Could you talk about how to be good at setting boundaries in a non-situation-specific way? You get a lot of letters from people who are having trouble with someone else not respecting their boundaries, and obviously that is not the time to say “are you sure you really communicated what you meant?” But I (she/her) am someone who is GREAT at respecting “no,” but really, really bad at understanding deflection and being ‘politely’ ignored. I sometimes worry that people may generalize your excellent advice for a specific situation –
1) Express boundary
2) Hold firm on boundary
3) Minimize contact
A) Gently hint at boundary
B) Gently hint at boundary again
C) Walk away.
Because that is definitely a thing that has happened to me. Not all friendships/relationships are meant to be, of course, but I really enjoy being able to be friends with people who see the world differently than I do, even when it requires a little extra communication work. So I’m wondering what you think the best way is to check in with oneself early in a relationship, when things are just barely irritating (when you, Captain, are very unlikely to be getting letters), about whether the actual, literal word “no” (or “stop”) has been said and ignored? Because I’m also pretty sure I’ve been on both sides of this, because who loves provoking conflict? Not me!
A Libra Who Doesn’t Really Believe in Astrology Except For That Balance Thing Which Is Awesome
Hi Libra Friend!
Thanks for the interesting question and opportunity to think about process.
I would love to be able to write about boundaries in a general way (the book proposal would immediately get a lot easier), but what I’ve found over time is that I can’t define a universal constant of how to set boundaries that is guaranteed to both work and make sense to everyone involved, because so much of it is about paying attention to our own needs and applying those needs in different contexts. Needs are so personal and subjective, they adapt based on context and the stakes involved, and we ourselves adapt over time in how well we express them and stand up for them.
While I try to suggest scripts that can be adapted to multiple situations, subjectivity and specific context matter so much that even if a situation:
- matched a past letter from the site perfectly,
- and one party read out my suggested scripts word for word,
- and the other person replied word for word with the things I predicted someone might say in that situation,
- and everyone acted in good faith and tried their best,
…there would still be a ton of factors up in the air about whether the conflict would be solved or the relationship preserved.
I’m not sure I fully grasp the problem we’re trying to solve today. Is it that you’re meeting people, everything seems to be going fine at first, but then they drop you as a friend, and you don’t really understand what happened, or you wonder if they might have (incorrectly) assumed that you wouldn’t be willing to put in a little more work, but you totally would have been willing to do it?
Or is it that you’re worried that you’re being too hasty by making decisions to withdraw based on “gentle hints” not working, and you’d like a way to know for sure that you didn’t need to give it one more try?
Yes? Either? Both? Something else?
Because if we decide that the problem is that the more “generalized” boundary-setting process in your example means unfairly or incorrectly or too-hastily converting the process from:
1) Express boundary
2) Hold firm on boundary
3) Minimize contact (Let’s call this Strategy A from now on)
A) Gently hint at boundary
B) Gently hint at boundary again
C) Walk away. (aka Strategy B)
…I immediately have a few questions.
The first being, why…is the Strategy B..less good? Especially since we’re specifically talking about “early in a relationship, when things are just barely irritating (when you, Captain, are very unlikely to be getting letters)?”
If someone I recently met is irritating in small doses, why would I want bigger doses? Or any doses, including smaller doses?
What’s the actual difference between Strategy A and Strategy B as described? “We have a direct discussion about boundaries, and as long as you respect the boundary, I agree retain you in my life as a small-doses friend” vs. “I float a couple trial balloons and if it doesn’t work, sorry, have a great life?” We’re not talking about the time two kindred spirits failed to click, if these were important, amazing, sustaining, enjoyable friendships, we’d know because they’d still be happening. What if your Truest Friendship North is in the direction of more direct communicators who don’t leave you guessing?
What if the kind of friend I need is someone who will hear & respect the word ‘no’ the first time? Do I have to say it just right, make sure I spell it all the way out, and give it a set number of tries before I’m allowed to bail on someone I’m just getting to know?
