Viewing all posts on the topic of relationships: communicating, expressing vulnerability, and building intimacy.
Being vulnerable with someone you care about, for most of us, feels a little uncomfortable. When we share what’s really on our minds and hearts, when we talk about our fears and resentments, when we ask for what we really want, we’re opening up to the possibility of being hurt, rejected, or laughed at.
For some people this can feel unsafe to the point where it becomes difficult to trust your own judgement at all. Is the discomfort you feel when you share your vulnerable parts a sign that you’re finally opening up and allowing deeper intimacy? Or is it a sign that your boundaries are being crossed and, well, it’s not safe to share so deeply with this person?
Here are some signs that it might be safe to explore being vulnerable.
1: You’re acting within your boundaries (and limits)
The first thing to get clear on is where your boundaries and limits are. Having fuzzy, unclear, or badly defined boundaries is a surefire way to introduce feelings of unsafety, because ultimately you are the person responsible for deciding what you will allow into your life, and for filtering out everything that you don’t want.
However, there’s a good chance that you’re already pretty good at all of this (and if you’re not, check out my Ultimate Guide to Setting Boundaries).
So the other key thing to know about boundaries is that they are contextual and flexible. They are not impermeable barriers – they can be moved and shifted. You can experiment with them, negotiate them. If you’re used to being very firm and clear with your boundaries then this might feel like an edgy place, but it’s important to bear in mind that being able to talk about your boundaries and have a little flexibility (within your own limits) is an important part of sharing vulnerability.
This can also create more safety, by knowing where your limits are and negotiating contextual boundaries within them.
2: You have a good support network
Being vulnerable is much safer to explore if the person you’re exploring with isn’t your only form of emotional support. Having a close friend or two, family members you can turn to, or a professional you speak with regularly is really important. Not only does this protect your relationship against codependency (because you’re not relying on the other person for all of your needs), but it also helps to give you more safety and security from which to explore more challenging places.
3: Your boundaries are received well by your partner
It’s a great sign if you are able to assert boundaries and limits without the other person becoming defensive or aggressive. This doesn’t mean that they may not be upset if your boundary means they don’t get something they want! But if they are willing to talk with you and they have the capacity to hear your needs without invalidating you then this shows that they can work with you to find solutions that work for you both.
4: You are able to share fears and receive reassurance
Notice whether you are able to share your fears and stories with them, and they make time to reassure you when you ask. It’s unlikely that anyone would ever be in a relationship that’s completely free from occasional fear, anxiety, or insecurity! How you deal with these feelings within the relationship is the most important thing. If your partner is willing to make space for your fears, listen to you, and assure you that the stories you’re telling yourself are not true, then they’re telling you that they can hold your vulnerability without taking it personally.
5: Your partner’s actions match their words
Do they say they want to help you to feel more secure (within their own boundaries), and take steps to help with this? Are they open to changing their behaviour or compromising on things to help you feel safer in the relationship? This is a tricky one, because it’s important that they are not stepping into a people-pleasing role. But if they actively want to find ways that they are happy to give you more support, this shows you that your safety is important to them.
6: They can clearly communicate and hold their own boundaries
Just as important as you knowing your own is them knowing theirs. If you can both do this well then this creates lots of safety in any relationship, because you can make requests of each other while trusting that neither of you will override your own boundaries. You can trust each other to say yes and no.
7: The things you’re most scared of don’t actually come true
Finally, it’s worth checking in: do the things you’re most scared of ever come true in your relationship? Perhaps you fear being taken advantage of, being forgotten about, being laughed at… Do these things ever happen? Is there any evidence they are happening?
Chances are you’ve had experiences of this happening in the past, but it’s important to differentiate the past from the present. It’s really common to project past experiences onto current situations, and before we know it we’re not really seeing our partner when we look at them – we’re seeing someone from five, ten, twenty years ago.
Which is pretty unfair on them!
So reflect every so often (and particularly when your fears get activated). Is there any real evidence that what you fear is happening right now? If you’re unsure, can you check with your partner by asking for a reality check? By asking for reassurance that your stories aren’t true? Yes, this may feel vulnerable to do – but this can be a great practice to give yourself a new experience in proving to yourself that your fears are unfounded in the present moment. It’s also a great opportunity to find out their response to your fear.
At some point in any relationship, you can make a choice to trust and connect or to hide and protect. Trusting and connecting can feel unbearably vulnerable for reasons that you may or may not be able to identify. It’s worth remembering that if there are plenty of green flags present, it could be a great opportunity to test your vulnerability in small ways and relearn how it can feel to allow deeper connection again.
It feels sometimes as though new relationships are where the most difficult feelings come up.
You know the other person well enough to really care, but you haven’t yet built a foundation of trust that allows you to feel really secure in the relationship.
