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Making the most of your clinic’s power

Posted: 9-1-21 | Melissa Dellens

Collage of people in meetings and a water droplet leading to ripples to represent how power dynamics can play out within an organization, between organizations, and within organizations.

Organizational empowerment is an active and participatory process through which individuals, organizations, and communities gain greater control, efficacy, and social justice (Peterson & Zimmerman, 2004). Firstly, we explored Brofenbrenner’s ecological model (Hess & Schultz, 2008), and Prillelensky’s (2008) understanding of power dynamics.  Secondly, we will introduce organizational empowerment theory (Peterson & Zimmerman, 2004) and then explore how clinics, treatment centers, and group practices can be more intentional about the power they hold in the communities they serve. Importantly, Prilleltensky (2008) reminds us that the actions of institutions (including clinical communities) reflects how conscious they are about the power they hold. 

Certainly, there is a lot of focus on individual empowerment in psychotherapy. However, this can unintentionally place blame on one person when more dynamic forces are at play (Peterson & Zimmerman, 2004). In short, organizational empowerment uses Broffenbrenner’s Ecological Model to visualize how power moves, and how communities, collectives, and coalitions can use power as a resource to make impactful change. 

In short, organizational empowerment theory considers how the power dynamics in larger systems affect and impact individual empowerment. Above all, clinical and program directors must consider providing affirmative care in their clinical communities. Organizational empowerment theory assesses power and its leverage at the intraorganizational, interorganizational and extraorganizational levels. 

Personal Power Dynamics: Seating yourself in the ecosystem

In the microsystem, we begin to understand who has more access to power and who doesn’t. Individual status begins to take shape in relationships. Children have less power than grown ups. Employees have less power than employers. Clients have less power than therapists. Additionally, there can be real and perceived power differences between friends and colleagues. For example, other individual social characteristics like intelligence, beauty, confidence, humor or assertiveness can be forms of power as well.  Some questions to consider in exploring your access to power:

  • What people in your life influence your beliefs and values? 
  • Who has the power to influence your expression of self or your identities? 
  • When you think about the people you spend the most time with, where do you hold more or less power in relationship to: 
    • age
    • race
    • religion
    • ability
    • socio-economic status
    • ability
    • gender
    • sexuality
    • relationship constellations  
  • Are the people in your ecosystem positioned similarly to you? 
  • Where do you situate yourself when you consider socially constructed power (beauty, intelligence, assertiveness, humor, social skills?)
  • Do these secondary privileges become more or less important depending on your community setting?

There isn’t necessarily anything good or bad in this. Simultaneously locating yourself in your microsystem while understanding the part power plays in each of your relationships is a start in understanding your role in creating safer communities for LGBTQIA+, consensually non monogamous, and kinky people. 

Thinking about your clinical community

Mesosystems begin to group the people from microsystems together into communities gathering around a common interest, task, mission, or setting (Hess & Schultz, 2008). This is the most important level of the ecological model when considering organizational empowerment (Peterson & Zimmerman, 2004).  

As a clinical community, seeing yourself as an essential mesosystem for the clients and patients you serve deeply affects how you provide care. When considering the treatment your LGBTQIA+, CNM, and kink clients are currently receiving, seeing each of those communities as an additional mesosystem can help leverage your power dynamics in providing affirmative care. 

In short, organizational empowerment theory assesses intra-organizational, inter-organization power, at this level in the ecosystem, and identifies ways to leverage that power more equitably amongst members. 

Intraorganizational power dynamics

This is the power dynamic within your mesosystem. In other words, it is the capacity to provide the highest level of care possible to the most amount of people. This assessment considers your power and ability to do what you said you set out to do. Consequently, you can identify the individual empowerment of your staff and their confidence in their ability to act on the clinic’s mission and values. 

Some things to consider: 

  • What are your organizational mission and values? 
  • Do they actively include LGBTQIA+, CNM, and kink clients? 
  • How diverse are the demographics of your clientele? 
  • What incentives do your staff have to become more affirmative? 
  • Are you providing ongoing education? 
  • What about ongoing anti-racism or anti-bias training?
  • Are there opportunities for personal growth? 
  • Are you aware of the emotional labor of your staff, especially members of more marginalized communities? 

