Intimate boundaries as "yes" not "no"
“Daring to set boundaries is having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
How frustrating is it when you know your boundaries have been crossed but you can’t find the words to do anything about it?
How many times have you had your sexual needs overlooked or ignored?
Do you find yourself wishing you had more robust intimate boundaries?
All this changes when we view intimate boundaries as a "yes" not a "no"
Let me offer you a radically different way of looking at intimate boundaries. Rather that the traditional approach of viewing boundaries as a “no” to the other person, how about seeing them as a “yes” to yourself, instead?
In this article, we start by exploring what “no” boundaries are and what the consequences are of using them with loved ones. Typically, these include weakening your bond, creating mistrust, and reducing the chances of positive behavioural change from your partner.
For comparison, we examine “yes” boundaries and look at how these, in contrast, can draw someone closer to you. By focusing on your own needs and wellbeing, you can provide vital information for your partner(s) in terms of how best they can relate to you. “Yes” boundaries generate trust and intimacy and encourage healthy interdependence and fidelity.
Grab a pen and notepad, and note down your answers to the “Think about” questions as you read through. You are the expert on you and your answers will show you if this approach could be beneficial to you.
Direct "no" boundaries
There are definitely occasions in our intimate relationships when we need to say “no”, clearly and directly.
Typically, direct “no” boundaries are loud and aggressive and are aimed at pushing the other person away. This can take mean yelling, door-slamming, or breaking their stuff. The words or actions are aimed directly at them. Emotionally, these direct “no” boundaries tend to be the result of volcanic outbursts of festering anger, resentment, or bitterness. The irony is, the more we want to say no, the less we actually say it, and it becomes increasingly emotionally charged.
The benefits of direct “no” boundaries are that they release emotional tension and that they get the other person out of your space for a while. The downside is that they can upset your partner, prevent problem-solving, and damage the relationship. Direct “no” boundaries are usually short-term “get the fuck away from me” push-backs. If you do happen to mention what you need, it’s unlikely to be taken on board due to your anger and tone of voice. “Why do you never do the fucking washing up!” isn’t much of an invitation, is it now?
- Do I think I have good intimate boundaries?
- Is it easy for me to say no to my partner(s)?
- Do I find it easy, medium or impossible to set personal boundaries?
It’s worth mentioning that most of us grew up with “no” boundary models. If you add low self-esteem, sexual trauma or other mental health challenges, it can feel utterly impossible to imagine setting boundaries in any other way. If that’s you, don’t worry, read on.
Indirect "no" boundaries
Indirect “no” boundaries tend to fall into four main categories: avoidance, unspoken expectations, over-giving, and, what I call, “grandma’s tapioca”.
We all have things we avoid talking about with our partner(s). It might be an old flashpoint, it doesn’t feel worth it, it creates conflict or tension, or they get upset, and, anyway, nothing changes.
The outcomes of avoidance are similar to unspoken expectations. If you’ve ever seen a Disney or Hallmark movie, you know their romantic plot lines are riddled with unrealistic expectations. At some point in our relationship(s), we magically expect our partner to know our limit for not having enough oral sex. I’ve done my fair share and I’m guessing you probably have too.
As with the direct “no” boundaries, these also push our partner away, subtly and slowly, because we’re not speaking our truth and being honest. By not sharing your needs you deny your partner(s) the opportunity to give you what you want. Like your favourite sequinned hotpants, your sexual dreams and desires are relegated to the trunk in the attic, relics of happier, bygone days.
- What have I given up on receiving from my partner?
- Truthfully, do they have any idea about this and about how important it is to me?
- What other things do I magically expect my partner to guess about my intimate boundaries?
The second classic indirect “no” boundary is over-giving. This might no make sense at first, so let me explain. Take a moment to think of someone you know who over-gives. What emotions are stirred in you when you think of them? Typically, we recoil back, as we can feel the neediness and emotional clinginess that is often intertwined in the giving. More specifically, over-giving shows the person is not listening or attending to your needs as they’re not giving you what you want. Over-giving is often coupled with a low capacity to receive, so the long-term outcome of this indirect boundary can be codependency, unbalanced exchange, and manipulation.