Perhaps you find yourself anxiously waiting for them to return your messages, wanting to know when you’ll see each other next, preoccupied with wondering where they are and what they’re doing.
Or maybe you experience what feels like a physical barrier, or wall between you and the other person. You long for closeness and contact, but something stops you from really allowing them in and telling them how much you enjoy their company, inviting them to meet your friends, or even returning their messages.
Both of these responses come from an underlying feeling of not being safe within this new relationship. Whether the precise fear is of them abandoning you, betraying you, or of losing yourself, some part of you is protecting yourself from feeling that fear – by limiting the kind of connection you are having.
If you have an anxious attachment style
If you identify with the more anxious approach, then it’s likely that a lot of your energy and focus is on the other person. Perhaps you can recognise some people-pleasing tendencies, or patterns of resentment showing up when your needs aren’t met (because you find it hard to clearly ask for them in the first place).
The antidote to this is to bring some of that energy back to yourself. Nurture your connection with yourself, your own desires and needs, both within the relationship and on your own. This is particularly true if you notice you have a pattern of abandoning your own hobbies and friends when you enter a relationship! Spending some time reminding yourself of all the important things you have in your life can be a great exercise to try, whether you do this via journaling or another method.
What brings you most joy in your life?
If you had a whole day to yourself, how would you most like to spend it?
What need(s) is your relationship filling, and can you fill any of those needs on your own or with friends?
The benefit of this exercise is in the reminder that you are already a whole, complete person, you can take care of yourself, and you already have a life with things that bring you joy – so you’re not dependent on the other person to provide these things for you.
If you have an avoidant attachment style
If you identify more with the other side, with having a barrier that stops you from really letting the other person in, then there’s a different approach you can try.
Here, it’s likely that sharing more of your life with them feels really vulnerable. It’s easier for you to keep them at arm’s length and pay the price of a diminished connection, than it is for you to share more of yourself with them and feel the fear of either losing the other person, or losing yourself.
The antidote here is to share that vulnerability with them.
This doesn’t require any other action, or change in behaviour – simply getting really well acquainted with your fear, so that you can share it. It’s an awesome opportunity to grow intimacy without having to actually face those fears yet.
This might sound like,
“I’m noticing that we’re spending more time together lately and it feels really vulnerable for me. I have a fear that I’ll lose myself in new relationships / that if I get close, the other person will disappear.”
Sharing and naming these things can be a great first step to removing their power, and letting the other person know what’s going on allows you to come up with creative ways that you can create more safety for you both, together.
Ok, so you’ve identified that you’re a people-pleaser. You’ve noticed a pattern of feeling frustrated in your relationships (whether romantic or platonic – it can show up everywhere) because you fail to communicate your wants and needs early on. You go along with it, telling yourself it’s not so bad, until you reach breaking point… which usually ends in an emotional blowout or simply giving up and cutting the other person out entirely.
Either way, there’s a lot of resentment that slowly builds and it’s really, really draining.
It feels impossible to put yourself first – what if your requests are too much? What if you hear a “no?”
It feels so much easier to simply go along with what the other person wants, tolerating that small, niggling discomfort, than it does to ask for what you really need. Doesn’t it?
I have some good news for you – it’s possible to change this pattern and start advocating for yourself. Here are some ways to start that process.
Make Peace With Your Inner People-Pleaser
This part of you – the part that wants to accommodate, that wants to put others first, the part that wants to keep everyone happy – this is an important part of you. It may feel like something that you want to change, get rid of, even something you’re ashamed of, but I’d like to start by encouraging you to welcome it and give it permission to be a part of your character.
A good way in can be through journaling. Here are some prompts that might help:
“My people-pleaser gets most activated when…”
“I first learned how to take care of others when…”
“My people-pleasing part protects me from…”
“My people-pleasing part benefits my relationships by…”
People-pleasing is a response that you likely learned at a young age, in response to something that felt overwhelming. Really common experiences where this happens include parents being emotionally (or physically) unavailable: as a young child this can be felt as an abandonment, and by learning to please and accommodate we are ensuring that we won’t be abandoned again. After all, if we keep everyone happy, and don’t upset anyone, they are less likely to leave us!
It can be really helpful to make friends with your inner people-pleaser by acknowledging that it serves a really useful purpose. It has gifts for you: perhaps you’re a really loyal and caring friend, or you feel a lot of motivation to do work that makes a really positive impact on the world. Maybe you work in healthcare or another profession where putting others first is part of your job.
These are really beneficial and wonderful things – your inner people-pleaser is important, even if it becomes a over-active in some situations.
Learn to Identify Your Own Wants and Needs
While your inner people-pleaser is an important part of who you are, it’s still possible to balance it a little better so that it doesn’t show up in ways that sabotage your relationships.
How do you start doing this?
It’s possible that you’ve been suppressing your own needs for a really long time. Maybe you don’t even know how to think about yourself at all!
