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Relationship Boundaries From a Queer Femme Therapist: Common Barriers & Helpful Tips

Posted: 1-16-20 | Briana Shewan

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This is the final installment in a three-part series on boundaries. In the first article, I discussed what boundaries are and why they’re important, and in the second article, I dispelled misconceptions about boundaries. In this last piece, I will name common barriers that femmes may experience in setting boundaries, and will share some tips to help you with this.

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. 

Common Barriers to Setting Boundaries

  • You feel responsible for the other person or are preoccupied with how your boundaries will affect them
  • You feel guilty or bad
  • You don’t like yourself
  • You’re afraid of losing what you have
  • You’re afraid of being invisible as a femme without your partner
  • You love the other person and setting boundaries feels mean and selfish
  • Learning to deal with things yourself is what you’ve always done and all you’ve known how to do up to this point
  • In your culture, you don’t set boundaries with your parents or elders
  • You don’t feel like you need to set more boundaries because compared to your previous relationships, this one is better
  • Thinking about setting boundaries makes you feel confused
  • Your immediate circumstances or objective or capacity mean setting boundaries you normally would isn’t in your best interest 
  • You’re afraid the person will leave you and that someone else won’t love you

Tips for Boundary Setting

Address Power Dynamics

Particularly in intimate relationships, barriers to your exercise of boundaries may exist if your partner is more masculine than you; is older than you; has more experience sexually, in relationships, or with non-monogamy than you; identifies as straight; has been out longer if they’re queer; or is less marginalized in terms of factors such as size, ability, race, education, class, or profession. If your relationship is long-term, you cohabitate, you’re married, you parent together, and/or you’re part of a polycule, setting boundaries may have significant consequences for you and others. Whether you have a history of trauma separately or together, emotional symptoms can lead to less boundary setting for the sake of shorter-term well-being. Other barriers that may come into play are lack of access to a support system; health care, including  mental health care (and care that is affirming); and income, particularly if you depend on your partner to access these things. 

Name power dynamics early on in a relationship. Having ongoing communication about power dynamics that are inherent, meaning they won’t go away, and addressing how they impact relationship dynamics can help you work with the imbalances they cause.

Take Time & Space

In browsing other articles published on boundaries, I found a definition that stated, “Simply put, boundaries are what set the space between where you end and the other person begins” (Twardowski, 2017). One very simple way in which to achieve a sense of where you end and another person begins is to take time and space. The key is that time and space in themselves differentiate you from others. Take time for self-care and to slow down your mind through journaling, walking, gardening, drawing, and similar activities so that you can clarify what boundaries are right for you. We all process in different ways and at different paces, tolerate different amounts of confrontation, and need to separate our own experiences from the influence of other people’s perspectives.

Acknowledge Your Hurt

Acknowledging the impact of others’ behavior on us helps us set boundaries. Emotions inform our decisions. Often femmes are conditioned to deal with things on our own, say “It’s fine” rather than rock the boat, and not expect things of others. Compassion towards yourself in the form of getting in touch with your feelings like sadness, grief, and anger is foundational. Anger teaches us our boundaries because we get angry when our boundaries are crossed. Once you acknowledge the harm that someone’s behavior is causing you, you can choose to set boundaries on your own behalf. If you’re having a hard time accessing compassion towards yourself, think about what you would want for a friend or what a mentor or role model would do.

Trust Your Gut

Many people say that they know when something doesn’t feel good; they just don’t listen to their gut, or it’s hard to act on that in the moment. We are conditioned to ignore our gut telling us something is wrong, because it benefits others when we are compliant rather than when we set boundaries. Trust your gut–also referred to as your intuition–as a source of information for setting boundaries. You may not be sure why until you’ve had more time to process, and that is okay.

Know Your Needs

It’s easier to set boundaries if you first recognize your needs. Of course, this isn’t always realistic, and we learn many of our boundaries through our experiences. That being said, if you know that you don’t want children, or you don’t want others to access your email, or you alternate holiday plans year-to-year, or that because of previous traumatic experiences you need someone with a certain demeanor or communication style in order to feel safe, you can prioritize these boundaries with more self-assuredness. 

Reframe Boundaries

This section revisits many of the Common Barriers listed above so that you can work through them:

  • Boundaries allow you to have actual intimacy because the relationship is based on your true needs, capacity, and desires.
  • Saying no isn’t about not loving the other person. With boundaries you convey, “I love you, and I also love myself” (Viado & Greer, 2019).
  • Not setting boundaries with someone is actually doing a disservice to them; you’re not teaching them what’s okay or not, you’re enabling their dependence on you by doing things for them. If they’re also femme, you’re not modeling valuable skills.
  • Prioritize accountability over responsibility. Rather than not setting boundaries because of someone’s manipulation, gaslighting, blaming, denial, or guilting, set a boundary in response to it. Consider that these are effective tools for avoiding accountability rather than taking on someone’s struggles or circumstances.
  • Saying no doesn’t just mean losing something–it means making room for the people who are out there who will love you, support you, and see you for who you are.
  • Boundaries attract people who are able to respect them.
  • Becoming single doesn’t make you invisible as a femme; your essence is within you and nothing can take it away from you.
  • Boundaries free up space to accept your partner and yourself as you are without trying to change each other (Viado & Greer, 2019).
  • If someone isn’t able to meet your needs, it doesn’t mean you’re unlovable; it means that the two of you aren’t compatible at this point in time.
  • Rather than creating conflict with loved ones, boundaries give you the opportunity to confront your relationship in a deeper, more meaningful way.
  • Boundary setting allows you to truly let go of someone rather than ending the relationship out of spite, resentment, or to rebel (Viado & Greer, 2019).
  • Your feelings don’t go away just because you don’t deal with them.
  • You don’t need acceptance or validation from another person; it comes from within yourself.
  • Setting boundaries with someone from whom you’re seeking approval isn’t what keeps them from supporting you.
  • Just because something isn’t common practice around you doesn’t mean it’s not what’s best for you, nor that you’re alone in doing it.
  • No one can set your boundaries for you.
  • If your relationship is sustained by you not asserting your needs and you tell yourself that you’re being more passive for the other person’s sake, are you really avoiding risking feelings of abandonment?
  • Setting boundaries is something you can do for your younger self now that you’re an adult with more autonomy.
  • Your boundaries are tributes to all the femmes who have fought so hard for your ability to say no.
  • Boundaries are a political act; they’re the basis of movements built by people collectively saying “no more.” 

Boundaries are a practice. Each opportunity to practice boundary setting is a new one. Boundaries represent a chance for you to redefine yourself in the present. I hope that this series helps ground you to say no when you feel the need in your body. Know that you are not alone–you are a part of a long legacy of femmes enacting their worth.

References

Desano, A. (n.d.). Intimate Partner / Domestic Violence. Retrieved from https://lalgbtcenter.org/health-services/mental-health/intimate-partner-domestic-violence.

Twardowski, J. (2017, December 7). 6 Steps to Setting Boundaries in Relationships. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/6-steps-to-setting-boundaries-in-relationships_b_6142248.

Viado, L., PhD, & A. G., PhD (Host & Guest). (2019, February 20). 105: Everyday Codependency [Audio blog post]. Retrieved from https://lourdesviado.com/105-everyday-codependency/

About The Author

Briana Shewan

I am a femme therapist and I love working long-term, relationally, and one-on-one within my queer community! I started my private practice Mophead Femme Therapy in San Francisco, CA in 2017. Now, it’s virtual, full-time, and deeply fulfilling.