Over the past several months, I’ve been writing about qualities of healthy relationships. In prior posts, I’ve explored empathy, vulnerability, and curiosity. This time I’m diving into boundaries - how we communicate what we want and do not want in our relationships.
One of my loved ones recently shared the thought that it’s absurd how most of us are taught about boundaries in pre-school and kindergarten, but the lessons usually end there. Could you imagine if you were taught math in kindergarten and then only again for a couple of days over the next several years?
I wish we’d have more lessons that help foster healthy relationships throughout our development for the sake of reinforcement and growth - like communication skills, compassion, boundaries, and comprehensive sex education. I know that there are folks out there who strive to do that kind of work, but there are many systems in place that prevent these changes from happening on a larger scale.
I’m breaking down my thoughts on boundaries in two parts for this post. Part one explores attachment theory and boundaries. Part two includes my response to an anonymous question from a Vino & Vulvas panel event.
part one: boundaries and attachment theory
I love thinking about how boundaries relate to attachment theory - a framework that explores ways humans relate through secure and insecure (anxious, avoidant, or disorganized) attachment styles.
Although we begin development of our attachment styles through experiences with primary caregivers, these styles are fluid rather than fixed. This means that if you started off with a more insecure attachment style, you can (through personal growth work and healing relationships) develop what is called an earned-secure attachment style. It also means that it’s possible to shift into an insecure attachment style if you’ve experienced significant relational stress or trauma.
Attachment style is contextual. You might feel incredibly secure with a best friend, but anxious or avoidant with a romantic partner.
Boundaries can be messy, unclear, and sometimes change so regularly that it can be challenging to keep up. It is best to not assume when it comes to boundaries, but rather to communicate about your own or to ask about someone else’s. (Remember that old saying about assumptions? How they can make an ass out of you and me?)
Your boundaries are likely different in each relationship in the same way that your attachment style differs. In the book, “Coping with Trauma-Related Dissociation,” the authors outline examples of “healthy” versus “unhealthy” boundaries in three different lists.
*A quick suggestion before moving on: It’s tempting to see “healthy/unhealthy” and think “good/bad.” A challenge I’d like to offer is to simply consider them as they are rather than hold judgement. The truth is that we all go to insecure places when we’re stressed. Most people have both healthy and unhealthy coping strategies. The extent at which something is “unhealthy” depends on the person and how problematic this is for them.
When applying attachment theory to the examples from the lists (which you can find here), this is my interpretation:
secure attachment = “healthy” boundaries
anxious attachment = “too lax/collapsed”
avoidant attachment = “rigid”
disorganized attachment = combination of both “unhealthy” lists
A person with a mostly secure attachment style is likely to present with healthier boundaries. A person who is under relational stress or who has endured attachment wounds will present with more qualities on the unhealthy boundaries lists. Again, since attachment styles are fluid rather than fixed, it’s common to see examples that you might relate to in each category. I refer to this list from time to time as a way of re-evaluating how I’m showing up in my relationships. If I’ve noticed that my boundaries have been more on the unhealthy side (anxious attachment style tends to be my go-to under stress), I consider the stressors and reach for strategies to help myself get back to a state of regulation and security.
We all need healing from relational wounds. If you’re finding yourself in more of an insecurely attached place, it can be very helpful to learn more about your attachment style so you can explore ways of better understanding your feelings and needs. I’m including resources at the end of this post that I think are quite helpful.
Part two: boundaries and consent
(content warning: unwanted sexual experiences - head’s up if you’re not in the mood to read about this and also encouragement to do what you need to do to take care of yourself if/when you feel triggered)
During a Vino & Vulvas event, we received an anonymous two-part question that I felt needed more time to answer and thought it would fit well into a blog about boundaries.
This was the first part of the question:
“Please talk about the nuances to consent with regards to partnerships where one person may not have the ability/comfort/sex education to speak their needs. How is that navigated?”
All sorts of things can interfere with our ability to communicate about sex (with power dynamics being at the very top of that list of considerations). I happen to think that just because a person has more experience in terms of numbers of partners or years of sexually engaging activity, it doesn’t mean they have mastered the skills it takes to communicate well in all of their relationships - even though it’s easy to assume otherwise.
If you suspect that you are the partner who has more of an advantage with ability/comfort/sex education, consider how your approach can empower your partner in a way that is fun or pleasant for both of you.
Everyone differs in their ability to communicate clearly for all sorts of reasons and we can’t always guarantee that what we have communicated is interpreted accurately. This presents complications when it comes to advocating for one’s own needs. It also means that we share the responsibility in relationships for how we send and receive information. Reflective listening, asking clarifying questions, and having an attitude of curiosity can go a long way in developing these skills together. It takes practice, patience, and a dedication to creating a culture of good communication in any relationship. It can also be very helpful to learn about attachment theory (as mentioned above) and explore each of your attachment styles to better understand one another.
When I think of comfort, I consider the various ways in which shame and sex are interconnected as a result of omnipresent negative messages about sex. And in terms of education, I’m convinced that most people in our culture haven’t had the sex education that I believe all of us deserve - which includes comprehensive information on pleasure, sexual diversity, and enthusiastic consent in addition to information about STIs and reproductive functioning. This has less to do with ability or disability than it does with overall lack of resources and cultural support around sex education. This type of education can be hard to find, but great resources do exist (see the end of this blog post for some of them).
Ideally, you will feel empowered to communicate with your partner before, during, and after a sexual experience. If you aren’t feeling confident in your knowledge or hold shame about sex, seeking out ways of overcoming those barriers can transform the experiences.