In my experience, the body knows what the body wants. It’s the mind that starts chattering over the top, overriding what we feel, telling us that our needs are not as important. So I like to start with the body.
This involves gently starting to increase awareness for what you can feel – not what you think. Can you give yourself some space and time to pause, slow down, check in with your body, and ask what you really need in this moment? Maybe it starts with small enquiries – how you want to spend the next ten minutes, or what type of tea you want to drink.
I’ve written more about this in a blog post titled, Learning How to Feel More. There are a several practices and ideas there if you’d like some more inspiration.
Ask for Help from People you Trust
Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that your inner people-pleaser developed in the context of a relationship (perhaps with family at a young age, or in early sexual relationships). As an adult, this part of you becomes activated within the context of a relationship. This means that the most effective change will happen – yes – within the context of a relationship.
This could look like speaking with someone you trust about this part of yourself, and asking for their support. Perhaps this is a close friend, or family member, or something you could do with a partner.
This is a great thing to work through within a coaching relationship too, for the same reasons.
How might it be to ask them to check in with you? To ask you directly what you want more often? Or simply to share an intention with them, that you’d like to prioritise your own needs more, to give yourself permission to start practicing saying “I want…” with them?
Having someone on your side to ask for reassurance can be really powerful too – being able to share a desire or need with them, knowing you can ask them to reassure you that you haven’t asked for “too much.”
This question comes up a lot. You know where your boundaries are, and you know when someone has crossed them… But how do you tell them that it’s happened without seeming angry? How do you ask them to change their behaviour without causing an argument?
Why is it Hard to Set Boundaries?
I think this is a particularly common challenge for women because, within many western cultures at least, we’ve been socialised to go with the flow rather than rock the boat. Personally, I remember being told that I was ‘bossy’ when I was a kid. I can’t help but wonder what lessons I learned – that I had to be really careful about the ways I expressed my opinions and preferences. That being assertive was not welcome.
Alternatively, perhaps you grew up in a home where there were lots of arguments. Being afraid of conflict at a young age – seeing your parents fighting can be really scary – can lead to fears of conflict as adults too, and you learn to appease and accommodate in all your relationships in order to avoid more arguments.
Whatever the reason, being afraid to assert boundaries can be really damaging. It means avoiding pain in the short term, but by abandoning your needs you’re setting yourself up for exhausting relationships where resentment grows quickly.
So what can you do about this? I want to talk about three possible ways in.
Setting Boundaries Before Breaking Point
Many difficult boundary conversations – you know, the ones that end in tears and emotional responses, feeling that your needs are invalidated because you’re angry and upset – arise because the conversation is simply left too late.
This is the cost of not speaking up as soon as you first notice that something’s up.
And it didn’t really feel like a big deal, did it? It was only a small thing. You tell yourself that maybe it won’t happen again. Maybe you can just ignore it and it’ll go away.
But then it happens again, and again, and every couple of months or so everything builds up into a situation where you can’t stop yourself from speaking up. It’s not a choice any more – you’re at breaking point. The discomfort from That Thing They Keep Doing is greater than the fear of asking for something different.
But the problem is, now you’re upset. You’re angry. You’re emotional. And so the conversation is doomed from the start because you know that your emotional response will lose you credibility. You feel the tears coming and fight them back, out of fear you won’t be taken seriously.
Imagine if you’d have been able to have this conversation right at the start. At the very first inkling. When you weren’t so annoyed. When you could have communicated much more clearly and rationally.
It could have been a very different conversation!
Using Non-Violent Language
First of all, you can look at the language you use. How might you bring up a boundary violation with your partner? How could you ask them to make a change in a way that communicates you’re on the same side, you want the same thing, and that you appreciate their needs too?
Non-violent communication (NVC) has some tools we can use here, and I give one framework in my Ultimate Guide to Setting Boundaries in Relationships post. There are absolutely ways of making clear requests in a non-combative way, which will reduce the chances of triggering defensiveness or aggression in the other person – leading to far more productive negotiations. And don’t be afraid to learn some new skills here. Having difficult conversations is not something most of us were taught in school, but it’s so, so crucial to having healthy relationships.
Exploring Your Relationship with Conflict
The second approach I would suggest is to look at the fear of conflict itself.
Somewhere along the line you learned that conflict wasn’t safe. That it couldn’t co-exist with love and care. Chances are, your desire to avoid conflict points to some areas where you could find some big opportunities for healing some unresolved childhood traumas. And trauma can involve things that felt normal and mundane: growing up in a home where there were lots of arguments, or where you didn’t feel you could express anger without being laughed at or ignored.
This causes problems in adult relationships because disagreement is unavoidable. The only way we can avoid conflict is by ignoring the things we disagree about, and pretending that it’s no big deal. In the long term, this leads to resentment.
