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The Difference Between “I Will” and “You Won’t”: Healthy Boundaries in Polyamory

When it comes to polyamory, there can be two extremes: One set of people demand relationship rules to, in theory, make sure relationships go exactly as they want. Other people reject the entire concept of rules, and try to ignore or rebel against them, solely because they’re rules. While there are plenty of people in the middle, the two extremes are certainly the loudest. A problem with both sides, is that they often lump rules and boundaries together. A lot of people feel like rules and boundaries are the same thing, but they most definitely are not.

What Are Rules and Boundaries?

I’ll start with the basics. The definition of a rule is “one of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere.” A list of synonyms that I found are “regulation, ruling, directive, order, act, law, statute, edict, canon, mandate, command, dictate, decree, fiat, injunction, commandment, stipulation, requirement, guideline, and direction.”

The definition of a boundary is “a limit of a subject or sphere of activity” or “a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.” A list of synonyms are “order, frontier, borderline, partition, bounds, confines, limits, margins, edges, and fringes.”

Did you notice something? “Boundary” is not a synonym for “Rule”, and vice versa. In fact the only synonym that is shared is “Order.” Both of them refer to spheres of activity, but pay close attention to how it’s worded. A rule regulates what happens within that sphere, whereas a boundary simply defines the sphere itself. A “NO TRESPASSING” sign on a fence is a rule, the fence itself is the boundary where that rule exists.

When it comes down to it, a rule is something you enforce on someone else (or someone enforces on you), while a boundary is something you put around yourself (or someone else puts around themselves). Sound confusing? Picture this: Let’s say you’re on a sidewalk, and you draw two big circles, one around you, and another around someone else. If you tell the other person they can’t step outside of their circle, that is a rule. On the other hand, if you tell the other person they can’t step into your circle, that’s a boundary.

There’s a Time and Place for Rules

It is up for us to decide if we will stay in a place or group that enforces rules, and whether those rules are acceptable to us. Some groups are virtually impossible to leave, and sometimes the control of rules is inevitable – the governments we live under enforce laws that we must follow, whether we agree with them or not, and it’s often difficult (and expensive) to move to a different country, state, or even city.

Other times, rules are things that we follow in order to remain in a group or association. These groups may be families, churches, clubs, or dozens of other things. These all have varying degrees of difficulty in either leaving or changing, but it’s something that should be considered.

All that said, a group is made up of a large number of people, and as a result, rules need to be put in place. The boundary of the group is where the common interests lie – maybe there’s a volleyball club, and the boundary is basically “People who are interested in playing volleyball.” It may be a loose boundary, insomuch as it may not ban people that don’t want to play volleyball, but there’s really no point in joining it if you don’t. Other groups, like homeowner associations, have a specific set of members (the boundary), and set rules for those members to coexist.

In healthy groups, the rules are made in order to reduce chaos and promote safety. In dysfunctional groups, those rules often have a foundation in (or at least an excuse of) wanting to reduce chaos and promote safety as well – look at how many religions attempt to enforce chastity.

People and Healthy Boundaries

That said, when it comes to interpersonal relationships between adults, there’s few reasons for explicit rules. Between two people, boundaries are much more enforceable on their own.

In order to have healthy boundaries, you need to know exactly where your circle is – this is your sense of self. You need to know who you are, what your values are, and what you are comfortable with. This can and will change over time, but the important thing is knowing where it is today. It is this knowledge of yourself that helps you understand what your boundary is, and then you can set the rules to keep people from crossing your boundaries.

There are five basic types of boundaries:

  • Material boundaries determine what you do with your possessions. Are you okay with lending a book to someone? How about your car?
  • Physical boundaries pertain to your personal space, privacy, and body. Are you comfortable cuddling with some people, but not others? How do you feel about a partner reading your texts? Are you uncomfortable seeing your metamours without clothes?
  • Mental boundaries apply to your thoughts, values, and opinions. Are your opinions based on the opinions of others? Are you able to have an open discussion? Do you know what your beliefs are?
  • Emotional boundaries distinguish separating your emotions and responsibility for them from someone else’s. Healthy boundaries protect you from feeling guilty for someone else’s negative feelings or problems and taking others’ comments personally.
  • Sexual boundaries protect your comfort level with sexual touch and activity – what, where, when, and with whom.

It is usually far more helpful to state what your boundaries are than to tell someone a rule about your boundaries. Some people will abuse rules by following them to the letter, whereas if you state your boundary, there is a lot less wiggle room. It’s also important to note that the phrasing of a boundary almost always starts with “I”, whereas a rule starts with “You.” After all, my boundaries are about me, what I need, what I want, and what I am comfortable with, not about what you should do with or around me. They have nothing to do with actually dictating others’ actions.

Boundaries should almost never include the word “you,” unless the boundary specifically applies to that person, and not all (or most) others. For example, you may be not be okay with one person hugging you, but someone else can.

Boundaries should be more broad and honest than rules. If you feel like your partner isn’t spending enough time with you, it can be very easy to say, “You are not allowed to go out with friends this much,” but this only treats the symptom, and not the problem. When the underlying problem is not having enough time with them, then you say that: “I need quality time in my relationships, otherwise I feel lonely.” You can then work on a compromise that can help everyone. Your partner can still go out with their friends, but will put the effort into spending more time with you.

Your boundaries are important. They protect you, and keep you healthy. This is not to say that everyone should cave to your boundaries. If you have a boundary that someone else is uncomfortable with, they have every right to step away. Notice that I didn’t say that they have any right to violate that boundary, only that they should not agree to it. Many times, this is easier said than done, but in order to have healthy relationships, boundaries should be enforced, unless you re-examine the boundary and decide to change it, without pressure.

Conversely, you are never obligated to conform to someone else’s boundaries, but at the expense of changing or even losing that relationship. This may sound painful, but keep in mind that if boundaries are incompatible, then the relationship is fundamentally incompatible in its current state.

When it comes down to it, every individual has to decide what they are comfortable with, and build their life around it. You cannot decide boundaries for someone else, and no one else can define your boundaries for you. The important things are to know where your boundaries are and to make sure that you can keep them effectively in place.

Chelsey Dagger

Chelsey is married and poly, with multiple wonderful partners across the United States. They are in IT during the day, and at night they are currently in school for psychology, and on their way to being a therapist, with focus on polyamorous individuals, couples, and families.

  • Tara Martin VanTeslaar

    Thanks, Chelsea, for an insightful article. I have shared it with a person who is very important to me. I am hoping that your article starts a new open discussion of our boundaries.

  • Keith

    This is a great article, my wife and I just had our first interaction with another man and I will tell you I was not expecting it to be as hard on me. She had a ton of fun and really kind of left me in the dust (at my direction) because i wanted it to be fun for her all the while giving up on my needs, and now were talking thru that extensively. We have set some additional rules which now I think maybe we need to re-think cause I feel like I put her in bad place and she feels guilty which is not what I want at all. We are both into making this work cause we know the end result will be a ton of fun, because thats what its about right? Anyhow very insightful and helped a lot. BTW- your settings do not allow to comment as a guest.

    • chelseydagger1

      I’m glad the article was helpful!

      I did double-check the settings and you should be able to comment as a guest; I was able to create a test anonymous comment.