Interorganizational power dynamics

Next, we look at collaboration, coalitions, and alliance building. In short, this is the power your clinic has to partner with other organizations, communities, and actions. However, this power dynamic is most often complicated by time, money, and priorities. Thinking about the care of LGBTQIA+, CNM, and kinky clients in your mesosystem isn’t enough. Leveraging your power to collaborate with their mesosystem can increase your capacity to provide healing is key. 

Some things to consider:

  • Are you collaborating with others in the field in providing affirmative therapy? 
  • Have you considered the current challenges different mesosystems are facing? 
  • Is the power of your mesosystem helping to build alliances with others? 
  • Do you know how to access social support systems, medical care, and other affirming mesosystems for all your clients?

"Empowerment is an active, participatory process through which individuals, organizations, and communities gain greater control, efficacy, and social justice." (Peterson & Zimmerman, 2004). Grey background with white text. Rainbow colored exclamation points.

Considering the greater community

Finally, extraorganizational power is your clinic’s power in impacting and influencing cultural and political considerations for LGBTQIA+, CNM, and kink communities. In short, clinical communities have power in impacting macrosystems through the individual patients they treat, the microsystems they influence, the other meso systems they collaborate with, and the kind of treatment, legislation, and funding they advocate for. 

Some things to consider: 

  • Are you advocating and supporting your clients to advocate for the less affirming systems in their life? 
  • At an organizational level, are you engaged in political advocacy? For example, supporting the passage of the Equality Act at the federal level, and other local legislation that limit power and wellness of your clients? 
  • Do you offer clinical programs that affect the power and wellness of LGBTQIA+, CNM, and kink communities? 
  • Are you positioning yourself as a leader in affirmative care? 
  • Can you share your power and resources across multiple levels of your local ecosystem? 

Being more conscious about power dynamics

When we return to Prilletensky’s hypotheses about power, it becomes important to think about a couple things. Clinical communities have to promote health and wellness, but also the power to resist oppression in all levels of the ecosystem. Prilleltensky reminds us that time is short, and suffering is vast. Access to care for gender-, sexuality-, and relationship- expansive communities depends entirely on individual access to basic needs and resources like time and money. To sum up, clinical communities should constantly be assessing their access to power in every level of their ecosystem, and proactively considering how to do more for LGBTQIA+, CNM, and kink communities.  

Learn More from Melissa Dellens, MA, AMFT

Black backround with infinity symbol in rainbow colors with Autistic Affirmative Therapy for Allistic Providers Presenter: Mellissa Dellens, MA, AMFT, 3 CE Course underneath


Hess, S. & Schultz, J.  (2008), Chapter 3: Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model. Lenses: Applying lifespan development theories in counseling, p. 52-79.

Peterson, N. A., & Zimmerman, M. A. (2004). Beyond the Individual: Toward a Nomological Network of Organizational Empowerment. American Journal of Community Psychology, 34, 129-145.

Prilleltensky, I. ( 2008). The role of power in wellness, oppression, and liberation: The promise of psychopolitical validity. Journal of Community Psychology, 36, 2, 116-136.

Defining Power for Affirmative Therapists

Posted: 8-4-21 | Melissa Dellens

Collage of powerful images (waves crashing on shore, wind turbines in a green field, and a bright sun to represent how affirmative therapists can either assert or withhold their power within the ecosystem to assist LGBTQIA+, consensually non-monogamous or kinky clients.

Clinics, treatment centers, and group practices play an important role in the communities they serve. Power flows through every relationship from the individual dyad in treatment to a community clinic’s relationship with federal policy (Hess & Schultz, 2008).  Moreover, these dynamics can be seen as both a commodity and resource (Peterson & Zimmerman, 2004) in working toward social justice for gender-, sexuality-, and relationship- expansive communities. First, this article will explore Brofenbrenner’s ecological model, and then Prilletinsky’s (2008) definitions of power as they apply to affirmative therapy with LGBTQIA+, consensual non-monogamous, and kink communities. Secondly, this article will set the foundation on how clinical communities can benefit from organizational empowerment theory to affect change. 

Brofenbrenner’s Ecological Model 

Development is clearly a lifelong process impacted by multiple forces throughout the lifespan (Hess & Schultz, 2008). Broffenbrenner’s ecological model envisions radiating rings that the individual moves in and out of as they interact with multiple levels of society throughout their life. This model is likely familiar from early psychology classes. Using this model can be helpful for therapists working individually with clients. Even more impactfully, clinical directors may be able  to consider the context in which their clinicians are working, and advocate toward impacting messages and policy throughout the ecosystem. 

