.
- I won’t have sex if you’re really drunk; it makes me feel unsafe.
- Let me get back to you, I need some time to think.
- I am looking for a monogamous relationship. I am not interested in anything else right now.
The sooner we set boundaries, the better. It can be harder to change boundaries once the relationship dynamic has already been established.
Here are some important things to remember when setting boundaries:
- You may have to articulate your boundary more than once.
- You have to hold people accountable.
- Boundary-setting with others often starts with setting boundaries for yourself.
- People will often only take your boundaries as seriously as you take them.
- Boundaries may change over time.
- In order to set a boundary, we must clearly communicate it.
- Be ready to respect other people’s boundaries if you expect them to respect yours.
It’s common to hear (or think!) things like, "If they loved me, they would know what I want and need." But we need to stop assuming people will know our boundaries—and start setting some.
Boundaries should reflect who we are and our context. Boundaries are not about setting ultimatums, gaining control or offering passive suggestions. Boundaries are about being clear about our needs, expectations and limits (what we are willing to tolerate or not).
Remember, just like anything else, setting boundaries takes practice!
So your boundaries have been crossed, now what?
Setting boundaries is crucial, but it can be difficult to keep healthy and positive boundaries when others violate them. Most people do not intentionally violate boundaries. They do so out of ignorance, lack of critical thought or because that’s their go-to strategy for building any kind of relationship with someone. Still, regardless of good or bad intent, your boundaries have still been violated. It’s a very uncomfortable and unpleasant feeling to see the lines you clearly indicate blatantly stepped over.
MAKE YOUR BOUNDARIES EXTRA CLEAR (TO YOURSELF AND TO OTHERS).
Not sure how to figure out where your real boundaries lie? You have to be honest with yourself, but that’s easier said than done. Here are some tips for positive action:
- Give yourself permission to have boundaries and recognize that you deserve to have them.
- Start small and work your way up.
- Discuss them with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist.
- Pay attention to your emotions and feelings.
- Learn self-awareness and self-honesty.
- Consider your past experiences.
You shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for having boundaries. When your boundaries have been crossed, there are plenty of ways you can go about correcting these negative people in your life, but it’s important that you do correct them. You have the right to declare your values, so tell them that your boundaries are not on the table for discussion. It’s simple: no means no, no matter what. Do note, though, that you do not have to be hurtful in order to be strict. Set boundaries and correct others firmly, but gently and kindly, too—especially for first-time “offenders.” Do not resort to personal insults. You’re better than that!
Uh oh. It appears I have crossed someone’s boundaries. What should I do?
Sometimes, a person will tell you directly if you’ve crossed a line. In that case, it’s always best to apologize and correct the offensive behavior. Failing to take a step back when you’ve been asked to, either literally or figuratively, can create a lot of discomfort for the people around you. That doesn’t mean that you should be anxious about getting to know new people. What it does mean is that you should be mindful of the way a person reacts to what you say and do. Be sure to listen throughout the conversation, and take note if something you’ve said has been taken the wrong way. If so, apologize and try not to repeat the behavior. Most cuties can forgive a one-time slip up, but making the same mistake repeatedly can damage the vibes. Be mindful of eye contact, body language, physical or verbal redirections and, of course, direct complaints.
A final note
If boundaries are a fairly new concept to you, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Reframe your thinking and push through the awkwardness of it all! Remember—boundaries are a tool—not a limitation.