Q: I’ve been dating this girl for a few months now, and it’s at that point where we’re really starting to do stuff together as a couple besides hang out and whatever but I’m also kind of freaking out, well not really freaking out but you know what I mean, because we’re starting to talk more and more about our families and friends and this is when I feel like it’s time to either dig in and do this or break it off. Like, she wants to talk and spend time together but sometimes I just want to be left alone and it’s making me think we should break up if that makes sense? Can you talk about boundaries in dating?
A: “Oooh! I love boundaries. I’m totally content living my life as though I’m always going to be single. That way I never have to pay attention to anyone and can do my own thing,” said every single person seconds before their partner decided to break up with them.
Listen, I’m an expert at boundaries. One of the hardest parts about being my friend? I don’t open up for a long time. The hardest part about dating me? That I feel like I’m distant, even as I’m talking about my life. I have a “buffer zone” that it’s taken me years to work out. I can be completely honest, while remaining private. I am aware, even when I’m drunk, of what I am willing to talk about publicly, what I’m willing to talk about with close friends, and what is “in the vault” for only a very, very close circle of people I trust with my life, bank accounts, and car keys.
I think it’s important to know your limits, so when we’re talking about boundaries, I really want you to think about your life – your life story, the things going on right now, your hopes and dreams – and be mindful about where those sections are at. Hypothetically, if you had a little bit too much to drink and weren’t sure if you should drive, would you tell your best friend? Would you tell a police officer? Would you tell a parent who lost their child to a drunk driver? It’s important, whenever we talk about boundaries, to use some common sense and also have a general idea about what’s okay to talk about with everyone or “publicly” and what about your life is “private.” Whenever your partner says they want to know you, that they want to know about you, they are communicating two things: 1) Interest in developing intimacy, and 2) Asking for permission to your private life. On your part, your response should be based on 1) Whether you think this person is trustworthy and understanding, and 2) Whether the information they are asking for will help or hurt the relationship.
It’s okay to keep certain things “safe” and not reveal them. Just because a person asks you about your life, even if you are in a relationship with them, does not mean you are obligated to allow them into that part of your life. I have family members who will ask me about my life and, point blank, I will tell them, “I don’t think that’s your business, but I’m so glad that you are expressing concern for me. Thank you. But I’m not going to talk about that with you.” How they respond is up to them, but as long as you are able to communicate your feelings for them and communicate that you are trying, even ask them for understanding, people will often give you the space to think about it, evaluate the relationship without pressure, and let it go while also reminding you how much the relationship means to them. Whether the relationship is where you both want it to be, at the level you both want it to be, is of course a shared experience.
Here are a few boundaries worth having.
- Food – This one isn’t really a big deal for me, but for many people it is. Territorialism when it comes to food – what’s “mine” – is a big thing. Some people eat off their partner’s plate and that’s fine. Some people, though, are very sensitive about that and don’t want to share a drink, napkin, or box of cereal. I think it’s important to respect those kinds of boundaries, even though they’re not that important to me, because if a partner doesn’t want to share their food, that’s really not a huge deal. They still want to share their life with you. Pick your battles, friends.
- Bathroom – This is not a joke. I once had a girlfriend who insisted that “True love is looking into each other’s eyes while we poop. That’s real love.” For the three years we dated, I would light a candle after either one of us used the restroom (I think I single-handedly funded a small candle company, but whatever) and resisted every request, demand, or emotional pressure to “prove” my love to her in this way. One afternoon, she broke into the bathroom while I was sitting on the toilet and took photos of me. Two days later, I packed her stuff and never saw her again. Somewhere out there, there may very well be photos on the Internet circulating of me sitting on a toilet.
- Family – Every family is crazy. Let’s just get that out of the way – every family is a bit strange unless you grew up with them. I was in my senior year of college before I realized people could be married and happy, that parents often helped with college, that some people admired their parents and wanted to be “just like them” when they got older, or that cousins stayed in regular, consistent communication with one another. Then again, I’ve dated people whose parents are the Polaroid of Perfect Americana and I think they’re weird as f**k. The thing is, when it comes to family, you have to realize you are not part of that family. It will probably take a long time, even years before you are “accepted” and “good enough” to be dating (possible even married) their son or daughter. It’s really fine, so don’t stress out about it. I’ve been accepted into some families immediately, and I’ve been met at the door with a shotgun and cussing with other families. Whatever the situation, don’t give your two cents. If you are asked directly, say how things are in your family, but avoid phrase like, “Your family is messed up” or “I hate your parents. They’re such morons.” Just like it’s none of their business what you do, it’s none of your business what they do. Eventually, you will develop love and trust but don’t expect that right away. I’ve prepared legal documents, financial plans, and cried with some families and they still treated me like a stranger. Then again, I’ve met some families once and they still ask about me and send me Christmas cards, two years later. Recognize the boundaries and respect them, meet people where they are at, and do your best.