- Am I an over-giver in my intimate relationships?
- What I am hoping to gain and is there another way I could get this from my partner(s)?
- Do I over-give in some areas of my relationship but not others, such as emotionally, affectionally, or financially?
“Grandma’s tapioca” is what I call that feeling when you should enjoy something your partner does for you but you don’t. Maybe you said you love kissing so they kiss you a lot, but not in a way you enjoy. This is especially true for things society tells us we should like, like cut flowers or romantic poetry, when really you want to be spanked and have your hair pulled hard. Even though the intentions seem good, you’re still pushing your partner away with your pretence, dishonesty and deception.
- What do I not enjoy that my partner(s) thinks I do enjoy?
- Why don’t I tell them?
- What do I think they enjoy that they might not and how can I find out?
Direct "yes" boundaries
We can contrast “yes” boundaries with “no” boundaries in two main ways, who is the focus on the boundary and what the intended outcome is. As the opening quote states, it can be a courageous act of self-love to be authentic in determining and expressing your intimate boundaries.
“Yes” boundaries start with you and your wants and needs, not the other person. For example, you don’t enjoy them groping you when they’re tipsy and you want them to stop. You might try going into a different room (indirect “no” boundary) or you push their hand away or snap at them, (direct “no” boundary).
In contrast, sharing your “yes” boundary with them includes your want or need and a clear objective limitation. For example, telling your partner that you don’t like how they touch you when they’re drunk. Maybe you’re comfortable with them holding your hand but not grabbing your boobs.
As you can see, the 3 prerequisites here are: to be aware of what you do want, know where your limitations are, and to aim to communicate them when they’re 0 – 30% breached not 70%+.
Here’s an activity to get you started with direct “yes” boundaries. It’s taken from Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent. If your partner asked you, “how would you like me to touch you?” what would you say? Can you identify where you want to be touched, in what way? Do you know the pressure you’d like them to use, and if that’s over or under your clothes?
Don’t worry, when put on the spot, the majority of people don’t have an answer for this question, or they resort to “do whatever you want” or “I like what you usually do”, which is heading towards grandma’s tapioca. But if you can’t state your wishes and boundaries when asked, how are you going to do it on the fly, when it contradicts your partner’s desires?
The benefit to using direct “yes” boundaries are that you inform your partner of both your needs and your limitations. This gives them the opportunity to address those needs and have a conversation about what would work for both of you. By being brave, honest, and vulnerable, you encourage your partner to do the same. In turn, this strengthens your connection and fuels intimacy and a desire to please each other.
Indirect "yes" boundaries
Indirect “yes” boundaries are the next step after mastering direct “yes” boundaries. The focus is still on your needs and limitations. So for this to work, you must feel you have a choice and you have agency over your role and activity in any situation.
- When do I forget that I have choices in my relationship?
- Are there any times when we’re being intimate or having sex when I don’t feel I have the option to set a boundary or stop play?
- What’s my usual response when I feel I have no choice?
An indirect “yes” boundary might be talking about your partner about initiating sex and what turns you on or off. It might be explaining to them that you love them but they should only call you at work if it’s an emergency. The focus is on you and what your limit is and the boundary is clear.
By definition, indirect “yes” boundaries are often individual and nuanced. They’re indications of your unique, individual limitations. These are not fixed and can vary from relationship to relationship but also time of day, how tired you are, or a million other factors that are personal to you. This is one of the reasons that this sort of work is usually what I do 1-on-1 with clients. However, if you want to learn about your own intimate boundary tendencies and how to improve them, I encourage you to consider therapy or some other professional support.
Take a moment to review your answers to the “think about” questions and your response to the “how do you want me to touch you?” activity.
- Did you find any surprises?
- Discover anything new about yourself?
- Or did it reveal some things that you’d like to get better at?
Clearly, one article can’t answer all your unique concerns and needs about intimate boundaries. But this might be something you want us to work on together.