Out On The Couch
Relationship Boundaries From a Queer Femme Therapist: Definitions and Examples
It’s your right to tell someone that you love them and you want to have a relationship with them. That they get to say, do, and believe whatever they want because that’s their business. But not with you. It’s your right to tell them the harm that their actions are causing you, the way that it’s interfering with you having a relationship with them the way you want, and that until they can support you as you are, they’re not welcome in your life.
This is what I told my client whose internalized biphobia was blocking her from recognizing the hurt that her mom’s biphobia is causing her. She knows that the relationship is strained and she’s beginning to see that she needs to set boundaries, but she doesn’t know how.
When I verbalized the above boundary to her in session, I meant it seriously, but I was also doing an exercise with her. I wanted to point out the influence of internalized biphobia on her understanding of her choices in how to interact with her mom. I wanted to say it out loud as an unashamed counterpoint because it didn’t seem like she had entertained the idea that she wasn’t responsible for her mom’s anxiety.
Ultimately, establishing this boundary didn’t feel right for her, at least not now, and we moved on to talk about her calling her mom less. And while my vision is of a femme revolution in which we lead our beautiful, queertastic lives without wasting energy on unnecessary emotional labor, the reality is that life consists of many more gray areas, that our beauty is in our ability to grapple with its complexities, and that there is revolution in the small, everyday boundaries we set.
This client is like many femmes in expressing that they don’t know how to set boundaries in relationships. When I hear this, I hear the need to break down the practical elements of what boundaries are and what, in practice, they look like. Perhaps even more importantly, I also hear the need to address the emotional blocks to establishing boundaries.
This three-part series does both. In this first article, I will provide my own definition of boundaries and contextualize what makes boundary setting both particularly hard and important for femmes. I will then break down boundary setting and provide an example from queer pop culture.
While these articles are written for femmes (you can check out my previous article, “Are You Femme? What Femme Isn’t and What it is” for reference on femme identity) setting boundaries in their intimate relationships, the information here can also be relevant to people who don’t identify as femme (particularly anyone who’s been considered feminine at some point). It can apply to members of non-intimate relationships, including parents and other family of origin, members of polycules, friends, housemates, and co-workers, too.
If the boundaries discussed here are unsafe for you to set with a partner, please check out resources on intimate partner violence for more appropriate support.
Boundaries Defined & Contextualized
Boundaries are acts of self-love that define your needs, capacity, and desires.
Let’s collectively pause for a moment and breathe this in. Boundaries are about self-love. Within our patriarchal, femmephobic, homophobic, biphobic, fatphobic, transphobic, xenophobic, racist, classist, ageist, and ableist culture, people believe that feminized people’s very existence is for the benefit of others, and fear emerges when we take up space of our own. This compounds our need to set boundaries and challenge the pushback we get when we do. Femmes navigate relationships within this paradigm, and we often do this while working through our own internalized “-isms.”
Therefore, when we set boundaries, they are radical acts. And because boundaries are about you, they’re about saying no, and they’re about exercising your power based on your needs, they are radical acts of self love.
Boundaries: The Breakdown
- Rather than adapting yourself for the sake of a relationship, you set boundaries so that a relationship best meets your needs.
- For boundaries to be effective, they have to be within your control, and what’s in your control is you, not the other person. Trying to control another person is toxic. Boundaries are about what you communicate and the actions you take.
- The clearest and most obvious boundary entails disengaging and removing yourself altogether, either in the moment by walking away, or ongoing by breaking up or cutting off contact with the other person.
- When you communicate a boundary, it’s up to your partner, friend, or family member to decide if your boundary works for them or not, and to proceed accordingly. Boundaries have a cause and effect that goes both ways. If the other person sets a boundary, it’s up to you to decide if their boundary works for you or not, and to proceed accordingly. You have the right to set a boundary and you have the right to decide that another person’s boundary doesn’t work for you. If your boundary doesn’t work for them, that doesn’t mean the boundary changes. It means that how you relate to each other does.
- Boundaries are not conditional on how someone else responds to them. It’s not a boundary if you’re asking someone or waiting for someone to change in order for your need to be met, because they may change–but they may not.