Brofenbrenner’s Ecological Model applied to the idea of power for therapists. The inner circle says "PERSON: personal power" within a larger circle saying "MIRCOSYSTEM: Interpersonal Power" within a larger circle saying "MESOSYSTEM: Intraorganizational and Interorganizational Power" within a larger circle saying "MACROSYSTEM: Extraorganizational Power". This image is used to empower affirmative therapists and clinical directors to utilize their microsystem and mesosystem power to empower LGBTQIA+, consensual non-monogamous and kink communities.

Microsystems & Assessment of Individual Power

Our microsystems are our direct personal relationships (Hess & Schultz, 2008). In other words, the people in our lives who we are closest to: first our families and families of choice, and then our friends, mentors, colleagues, and therapists. From our earliest moments, these people impact our sense of safety and security, and also the way we experience pride and shame. 

LGBTQIA+, consensually non- monogamous, and kinky people take in a lot of information from these people. For example, knowing which parts of them are safe to show, and what has to be hidden for safety can depend on who are they with. It follows that most of the work in individual therapy focuses on a client’s microsystem. Further understanding the impact of being LGBTQIA+, consensually non monogamous, or kinky has on a client’s microsystem is important to affirmative care. Consequently, if clinicians are not considering the context of the larger ecosystem, they will miss a lot of the clients’ experience. 

Mesosystems & Organizational Power

Next, mesosystems begin to group the people from microsystems together into communities gathering around a common interest, task, mission, or setting (Hess & Schultz, 2008).  Mesosystems are where individuals first begin to gather. This level is also where people gather around their identities, political ideations, religions, and values that are most important. Affirmative therapists should consider collective systems of support. 

Some examples:

  • family
  • school systems
  • occupational settings
  • recreational settings
  • sports and athletics
  • recovery communities
  • clinics
  • group practices
  • community mental health providers 

Macrosystems & Systemic Change

Finally, macrosystems are the overall cultural patterns in society. On a social level, this system is how we understand ideas of development, identity, privilege and our sense of worth in the larger contexts where we live (Hess & Schultz, 2008).  From the first brick thrown at the Stonewall Inn the LGBTQIA+ communities have historically been fighting for liberation and empowerment, equal access to housing, employment, and medical care for decades. Additionally, the field of psychiatry and psychology is a mesosystem that still has a lot of work to do to provide affirmative care. 

Understanding the relational levels of the ecosystem informs how power moves through our individual autonomy, collective power, and the power to make systemic change. This clarifies how power exists both as a psychological and political force. 

What is power, and why does it matter? 

It follows that understanding some basic definitions of power is a first step to engaging with it. Isaac Prilletinsky (2008) is a community psychologist who thinks about meso and macro level problems. He offers us some ideas about different ways to define the idea of power. 

Power is

  1. Our capacity and opportunity to fulfill or obstruct personal, relational, and collective needs. 
  2. A psychological and political resource
  3. Currency in the ability to liberate, oppress, and resist. 

These ideas about power exist at all levels of the ecosystem:

  • This is a commitment to anti-bias, anti-racist work, and the individual impact we have to fulfill or obstruct need in our communities.
  • Therapists’ individual votes in a democratic society is a demonstration of psychological and political power. 
  • Staying involved in political advocacy and including that in professional practice is an opportunity to impact need on a larger level. 
  • Acknowledging the power a therapist holds to fulfill or obstruct need is a part of cultural humility. 
  • Social isolation is a meso level problem; a problem about how groups include and exclude others. 
  • For LGBTQIA+, CNM, and kink communities, the reasons for inclusion and exclusion are as political as they are psychological. 
  • The LGBT community has proven to be a powerful political force in enacting both systemic and individual psychological change over the past decade.
  • Power is indeed a currency to resist homo/bi/trans/polyam/kink phobia. 

Accessing or withholding power

First, affirmative therapists and clinical directors need to know what power is. Secondly, they need to understand what it can do. That way they can know where they can exert their power to fight bias and improve patient care on multiple levels in the ecosystem.

Power can

  1. Be overt, covert, subtle, blatant, hidden, or exposed. 
  2. Apply to the self, others, and collectives
  3. Afford people multiple identities in order to acquire resources for their collective needs. 