What if the boundary is so important to me, so tied up in questions of identity and safety, that I don’t want to risk being more explicit if the subtle hints don’t get it done? Think of the transgender person trying to figure out whether it’s safe, literally safe, to disclose their identity to a new person. Isn’t it smarter to float a few subtle comments and walk all the away if the person’s response sets off any alarms, vs. sticking around and explaining more?
What if I don’t like the person enough to work at it any harder than I already did? (I don’t say this to be mean, I say this because that’s a valid question when a relationship is a struggle for you: “Wait, do I even like this person that much?” and this is a valid question when a relationship doesn’t latch: Maybe it’s not that you did anything wrong and need to fix it or understand it, just, not everybody has to like each other, and that’s okay, let people who don’t like you all that much go and focus on the ones who do.)
What if you “really enjoy being able to be friends with people who see the world differently from you” and I…don’t?
‘Cause how differently are we “seeing” the world, exactly? You’d rather go to an arcade and I’d rather do karaoke? Or you think people who have abortions should be put to death and now I’m gonna have to find a different karaoke bar from now on in case I accidentally told you where mine was? What if all of my “Fraught Discussion Friend” slots are already occupied by people I’ve known forever or can’t avoid being around, and I don’t feel like convincing a whole new person that Vaccines Are Good, Actually?
What if you’re in a place in your life where you’re very interested in making new friends and willing to put in whatever work or make any allowances that might be required, and I’m in a place where I am struggling to make time for the people I already like? And it’s not even about liking you/anything you did wrong/safety/worldview, it’s about, at this moment I have limited energy and limited time and the good fortune to have surplus social connections, so if I have one open evening to hang out with friends this month, who am I calling: The trusted, close person I already adore and never get to see enough of, or the person I’m just getting to know, with whom I’ve already had two awkward ‘btw my boundaries are over here‘ conversations that didn’t quite sit right, yaaaayyyy, time to schedule a third?
[I have a theory that many ‘Missing Stair‘ connections have been grandfathered into social groups from a time when the other members did not feel they could afford to be so choosy, but actually if you look back, these people were a lot of work and gave off a lot of signs of trouble right from the start.]
To that end, I think “no” is an incredibly useful word and the earlier in a relationship you deploy it, the quicker you find out if this is going to be a safe/healthy/comfortable fit for you. Predators and manipulators and energy vampires and other kinds of boundary-crossers (even non intentionally malicious or predatory boundary-crossers) tend to test people’s boundaries a lot when they first meet, because they’re trying to find the people who have a hard time saying ‘no.’ So what if we could test for the people who can’t hear a no? And give ourselves permission to disengage and not put in the work if it seems risky or annoying?
We started talking about boundaries, which suggest a line in the sand or a protective fence that can’t be crossed, but what if I have higher standards than “can be trusted not to do the one thing I told them not to do, after I patiently informed and explained it bunch of times?” Maybe we should talk about needs instead of of fences, and think of boundaries as instructions: “Here is how to be good to me.”
Needs are subjective. I have my own particular set of needs, likes, preferences, and affections. So do you!
Needs are adaptive. I have different needs and expectations for different people and different environments. Probably so do you!
Needs aren’t about fairness. Will I cut more slack or work harder to engage with someone I have a closer or longer connection to, or just plain old like better than someone I just met or don’t feel a strong connection to in the first place? Probably!
Will I tread more carefully with someone I cannot easily avoid [coworker, family?] Probably!
Do I sometimes have to tread more carefully with certain people than fairness should dictate b/c of power differentials or fear of consequences? Probably!
Different needs have different stakes: Safety vs. annoyance/preference vs. ethical stuff vs. baseline standards vs. “In a perfect world, it would be nice to have…”
Maybe my strong preference is way more important to me than your slight preference is to you, so it’s easy for you to give way or for us to figure out a compromise, or we like each other so much that we decide to live with imbalance.
Maybe your middling preference is more important to you than even my strong preference is to you, maybe our connection isn’t important enough to make it worth doing a lot of work to figure this out, and we will experience each other best in very small doses.