So how might it be to be able to experience conflict without feeling fear? Or to experience conflict while still feeling loved? How might your relationships be different if you were able to assert your boundaries, knowing you may risk some conflict, but feeling secure enough in your relationship to be able to handle that?
The first step is to say hello to the fears and emotions that come up for you around conflict. Is there a fear of rejection or abandonment, perhaps? Or something else? It’s important to become more aware of what happens for you in those moments, and gently work with the parts of yourself that feel difficult – rather than trying to suppress or change them.
Journaling and self-reflection can be a great way to start exploring this.
You could try some of these prompts:
“When I disagree with someone I care about, the thing that stops me speaking up is…”
“My earliest memory of conflict happened when…”
“If I start an argument, the thing I am most scared of happening is…”
“Avoiding arguments protects me from…”
In my experience of open relationships, jealousy often stems from comparison. Do you find that you compare yourself with your partners’ exes, other lovers, or even their friends? Does it bring up a feeling of competitiveness, fears of not being enough, and maybe even of being abandoned?
If so, I have something that might help.
(And this applies to monogamous folks too – jealousy is definitely not an issue that only crops up in polyamorous relationships.)
The first thing to know is that comparing is a very human thing to do. It’s how we understand who we are and make sense of the world, by being able to identify the similarities and differences between ourselves and others. It’s not necessarily a bad thing… it actually comes in kinda useful a lot of the time.
It’s what we do with comparison that matters.
There are two ways it can go:
OPTION 1: You compare, and it triggers a competitive response. You see yourself as either inferior or superior, judge accordingly, and tell yourself all the reasons why you’re not good enough, why you don’t measure up. You assume that your partner must be drawing the same conclusions and, of course, will leave you. (Sound familiar? It might be that there’s a triggered response happening here too.)
OPTION 2: You compare, and in noticing the other person’s differences, you get curious. Instead of making assumptions, you ask questions. You feel motivated to learn more about what’s going on with your partner, and the other person they want to spend time with – from a place of curiosity rather than suspicion. This opens a doorway to compassion and connection.
I’d like to talk a bit more about this, from my personal experience:
I’ve been exploring open relationships for a few years, but it’s only been more recently that the kind of insecurity that I associate with jealousy has started to creep in. I notice it most clearly when I know very little about my partner’s other connections – it’s so easy for my mind to fill in the blanks with the ‘worst case’ scenario.
In my imagination, they are having a far more enjoyable time than I ever have with him! This mystery Other Woman is more attractive, more fun. And of course, she’d love to take my partner away from me.
(Eugh, it feels weird typing that out.)
It’s at this point that I can stop myself and notice that I’m making a whole load of assumptions and telling myself all knids of stories!
This is when I can start asking questions.
What’s their connection really like? Does she have other relationships too? What gifts does their relationship give him? What gifts does their relationship give me?
(It can be helpful to explicitly ask for reassurance here if you need it, too – I still often do.)
Now, there’s a balance to be found, because on the one hand I definitely don’t want to hear about every detail of what goes on between my partner and the other people he shares intimacy with. And he has a right to privacy too. But starting to talk openly about the love shared between my partner and the other people in his life helps me feel more connected – both to him, and to the other people he shares that love with.
And this is how being curious can shift me away from feeling competitive, and towards feeling compassionate.
If your default pattern is to compare and compete, know that this is likely something you’ve learned to protect yourself from the kind of connection that can feel really vulnerable. And that’s ok.
It takes a lot of security in yourself to be able to hold the comparison, the curiosity, and the compassion. If it was easy, we’d all be there from the start.
But noticing when you start to compete, and experimenting with asking more questions instead, is a great place to start.
Do you ever end up in a situation where you’ve agreed to something that isn’t feeling good any more? Maybe you said yes because you thought it’s what you wanted, or because you thought it’s what the other person wanted. Maybe you didn’t want to cause an argument or upset anyone.
Now, however, you’re realising that your body doesn’t feel great about that decision. It’s more than you’re willing or able to tolerate, and you know you’re no longer a ‘yes.’ Perhaps you’ve been working on being more clear in your communication, and you don’t want to ignore those signs any more.
For people who have been socialised not to upset or cause conflict (that’s loads of us, by the way) it can be really tricky to navigate changing your mind and saying no. It can trigger all sorts of stories about being unreliable, letting the other person down, being difficult or ‘too much.’ In reality, being able to communicate what’s really going on for us, in a compassionate, clear, and honest way, is a crucial skill in maintaining healthy boundaries.
Let’s break down how you can get better at saying no.
Give yourself permission to say no
First of all, check in with yourself: do you believe that you have the right to change your mind?