Accessing or withholding micro power

The decision not to engage with individual power is a covert and subtle decision. Moreover, this is a choice that maintains oppressive psychological and political structures. First, being willing to engage with the people closest in your life about their individual biases and political influences is blatant and exposed. Secondly, exploring how clients do this too can have an impact on their awareness of power. Clients with more privilege can become more aware of their capacity to affect change.  Speaking about religion and politics was considered rude a generation ago. As a result, personal beliefs were not be challenged.  Consequently, children were expected to adopt the beliefs of their parents. Choosing whether or not to challenge this in your close relationship is a microlevel exertion or withholding of power.  Challenging some of these ideas in the therapeutic setting can help clients begin engaging with power too. 

"Power is never political or psychological. It is always both. The same goes for wellness, liberation, and oppression. They are never political or psychological; they are always both." (Pilleltensky, 2008) on a grey background with a rainbow ampersand sign.

Accessing or withholding meso power

Next, grassroots organizing efforts, the development of feminist psychology, and the collective ability to resist status quo are forms of power. So it follows, these efforts are important for challenging social isolation and building community. In short, these are both psychological and political ways to impact social change in the mesolevel. Subsequently, considering the collaboration opportunities organizations have in their community is an important use of power. 

Choosing where to place those communal efforts is a choice of macro level power. For example, LGBTQIA+, CNM, and kink communities have fought the pathologies of their identities, decriminalization of healthy sexual behavior, marriage equality, and currently many different issues related to transgender rights. Consequently, it becomes clear that the political is personal, and the personal is political in all levels of the ecosystem when looking at power from this perspective.  

Power can be complicated

In short, power can be complicated by personal wellness, relationships, organizational dynamics, the political climate, and trends in current events. As a result, putting all this into action is hard work! Systems theorists talk about homeostasis, the internal self-regulation of systems that resist change (Smith-Acuna, 2014). Certainly, this is a dynamic ongoing process. 

Here, we can introduce the chronosystem in Brofenbrenner’s model. This is a model to look at the events and transitions that impact power over time. Therefore, some things to consider when thinking about power in the chronosystem and environment are: 

  1. Context and setting matters. An individual can experience empowerment in one setting, and feel oppressed in another. 
  2. Structural factors like class, race, gender, sexuality, ability affect access to power. 
  3. Social and personal constructs like beauty, intelligence, assertiveness, humor, or social skills affect degrees of power. 
  4. The exercise of power can reflect varying degrees of consciousness with respect to the awareness of one’s actions. 

Putting it all together

To sum up, consciousness and awareness of power is an ongoing, iterative, and lifelong process. Therefore clinician’s evolving understanding of the impact and influence they have on the world around them is an essential part of being affirmative. Similarly, this requires therapists to continue doing their own inner work, engaging in community, having ideas challenged, and listening to those who hold less power.  To clarify, a willingness to engage with power helps bring more awareness to power! 

As we bring all these ideas together in context to LGBTQIA+, CNM, and kink communities, affirmative therapists can relate to how complicated power can be. Certainly, empowerment and oppression is directly related to how well we are positioned in each level of the ecosystem. Therefore resilience and coping skills to manage, navigate, and engage with more systemic forces is essential. Most importantly, engaging in structural anti-bias work can help identify where you are seated both in and out of queer community. An ongoing and increased awareness of where, when, how and why you are engaging with your personal, collective, and political power is an essential part of affirmative therapy. 

Learn More from Melissa Dellens, MA, AMFT

Black backround with infinity symbol in rainbow colors with Autistic Affirmative Therapy for Allistic Providers Presenter: Mellissa Dellens, MA, AMFT, 3 CE Course underneath


Hess, S. & Schultz, J.  (2008), Chapter 3: Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model. Lenses: Applying lifespan development theories in counseling, p. 52-79.

Peterson, N. A., & Zimmerman, M. A. (2004). Beyond the Individual: Toward a Nomological Network of Organizational Empowerment. American Journal of Community Psychology, 34, 129-145.

Prilleltensky, I. ( 2008). The role of power in wellness, oppression, and liberation: The promise of psychopolitical validity. Journal of Community Psychology, 36, 2, 116-136.

Smith-Acuna, S. (2014). Systems theory in action: Applications to individual, couple, and family therapy. Hoboken, N.J: Wiley.

We can help you and your clinic become more affirmative! 


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

Posted: 1-16-20 | Briana Shewan

Photo of femmes

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.