The second question stated:
“To what degree is it a person’s responsibility to say/communicate a “no” and to what degree does the more communicative partner “read them?”
I believe that we share responsibility in our engagement with others, but as I mentioned above, we must consider the power dynamics in any relationship. Many people have been socialized into being deferent towards others (particularly those raised female or other marginalized groups) and this can make saying “no” a challenge. It’s also possible that a person can be fairly assertive in just about every other area of their life until sex enters the equation. If you are the person in the relationship who holds more power in this context, having awareness of what that means and treating your partner with care and respect will go a long way. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be sure that you are getting an enthusiastic YES - especially when it comes to physical engagement with another person.
It certainly helps to communicate about what’s going on for you before engaging sexually with another person. Nobody will ever have the ability to read your mind and it doesn’t matter if you’ve been together for decades. Some people will be better at attuning to your needs than others, but that kind of a rapport takes time to develop and can also change over time. It’s very important to pace sexual experiences to the level of comfort of the person who needs to take things the slowest. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say that they feel afraid to speak up about their needs before, during, or after an experience. Some people will bear pain because they are afraid to speak up.
I don’t believe that most people in relationships set out with a desire to cause unwanted harm to their partner. I do believe that people wound each other in relationships in all sorts of ways because that is an unintended consequence of being imperfectly human. In the context of a relationship, the lack of awareness of boundaries, communication of boundaries, or ability to advocate for selves can be very damaging for both people over time.
The nervous system can respond with more options than fight or flight. For many of us (especially survivors of sexual trauma), a freeze response can happen as quickly as any reflex. If you have a sense that you might experience freeze responses in sexual situations, talk about this before you have sex with your partner. You can let them know that this is a thing that happens sometimes and that you might need to either slow down or stop altogether, but that you might not have the words in the moment to ask for what you need. Think about the possible answers to “What I may need for you for support is ________ or _________ if you notice me __________ or ___________” as well as, “You’ll notice that I’m enjoying myself when you see me __________ or hear me ___________.”
I hate that I have to end this with the following words, but I feel that way because I wish it weren’t necessary to say this all of the time. If you have been assaulted or abused in any way, it’s not your fault. For most survivors - myself included - we need to hear that message with a certain amount of frequency in order to combat the internalized shame from enduring these traumatic experiences and from living in a culture where it is often difficult to find empathy or support.
When it comes to the topic of unwanted sexual experiences, we usually hear the wrong questions asked that tend to blame the person who was harmed such as, “what were they wearing?” or “why were they in that place at that time?” or “why didn’t they say no?”
We don’t hear, “why did this person harm that other person?” nearly enough. We don’t adequately focus on understanding why someone thought a no was a yes or why they thought a lack of a yes was a yes. And although I stated that I don’t believe most people in relationships intend to harm their partners, there are plenty of people out there who are being abused by their partners and who are even told they are not allowed to have boundaries. Sometimes people will fear putting up a boundary with a partner because they “don’t want to give them an ultimatum” (which tends to have a negative connotation).
The more we normalize talking about our feelings and needs, understand healthier expressions of boundaries, and work to heal our attachment wounds, the healthier our relationships will feel overall.
The next blog post will address accountability and repair in relationships.
Come as you Are by Emily Nagoski - for anyone who has or loves a vulva
local shops in Asheville:
VaVavooom - body-safe adult toys, books, and more
Firestorm Books & Coffee
Scarletten website - Don’t be fooled by the fact that this website says it’s for “teens and emerging adults.” Every adult I know is an EMERGING ADULT. I refer to this site (particularly the page that this link brings up) with grown-ass adults all of the time.
Savage Love Podcast - Dan Savage has been in the sex education world since he started his syndicated sex advice column, Savage Love, in 1991. Over the years, so much has changed and evolved - including Dan! So if you’ve ever been offended by him in the past, he’s worth a revisit.
Vino & Vulvas events are now available online if you are unable to attend the in-person monthly panels.
My friend, Elizabeth Gillette, is an expert on attachment theory. She spends a lot of time thinking, writing, and now podcasting about attachment theory and relational healing which largely informs her approach as a therapist and as a human in general. I find myself resonating a lot with Elizabeth’s work and feel very grateful that I have had opportunities to spend time with her in workshops and in community. I very much encourage diving deeper by checking out Elizabeth’s work. A great post to start with is here. The first blog post she has listed includes a link for a really great attachment quiz.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk - one of the best books written about trauma (in my opinion)
Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker - for child abuse survivors - emotional, physical/sexual abuse, or neglect
Boundaries list from Coping with Trauma Related Dissociation by Boon, Steele, and van der Hart - for those suffering from trauma-related dissociation.
Lost Connections by Johann Hari - this book normalizes depression and anxiety as parts of the human condition and explores ways in which a variety of disconnections can exacerbate these experiences.
Mindsight: the New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel Siegel
Pandora’s Project - support and resources for survivors of unwanted sexual experiences and their friends/families
If you struggle with attachment wounds that impact how you operate in relationships or if you hold shame in the area of sex, unpacking these feelings and thoughts with a therapist can be an awesome healing opportunity and a chance for you to deepen your relationship with yourself. If this is not accessible for you at the moment, I recommend looking for community support groups in person or online, utilizing book or website resources, and using free mental health apps. Also bear in mind that talk therapy is often not enough for many survivors of trauma. It’s common to need a multi-disciplinary approach to this type of healing journey. This can mean incorporating additions to talk therapy such as a meditation or yoga practice, Equine therapy, Somatic-experiencing therapy, EMDR (Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy, TRE (tension and trauma release exercises), or other healing modalities.