Imagine a situation where you’ve said yes to someone you care about, and then you later realise you need to tell them it’s a no. Visualise this in as much detail as you can: what was happening, what you both said, how you felt. How did you know you’d changed your mind, or not given an honest answer? What thoughts or feelings come up for you when you consider the possibility of telling them that you’ve changed your mind?
This can be a good exercise to try with any self-reflective practices you have, such as meditation or journaling. Try writing down or reflecting on anything that comes up for you here: what are you afraid of? What emotions do you feel? Do you feel any bodily sensations? Do these things feel familiar from anywhere else?
These clues are all great information to finding out why you might find it hard to say no. Awareness of these patterns is the first step to overcoming them.
Check that you feel safe to say no to this person
If you’re reading this, then saying no and changing your mind likely feels pretty vulnerable to you. So if it’s something you want to practice getting better at, I’d recommend doing so with someone you feel safe with, first of all. This could be anyone – a friend, partner, family member, or a therapist or coach.
Chances are that saying no only feels difficult to you in certain contexts. Maybe it’s harder with someone you’re really into who you’ve only been dating a short while, or maybe it’s not an issue at all until your relationship starts feeling more committed.
Spend a little time feeling into who you feel most challenged to say no with, and who it might feel easier to practice with. If you’re feeling really brave, you can even have a conversation with the person you feel safest with, and tell them you’re practicing getting better at saying no and changing your mind. Having the accountability and support of someone who you trust can be a huge help.
Find the right words
Once you’re clearer on why you find it hard to change your mind, and you’ve identified one or two people you might feel safe to practice with, it’s time to give it a try!
Speaking your vulnerability can be a really helpful way in. If you’ve done a little reflection and you know what you’re afraid of, why not say it out loud with someone you trust?
“I’m nervous to say this because I’m telling myself you’ll think I’m unreliable… but I’ve changed my mind. Can we do X instead?”
“I’d really like to try something different, can we do that? It might sound irrational but I’m scared to say this because I don’t want to upset you.”
Did you notice what else happened here? In the sentences above, we’ve also acknowledged that the fear is irrational, it’s something you’re telling yourself. It’s a story. It’s not the truth. Changing your mind is something you always have the right to do, and the fears that come up in response are not rational ones – they are old trauma responses with roots that likely go all the way back to childhood.
You can also ask for reassurance that your fears are not true, if that’s helpful:
“This feels quite vulnerable to say because I have a story that you’ll think I’m too much… but I’ve changed my mind and I’d like to do something else. Can you reassure me that’s ok?”
When you speak your fear out loud in this way, while acknowledging that it’s a story and not the truth, you take away so much of its power. You also help to create more intimacy with the other person by sharing a little of your vulnerability with them.
And this is the most amazing thing of all: learning how to take a situation that feels scary, and turn it into an opportunity to overcome some of your own fear – while deepening your connection with the other person too.
Maybe you’ve heard that having boundaries in your relationships is really important. While this is good advice, it doesn’t begin to explain exactly what boundaries are, how you can find yours, or communicate them to the people you’re in relationships with.
In my intimacy coaching work, boundaries are often among the first topics I address with my clients, as so many of us didn’t grow up learning how to feel our boundaries – let alone assert them.
In this post I’ll cover what boundaries are, what they’re not, and how to start finding and communicating yours.
Let’s start with the basics.
What Are Boundaries?
Boundaries are limits that anyone can set for themselves to determine what they are and are not comfortable engaging with. They’re a method that we all can use for establishing our identity, preferences, and personal space – physically, emotionally, and energetically.
In relationships, this can mean lots of different things, which we’ll cover in more detail below.
To begin with, the most important things to know are that boundaries are:
- Personal – only you get to decide where your boundaries are.
- Contextual – you may have different boundaries at different times, or with different people.
- Empowering – they allow you to say yes or no, take responsibility for what’s yours, and filter out what isn’t.
Boundaries, Limits, and Barriers
It’s important to understand what boundaries are not, too.
Limits are the places at the edge of our boundaries. While boundaries are contextual and may shift around depending on who we’re with and what we’re doing, our limits are the lines which show us when we are being assaulted.
For example, you may enjoy play-fighting or wrestling with a lover, in a way that you wouldn’t want to do with, say, a platonic friend – you have different boundaries for these two people. However, being punched in the face might be a limit for you; it’s something that would never be welcome, whoever you’re with or whatever mood you’re in.
Barriers are rigid, and are often a response to being unable to assert boundaries in a healthy way. Instead of being able to feel and establish boundaries and say yes or no depending on the situation, some people will put up barriers to prevent contact at all. While this can be a useful protection in some circumstances, the trade-off is all too often the inability to ever let others in.
Putting up barriers can be seen as an opposite behaviour to people-pleasing; instead of saying yes to everything, you’re saying no to everything. Lots of people may notice that both of these show up for them in different circumstances.