- Emotional – Some experiences are so traumatic that you are still processing them. Don’t be quick to share those unresolved experiences with someone else – even someone close to you. Your partner is not your therapist. Do not expect them, ask them, or allow them to be your therapist. Let me say that again. Do not 1) expect them, 2) ask them, or 3) allow them to be your therapist. They are your partner. Not your therapist. Let your therapist be your therapist and your partner be your partner. You can “get through this together” but that doesn’t mean they will have all the answer, that they will be able to “fix” you, or that they will be emotionally present/mature/strong enough to really help you.
- Sexual – I’m a strong believer in “No means no.” Sexual boundaries, at least for me, are probably the most important. If you have to force your partner, coerce or manipulate them, lie to them, or hide from them when it comes to the sexual part of your relationship, you really need to do an inventory of whether this relationship is healthy. Now, most of the time people think this means limits – “butt stuff” or maybe BDSM. But more often, it means what they are comfortable doing or participating in. Some people don’t want to have sex with the lights on. For them, lights are a boundary and they will be very uncomfortable and maybe even upset if the lights are on. Maybe it means one of you is very religious and believes sex needs to be saved for marriage, or that some sexual activities are morally wrong. It’s not always about sexual violence, but then again, sexual violence takes many forms. Again, this is one of the most important boundaries in a relationship and good sex means communication, consent, and comfort.
- Life (advice) – This is probably the one I’m most careful about because I know what I’m trying to do with my life, and very often other people (even well-intentioned partners) chime in with their opinions, advice, and advice when I never asked for it. There are only three people on the planet that I trust enough to give me life advice – my mother, my friend Syd, and my friend Sara. That’s it. While I listen, even ask people for their advice about my life – after all, people are smart and capable, and I believe wisdom can be arrived at with more counselors – it can rub some people the wrong way when you think “we’re dating” is permission to tell them what they should do, what they’re doing wrong, and what you would do if you were them. It’s okay to tell your partner, “Thanks, I know you’re trying to help and I appreciate your concern, but I’m really trying to figure this out on my own.” It shouldn’t offend them that you are trying to become the best version of yourself, and live the healthiest life you know is possible.
- Creative – Oh my gosh. Lordy! My word! If there is one thing that rubs me the wrong way, it’s people crossing creative boundaries. I’m (kind of) an artist and when I do creative projects, I have something specific in mind. It might take some effort to get the results I want, but I know what I’m doing and don’t need someone chirping in with, “Have you thought about doing this differently?” or “Well, here’s what IIIII would do.” When it comes to creative projects, unless I specifically ask, I don’t want your input. Ever. And it’s been my experience, having dating several artists, that creative people feel similarly. You might have great ideas, even better ideas. But the thing about boundaries is that they’re meant to keep some people in and other people out. Respect that limit until they invite you over.
Boundaries are not necessarily a bad thing. And they don’t have to be permanent. They are developed because of the things we have lived through, the experiences we’ve had, and are our way of establishing some breathing room as we go through life.
Hesitating to let someone in isn’t an indicator that your relationship is “not working” or that one of you can’t trust the other. By recognizing limits, and why you (or your partner) have them, you can have some really amazing conversations. For real. I want you to see this as an opportunity, not a setback. It’s an opportunity to either tell your partner, or even a friend, what’s going on, what you’re feeling, and why you’re hesitating. And it’s also an opportunity to ask them to trust you more, even without giving away the goods – the last date I went on, I directly told her at the end of the night, “I feel like we’ve been talking and it’s so great to be so honest with someone. But the truth is, all night, I’ve been very aware that we don’t really know one another. Even being honest, I still feel very distant and I don’t want you to think I’m witholding – it’s just that, after everything I’ve been through, I don’t rush into things. When I love, I love fully and completely. That’s a promise. But, because that is how I love and really who I am, I don’t just give myself away to anyone.”
Her response? She thought it was amazing, thanked me, and we’ve been discussing some pretty real stuff ever since. I feel like acknowledging the distance between us and asking her to accept that I was still going to be honest even if I wasn’t “telling the whole story” made her respect me more and improved on a ‘ship that was already pretty good. I hope the same is true for you – that saying what you just said here (or even by sharing this article with her) will help the two of you be open but also acknowledge the fact that being “together” doesn’t mean you’re going to “get it” or “get” each other right away. This is actually a really good time for you both, so don’t run away from the good stuff that’s happening between you just because you are shaking off the “honeymoon” period. Begin to see each other for who you really are, not who you think they are or who you want them to be. For me, this is one of the best times in a relationship – you’re seeing if you actually “work” together, instead of the lovey-dovey feelings and, well, the sex (which I hope is amazing for you both, yes?). Also, take a second to recognize you’re not married. You’re not merging your lives. What you are feeling right now is not only normal, it’s healthy. Don’t rush into a commitment that you’re not ready for or that you’re unable to see clearly.
If you really need a breather, I suggest scheduling a day or two apart from one another. You can’t be “left alone” unless you are alone, apart, in separate spaces. Spending a day or two apart gives you time to think, to process what has been happening, and figure out whether you want her around more or less. The same is true for her – she might want space too, but feels caught up in a cycle of “always together.” As my grandparents used to say, “Absence makes the heart grow stronger.” Spend a few days apart, schedule it and stick with the plan, then you will quickly figure out if you need more lovin’ from each other or if it’s time to call it off.
Wishing you two all the best, together or apart!