Desano, A. (n.d.). Intimate Partner / Domestic Violence. Retrieved from

Twardowski, J. (2017, December 7). 6 Steps to Setting Boundaries in Relationships. Retrieved from

Viado, L., PhD, & A. G., PhD (Host & Guest). (2019, February 20). 105: Everyday Codependency [Audio blog post]. Retrieved from

Relationship Boundaries From a Queer Femme Therapist: Misconceptions

Posted: 1-8-20 | Briana Shewan

Relationship Boundaries From a Queer Femme Therapist:

In my previous article on boundaries, I talked about definitions and why setting boundaries can be difficult and important for femmes. In this, the second part of a three-part series on the topic, I’ll clarify misconceptions and broach avoiding confusion and shaming when it comes to discussing boundaries.

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 Confusing Language in Intimate Relationships

These terms are all related but differ slightly from each other:

  • Expectations can inform boundaries, but they don’t act as boundaries. For instance, if you expect your partner to celebrate your body and honor your bodily autonomy, you may set a boundary such as stopping sex if your body is touched or commented on in a way that doesn’t bring you pleasure.
  • Standards are the criteria you use to judge a partner. Standards may include educational background, annual income, physical characteristics, etc. Like expectations, standards differ from boundaries. They can inform boundaries  but are a different entity. Your standards may determine your make-or-breaks.
  • Make-or-breaks are boundaries, but not all boundaries are make-or-breaks, which definitively make or break a relationship for you. You may break up with a partner (or not enter into a relationship with someone at all) if you want an open relationship and they want a monogamous one, for instance.
  • Ultimatums and boundaries can entail similar or identical phrasing. However, unlike boundaries that are based on you doing what is in your control in response to your partner, ultimatums consist of you telling your partner to do something. For instance, saying “If you don’t stop lying to me about your drinking, then I’m done” is an ultimatum. Ultimatums are more like threats, because you can’t actually control what another person does, even though they may comply (Matlack, Winston, & Lindgren, 2018). Additionally, ultimatums may be made based on your make-or-breaks.
  • Lastly, rules and agreements tend to differ from boundaries because partners establish them together. They can also have less clear consequences when they’re not followed (Matlack, Winston, & Lindgren, 2018). Again, your boundaries and your partner’s boundaries are your own, respectively.

Beyond Boundary Binaries

Boundaries are considered an important part of healthy relationships, but you’ll notice that I’m not talking about boundaries in terms of healthy and unhealthy or good and bad here. That’s because I wouldn’t even know how. It’s not for me or anyone else to judge what is healthy or good for you. You may also be used to the boundary binary of strong and weak. This oversimplification can shame people who struggle with sticking to boundaries or want to set more of them. It puts blame on femmes without contextualizing our challenges within cultural systems designed to exploit our bodies, intellects, emotional labor, and other skills. Additionally, I often see boundaries talked about in all-or-nothing terms. There’s no such thing as having “no” boundaries. Boundaries are always at play. Even the simple act of turning off notifications on your phone can be considered a boundary.

Boundaries aren’t fixed, nor is their development linear. Boundaries are personal and individual; it’s for you to decide what boundaries you need at any given time in relation to any given person. Consider, too, that boundaries are set among varying factors. Who you’re with, who’s around, where you are, what kind of day you’re having, what stakes are involved, timing, previous experiences with the person, having to compartmentalize an aspect of your identity in order to reach an objective of your given interaction or for your safety, not being offended by something that on a different day would bother you or vice versa, are all factors that are quickly being assessed and play into the fluidity of boundaries.

By addressing misconceptions, I hope to have clarified many practical elements about boundaries. In the last article, I’ll name common barriers that femmes may experience in setting boundaries. I’ll also share tips that can help you with your boundaries, including reframing them in order to work through those barriers.


Desano, A. (n.d.). Intimate Partner / Domestic Violence. Retrieved from

Matlack, E., Winston, D., & Lindgren, J (Hosts). (2018, July 3). 178 – The Basics of Boundaries [Audio blog post]. Retrieved from

Relationship Boundaries From a Queer Femme Therapist: Definitions and Examples

Posted: 1-2-20 | Briana Shewan

Relationship Boundaries From a Queer Femme Therapist:

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

Kadlec, J. (2019, August 30). How on Earth Did ‘Are You The One’ Get Queer Love So Right? Retrieved from