Different Types of Boundaries
There are all kinds of different boundaries that come into play in different situations. As an intimacy coach I take care to maintain professional boundaries; in a relationship with a partner these are not relevant.
Understanding the different kinds of boundaries can be really helpful in identifying which come easily to you, and which could benefit from some more awareness.
In your romantic and sexual relationships, there are six categories which are most relevant: physical, social, emotional, sexual, cognitive, and material:
- Physical: how do you like to be touched? Greeted? How much physical personal space do you need when you’re having a conversation or sharing a bed with someone? How much physical time apart do you need from a partner or lover? How much touch do you need? If you live together, do you need a room for yourself?
- Social: how much do you share about your relationship, or each others’ lives, with friends? How much time do you want or need to talk about yourself with your partner? How involved are you in each others’ social lives? How do you feel about meeting each other’s friends and families?
- Emotional: how much emotional support do you need? How do you want to be supported when you’re struggling? How much tolerance do you have for your partner’s emotional states? Do you have requirements for your partner’s abilities to process and manage their own emotional baggage?
- Sexual: what kind of sexual contact (if any) are you comfortable with outside of your relationship? What sexual activities are hard limits for you? Which activities do you need to experience to feel satisfied? What do you need in order for sex to feel pleasurable? How much sexual contact do you want with your partners?
- Cognitive: are there topics that you don’t feel comfortable discussing? Do you have particular beliefs or world views that are not compatible with certain people or situations? Are there specific situations or decisions people may ask of you that are against your ethics?
- Material: do you prefer to combine your finances with your partners, or keep them separate? How do you feel about giving and receiving material gifts? How do you manage joint expenses?
How To Find Healthy Boundaries For You
Now you have some idea of all the different ways that boundaries can be expressed, how do you decide what’s right for you in your relationships?
This can be a difficult task if you’re used to following the many scripts we’re socialised with. To take one example: in the culture I grew up in, it’s a norm that after being in a relationship for a year or two, my partner and I will move in together.
What if my physical and material boundaries aren’t compatible with that expectation? If I live in an expensive city, and my partner and I can’t afford a home big enough for us to have the personal space we need, should I violate my boundaries in order to do the ‘normal’ thing?
Chances are, when you read through the list of categories above, some of them resonated with you more than others. Which provoked a biggest reaction in you? Do you have a sense of which types of boundaries come easily to you (if any), and which you didn’t even realise could exist?
Having awareness of these places is the most important first step. Begin to ask yourself questions about what you really want from the people you’re in relationships with – and what you really want to offer them, too. If you journal or meditate, or have a different self-reflective practice, try introducing some of these themes and see what arises for you.
It can also be helpful to learn to pay more attention to your body’s cues. Your body will have a reaction (a gut feeling, perhaps) when one of your boundaries is violated, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Beginning to listen to these reactions, however subtle, can be a really great way to begin noticing when something isn’t right. This information can help to inform your boundary-setting in the future.
Ultimately, healthy boundaries are the places where you can give another person your love and support without compromising yourself and your needs. Boundaries are vital for our mental health: if you’re often feeling drained, tired, or resentful with your partner, then this could mean that you’re violating your own boundaries in your relationship. Noticing if and when these feelings come up can be helpful clues to point you towards where your boundaries are.
Allowing someone to violate your boundaries is also an act of you violating your own boundaries. Whenever someone behaves in a way that isn’t aligned with your wants and needs, you have the responsibility to communicate that with them and ask for something different, or remove yourself from the situation.
Which bring us to…
How To Communicate Personal Boundaries
Communicating boundaries can feel really edgy and vulnerable because it’s a skill many of us haven’t learned. To give a couple of examples, many young children are tickled by their parents despite being asked to stop. Or they are told they must hug or kiss relatives, even if they don’t want to. This teaches children that their boundaries will not be respected, and – worse – their ‘no’ may result in punishment or withdrawal of affection.
So, how do we learn as adults?
First of all, it’s important to get clear not only on what your boundaries are, but also on how you will behave if your boundaries are not respected. This isn’t about punishing the other person – it’s about knowing how you’ll remove yourself from a situation where your boundaries are being violated. Hopefully you won’t need to communicate this, but it’s important that you’re clear on it so that you can if you need to.
When discussing boundary issues, talk only about your own experience and your own needs, and take responsibility for yourself. Be clear in your language. Non-Violent Communication has a helpful structure which we can borrow here:
State a fact that you’ve noticed, using “I” sentences. Avoid accusing the other person of anything, voicing an opinion, or mentioning any emotions at this stage. The aim is to state something as neutrally as possible that the other person can agree with.
“I notice that I initiate most of our plans for seeing each other.”
How does this make you feel? Try to stick only to emotions here, rather than getting caught in stories, and again focus on your own experience only.
“I feel insecure and sad about this.”
State the need you have in this situation. What’s your boundary?