Probably, your safety is way more important than my comfort, I think that’s a very good starting point for figuring out human relationships, and I’d like us to lean into that way more. By contrast, possibly my comfort is more important than your slight preference, but maybe not. It depends on who we are to each other, and sometimes literally who we are. Let me be blunt: I would never give blanket advice about balancing safety vs. comfort vs. preference without strong considerations about power and privilege and who historically gets to think they’re allowed to unquestioningly value their own comfort and preferences ahead of other people’s safety, and how those hierarchies are enforced.
To build on this point, you raised a question “about whether the actual, literal word “no” (or “stop”) has been said and ignored?”and I’m trying to find a way to end this sentence that isn’t just the word “Yikes.” If you said ‘no’ too softly or indirectly for me to hear it and as a result you think I deliberately ignored it, your boundary still exists right where you need and want it to be. If I crossed it, even unknowingly, then I still crossed it and you get to be the boss of how you want to handle that, including not trusting me anymore.
That’s why my advice so often comes down to this:
You can’t control what other people will do or how they will feel about you, and just when you think you’ve found the script or strategy that will solve other people, a new person will come along and fuck up your algorithm by having a different set of needs and a different skill set (in some cases a much less skillful skill set).
You can’t necessarily convince other people to like you, respect you, love you, stay with you, sleep with you, stop trying to sleep with you, hire you, befriend you or otherwise give you what you need. If you need something and didn’t find exactly the right words that would sell another person on respecting your needs, maybe (probably!) the problem isn’t you.
So what can we control? I think we can get better at knowing what our own needs are. I think we can practice expressing our needs in ways that include both hints and more direct language and find our own sweet spot. I think we can also get better at paying attention to how others react to us and to how we feel about our interactions with others. Every promising new friend or date that fizzles probably isn’t because we bombed an audition, and maybe being fair and making sure that every unpleasant haystack doesn’t actually contain a shiny needle inside it is less important than valuing our own pleasure and what we want from others’ company.
[I think there’s this very human thing, not an inherently bad thing, but definitely a real thing where we want others to trust and honor and respond to and forgive our intentions, even if the effects of what we did are not great, but we judge others by their actions. But then we’re also told to forgive people who hurt us, that it’s our job to find the good intentions inside the unfortunate actions. But what if we thought more about the effects our words and deeds have in the world and realized that our intentions aren’t magic, and others can be asked to forgive but not expected to? And when someone has a bad effect on us or people we care about or the world, what if we paid attention to that instead of jumping to solve for the secret redeemable heart inside everybody who hurts us?]
Getting comfortable with our own needs, getting comfortable with being allowed to take up space, getting comfortable with the idea that having different needs from other people is okay, getting comfortable with the word ‘no’ – both hearing it and saying it – are steps to getting Good at Boundaries. The situations where we work this out are always going to be very specific to us and the people we know.
Going back to the strategies of relegating people to small doses vs. walking away after a few tries that you worry people are mixing up: I don’t want people to think the only two kinds of people are “KINDRED SPIRIT FRIEND OF THE HEART” vs. “TOTAL ASSHOLES WE SPEAK NEITHER TO OR OF,” there’s a lot of in-between and “small-doses”( or maybe a better term is “situational friends” or “mostly pleasant people I like but do not have time to prioritize as I or they might wish”) can be good friends!
But I actually do actually want people to feel like they can just walk away from relationships that feel like too much work without exhausting all of their options or feeling pressure to find the perfect way to make ourselves understood. The blog motto for 2019: DO LESS WORK ON RELATIONSHIPS THAT MAKE YOU FEEL BAD, including:
- Do less work on relationships that feel unworkable, so that you have more energy for the ones that delight you.
- Don’t work at anyone who isn’t also working at you.
- You don’t have to work at anyone just ’cause they’re willing to work at you.
I hope that helps, or at least clarifies?
Readers, do you have One Foolproof Trick For Seeing If A Budding Friendship Is Actually For You?
Edited To Add: MODERATOR NOTE! Can we keep discussion to NOT-SEX-NOT-ROMANCE sort of relationships and interactions? Dating red flags, emotional abuse in romantic relationships and rape culture problems are well-covered on the site. Thank you!
Edited to Add: Bonus content!