- You’re not responsible for anyone else’s feelings or behavior. We are each responsible only for our own.
- Boundaries are about creating your own options rather than acting according to what the other person wants. If you only act according to what the other person wants, they have all the power.
- If you find that you keep having to set the same boundary, you may need to address this as a larger issue by taking more space or evaluating the relationship overall. It is a form of gaslighting when someone denies an ongoing issue, thereby making you question your own perceptions, and responds to you by saying things like “What are you talking about?” or “No, we haven’t talked about this before.”
- If a person’s behavior escalates when you set a boundary, it doesn’t mean the boundary is wrong. It may be from fear of change or because they don’t want things to change.
- The key is setting boundaries to which you’re able to stick. If you don’t stick to them, then they’re not actually boundaries. They’re dependent on the other person’s behavior not requiring that you stick to them. They function more as requests if they’re not enforced. Situations like this teach others that they don’t have to take your boundaries seriously.
- If you find that you’re setting boundaries in order to get a certain response from your partner (like a sign of commitment or intimacy), friend (like attention or acceptance), or family member (like approval or permission) rather than with the intention of sticking to them, these are not actual boundaries. You’re coercing a desired outcome that’s not in your control and some honest reflection may be helpful.
Boundaries mean saying: no, I won’t just stand here while you yell at me; no, I won’t stay silent while you misgender me; no, I won’t answer my phone right now; no, I won’t remind you to do the dishes; no, I won’t spend time with you if you’re guilting me; no, I won’t stay in a relationship in which my partner continually gaslights me; no, I won’t have sex with you if you fetishize me; no, I don’t have time for you to vent to me right now; no, I won’t pay for things you’re able to afford; no, I won’t cancel my plans to come over; no, I won’t wear what you want me to instead of what I want to wear, and; no, I won’t smile and laugh when you say something that offends me.
Boundary Setting Within Queer Pop Culture
If you want an amazing example of queer boundary setting, look no further than the most recent season of Are You the One? The MTV dating show features 16 participants meant to find their predetermined “perfect match” among each other in order to win money. In its eighth season, and the first season to have an all-bisexual, -pansexual, and -sexually fluid house, the show portrays the toxic relationship between Jenna, a cis, femme-presenting woman, and Kai, a nonbinary transmasculine person, as one of the primary character arcs. Jenna and Kai continue to be drawn to each other despite Kai’s manipulative behavior (like crying, pleading, and making grand statements that contradict his actions) and despite confirming through the show’s Truth Booth that they’re not a perfect match.
The turning point several episodes in that left many queers cheering from their couches was when Jenna saw Kai’s toxic behavior play out with another femme-presenting person. When, in desperation, Kai goes back to Jenna again and tells her, “I’m madly in love with you,” Jenna responds, “But I don’t want this, because this isn’t healthy. I need to put me first. I need to love myself first right now.”
So many femmes fear that if they set a boundary with another queer, that person will be worse off and isolated. However, you can keep watching and see that after Jenna set her own boundary, the house stepped up to collectively and empathically call in Kai on his behavior. This is described in the article “How On Earth Did Are You The One Get Queer Love So Right?” by Jeanna Kadlec, which reads, “There is a rich and real no person left behind mentality, which is so distinctive to the queer community. Even as the femmes rally around each other, the entire cast is unwilling to let bad behavior go unchecked.” Kadlec goes on, “The drama affirms how much intentional work there is to be done when it comes to building relationships and examining attraction—but also how much joy and especially self-love can be found along the way” (2019).
Now you have a better sense of what boundaries are and how they work. In the next article in this series, I’ll dispel misconceptions to address confusing and shaming ways in which boundaries are commonly discussed.
Desano, A. (n.d.). Intimate Partner / Domestic Violence. Retrieved from https://lalgbtcenter.org/health-services/mental-health/intimate-partner-domestic-violence.
Kadlec, J. (2019, August 30). How on Earth Did ‘Are You The One’ Get Queer Love So Right? Retrieved from https://www.elle.com/culture/a28857415/are-you-the-one-jenna-kai-queer-toxic-relationships/.