“I have a need for reciprocity and reassurance that you want to see me as much as I want to see you.”
Ask the other person for what you need in this situation. Be as specific as possible; avoid asking them to make you feel a particular emotion, and instead ask them to take specific actions that would have the same effect.
“I’d like to request that you take the lead in organising more of our dates, and ask me more often when we can see each other next.”
5: Check in
Finally, ask how this landed for them. Give them your full attention as they respond to your request.
“How does that sound to you?”
When discussing boundary issues it can also be helpful to focus on the positive result of having your boundaries respected. Hopefully, both you and your partner want the same thing: perhaps it’s a close, intimate relationship built on love and trust. Framing the discussion with this perspective can help to remind you both that you’re on the same side, and avoid the conversation becoming an argument.
In the “need” section of the framework above, you could include this by saying something like,
“An important part of intimacy for me is to feel reciprocity and reassurance. I love the intimacy that we have together, and hearing that you want to see me as much as I want to see you would help me to feel much more secure in our relationship.”
Hopefully this will start a productive conversation with your loved one and result in a change in behaviour that helps you to get your needs met.
It’s important to note that if your needs are opposed to the other person’s boundaries or desires, you may have to consider what this means for your relationship. There may be a compromise you’re willing to make, or it may mean that you need to change the amount or type of intimacy you can enjoy with that person. For example, if I find out that one of my friends can’t keep secrets, I may not necessarily feel I need to end our friendship – but I may decide to no longer talk with them about deeply personal topics.
If this seemed like a lot, I’d encourage you to take everything slowly. Learning how to be better with your boundaries can be a lifelong journey, and it’ll likely feel easier in some situations than in others. It’s an extremely useful enquiry to make though, and very worth it – when you get clearer on your wants and needs, and better at communicating them, all of your relationships will benefit.
This is a big topic for me. Not because I have an awful lot to say about it, but because the resistance I feel to changing my mind is colossal.
For a whole bunch of reasons, some known and some unknown, I have reached adulthood with the belief that to change my mind is to be flakey, inconsistent, and unreliable. Sticking to my word, on the other hand, means I am deserving of trust and love, and so being dependable is something I often strive for – at the expense of taking care of my own needs.
Naturally, this comes up most acutely in relationship. Open relationships in particular require me to check in with myself often about my comfort levels – perhaps things that felt fine a month ago no longer do. Polyamory means putting myself in potentially challenging, triggering situations often, more so than when operating within the relative security of monogamous commitments. It’s crucial to be able to acknowledge that, for whatever reason, I am feeling particularly tender and would prefer a little more care than I needed before.
If this sounds familiar to you too, then know that being able to express this to those you love and have it heard and honoured is the best way to learn that changing your mind is actually ok. That it won’t necessarily lead to abandonment or rejection.
This can be done slowly and gently, too, as with learning how to be vulnerable. Try noticing the little things that don’t quite feel right: have you changed your mind about where you want to eat after your partner has made a reservation? Or have you changed your mind about the film your date has just started playing, and you’d rather watch something different? How does it feel to acknowledge this to yourself, and to speak it out loud?
The final piece is to realise that just because you have changed your mind, it doesn’t mean that the other person has to go along with your request. You can trust them to hold their own boundaries and say no if they need to. And maybe it doesn’t matter so much anyway – often, the act of noticing and voicing your change of preference goes a long way to you feeling heard and complete.
If we take it as a given that we will tend to be attracted to people who allow us to act out childhood experiences of love and affection, meaning that we play out similar patterns in our relationships, for better or worse…
And if we accept that in order to find these people requires us to experience their body language, actions, words, and tone of voice…
Does this mean that meeting someone on Tinder and getting to know them a little over text could function as something of a pattern interrupt?
That through the screen, we miss so many vital clues about another’s behaviour that we could end up becoming invested in someone who we get along with, but who doesn’t quite fit into those patterns?
This could explain the often-repeated advice to “meet them as quickly as possible.” After all, had we met them at an event then we may instantly, unconsciously, realise that they don’t quite appeal to the parts of us that keep our patterns going, and decided we weren’t interested. Perhaps meeting online and spending some time chatting opens us up to people we may otherwise feel are not for us, which in turn allows us to question the scripts that fuel our relationships.
Polyamory is the sometimes challenging, often liberating, and almost always unpredictable practice of having multiple simultaneous intimate, sexual relationships with different people. It’s becoming more popular. New dating apps cater specifically to non-monogamists, and more mainstream apps are beginning to include features for those seeking a polyamorous relationship. There are meetups and munches, conferences and communities.
Types of Polyamorous Relationships
On a practical level, different people do polyamory in different ways. Many of them have their own subcategories. Solo poly folks enjoy relationships without any expectation of merging their lives in many of the ‘traditional’ ways such as living together or combining finances. Kitchen table polyamory denotes constellations where everyone involved – partners, lovers, metamours – is able to sit down at the same table and enjoy each others’ company. Relationship Anarchists prefer to eschew all unnecessary hierarchy among their partners, whereas others will name a primary partner who always has priority among other lovers, or describe themselves as “monogamish”.
The common factor among all of these ways of approaching relationships is the belief that romantic love, sexuality, and partnership don’t have to be confined to only one other. And why should they? We don’t treat any other form of love this way – we love friends, family members, and pets without any fear that loving more than one will cheapen the love we have for others. We understand in this context that love is not a finite resource.
A (Brief) History of Polyamory
According to Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan (well worth a read), the ‘traditional’ approach of only having one partner at a time only came into being around 10,000 years ago – quite recently, in relative terms. Before this we were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in tribes, enjoying promiscuous sex and not worrying about which children belonged to whom. Sexual intimacy was enjoyed playfully and openly, as a shared resource, strengthening bonds within the group.
The advent of agriculture brought a huge cultural shift, and with it came an incentive to know who our children were so that we could be sure they inherited the land and wealth we had begun to accumulate. And so we began to marry.
The “default settings” we’ve mostly been living ever since – the narrative of dating, then agreeing some form of exclusivity, moving in, and finally marrying – is a reassuring script to be able to fall back on. Engaging in polyamorous relationships forces me to eschew this progression and really feel into what I want, both in my life generally and with each new person I meet. Do I want hierarchy, or as little of it as possible? How much energy do I want and need to spend with the people closest to me? How much intimacy do I want with each person? This process is both liberating and occasionally exhausting.
What Does it Mean to be Polyamorous?
There are clearly other things that define polyamory, besides simply the practice of having multiple relationships at once. For me it signifies a throwing out of this script: I no longer have to go along with the main narrative I’ve been exposed to my whole life about what relationships “should” look like. I can take each relationship on its own terms and define it however I like, and I get to create something new with every new person.
Perhaps this means only seeing them once a month or so with limited contact in-between, or perhaps they become a close friend who I catch up with often and can rely on. Maybe they’re in another country and we enjoy intimacy when we’re occasionally sharing physical space, or maybe we move in the same social circles and share many mutual friends and lovers.
How Polyamory Works
A polyamorous relationship is therefore built on an awful lot of honest communication, and a willingness for everyone involved to process their own desires and fears. I need to be truthful not only with myself about what I really want in my relationships, but I must be able to communicate this to those I’m in relationship with, too – even if they are casual lovers, even if what I need to say might end the relationship.
Fear, too, needs to be recognised and welcomed. So many of us grew up learning that we must jealously guard our partner, that any attraction to third parties threatens – and may necessarily end – our relationship. We learn to find safety and security in monogamy, but this is false.
Monogamous relationships can still end for all sorts of reasons, and remaining exclusive to each other doesn’t really protect against any of the things we fear. The only difference with polyamory is that we make these fears explicit.
As Willow Smith said recently:
“That insecurity and fear is something that we need to overcome and something that we need to evolve out of and transmute that into something new and different that can actually be helpful and make us love more and more freely… Monogamy, I feel, actually inhibits you from learning those skills of evolving past those feelings of insecurity and jealousy.”Willow Smith
Polyamorous relationships, when done successfully, force us to confront the things we’re scared of in a much more immediate way than monogamous commitments. Perhaps I feel anxious if I know that my partner is on a date with another person, scared that I will be abandoned – even if there is no evidence to support this. Bringing this up when we’re next together, naming it and acknowdging it as part of my experience can help to remove its power. Perhaps there’s something my partner is willing to do to help, even if it’s as simple as offering reassurance.
Relating in this way also encourages me to become more self-reliant, which seems a little counter-intuitive in the context of having multiple intimate partners.
One of the first arguments many people make in favour of polyamory is how great it is not to have to rely on one person for all of their needs (and likewise not have them rely on us for everything either). The tricky side of this is that my partners are not always available to me in a way which I enjoyed in monogamous relationships. If a partner is spending a weekend with another lover, then they are unavailable to me for a couple of days. I have to know that I have a solid network of friends (platonic, romantic, or otherwise) in case I need company or emotional support. And in the worst-case scenario that no-one is around, I know will be ok on my own for a little while.
As someone who has a history of losing myself in another at the expense of investing time in friendships, this has been a helpful lesson to learn. It’s nudged me forcibly in the direction of finding and building my own communities.
Relating openly, practicing polyamory, means being able to own all of our jealousy, fear, and anxiety and discuss it with those we love, trusting that it won’t necessarily end our relationship. It means being able to grow through these challenges and learn how to really understand what we want and how to care for ourselves. And finally, of course, it means being able also to express the love and affection we have for all of the people we’re close to, in the ways it feels most authentic for us to do so.