How To Set Healthy Boundaries Instead of Controlling Your Partner In Polyamory!
Sex and intimacy educator Yaz The Human, who works full-time for Queer Sex Therapy, joined us for an episode of #openEd last November! Yaz is an Iranian queer non-binary human from Toronto, Canada who wears many hats. They do professional in-dungeon Dom work and recently hosted a queer dating reality show. Most importantly, they had some excellent insights on boundary setting in intimate partnerships.
This is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity, but you can view the full video here. If you’d like to connect with their work, visit their website here.
How does it feel when a boundary is being received well?
Gab (She/Her): I wanted to start with the question, how does a boundary being received ‘well’ feel like for us? For each of us? And Maile, you can start.
Maile (She/Her): I am somebody who has been working on being able to communicate boundaries more clearly over the past couple years, and I think that’s one of the really great things about getting into ethical non-monogamy (ENM) for me. It’s really helped give me more vocabulary to set and maintain boundaries.
I have a history of being a people pleaser so now I’m thinking about, does this make me feel good? Am I doing this for the right reasons? Am I doing this cause it’s something I want? Or am I doing it cause I’m trying to please somebody else? It’s something that has been incredibly affirming for me.
To be able to really be proud of myself and say, hey, I set that boundary, I spoke up, I advocated for myself –– and to come up with solutions when I felt like a boundary wasn’t being respected –– is an empowering feeling. And I really do think it’s like a muscle for me so the more I do it, the easier it becomes. It feels good when your boundaries are respected and you feel comfort.
Gabby: I went to a play party and at the start, they had us practice having consent dialogues in the context of hugs. First everyone was instructed to go around the room and socialize and ask for hugs but say/receive the word ‘no’. And then everyone had to go around the room –– with the option to say yes or no to hugs this time.
I loved practicing not only what it’s like to set a boundary and expect that it will be received, but also just having it received, and it felt very safe. It set a great tone for the party. It taught me how I want to feel when someone is receiving a boundary from me moving forward. I carry that experience with me always. So I guess receiving a boundary well should feel safe. It feels fun. It feels like, ooh, now we can get started with whatever we’re doing.
Yaz (They/Them): I started learning how to assess what my boundaries were, and then the next challenge was being able to communicate those with someone else. I really thought that I was imposing some kind of burden on someone in being able to express what I needed or what I wasn’t comfortable with. And so I would say it very timidly, as if I was saying something that was naughty or problematic, and it wasn’t until I had one partner –– who I’m still with to this day, we’ve been together for three and a half years –– who was like, no, you’ve actually just given me a gift. Having really solid conversations with him in that moment has now really bled into the way that I practice and view boundaries today.
We hear this like, common phrase that giving someone a ‘No ‘gives them space to respect your ‘Yes’. Because when you’re able to say when something isn’t cool for you, then you can really trust when someone else is saying that and be okay with it. So I’m really just reframing boundaries in my mind as something that’s actually like in favor of me, as well as whoever else is involved, and that there isn’t actually anything wrong with me not being comfortable with someone or with something. When I’m able to assert a boundary with someone and I see that they’re taking it as like, oh, thank you so much for telling me. That feels like the best feeling to me.
On the other hand, I’ve been in situations where someone was maybe not so eager to just like understand it right away, but they were able to ask follow up questions contextually. That also is a good feeling where I’m like, this person isn’t like accepting it right away because they don’t necessarily understand it. And now we can have a conversation about it and that feels good.
Figuring Out Your Personal Boundaries In Non-Monogamy, Polyamory, & Beyond
Gab: Well, I mean, as we’re talking about setting boundaries, that’s such a broad way of speaking about boundaries. You know, like it can almost feel intimidating, like how do you even get started figuring out what your personal boundaries are? In the context of non-monogamy, especially perhaps for someone who’s just starting out, how do you get started figuring out personal boundaries?
Yaz: I think that this is particularly challenging for anyone who is a people pleaser, which I believe historically is gonna be folks who are socialized as women and, more specifically, marginalized women.
Women of color, because we are taught that we have to not be difficult and to just do what we can to not draw too much attention to ourselves, et cetera, et cetera, we’re obviously taught to shut off our internal wisdom in order to adhere to somebody else’s comfort. So I just wanna start off by saying that if you’re like, oh, I’m so bad at this, take a moment to think about where you are placed in society and give yourself some grace. It’s not necessarily your fault if you haven’t been taught to be able to reflect and then have your needs respected. That’s not totally on you, babe.
I think that it’s helpful to understand what setting boundaries requires and it’s easiest for me to see it in three facets. So the first is that it requires an understanding of your sense of self. Next, that it requires an understanding of your personal morals and ethics. And then lastly, it requires an understanding of your personal comfort. So how do you find out those things about yourself?
For me personally, I started off off with a kind of somatic practice. If you’re not yet following Che Che Luna, I highly recommend them as someone who is a really embodied practitioner for starting to explore somatic work. With that, you start experiencing, through sensation and texture in your body, what does a yes feel like and what does a no feel like instead of intellectualizing it right away. What are the physiological sensations of these feelings? And then you can start listening for those cues as they start to come up. And that’s gonna help me further down the line in being able to communicate these boundaries.
The next advice I have is to practice saying no and asserting your boundaries in low stake environments. And one of the examples I was gonna give, Gabby actually already gave us in talking about the play party that they went to. That is a fantastic exercise where you can just sit with someone that you’re really comfortable with and say, “every single question that I’m about to ask you, you need to say no to me.”
That’s just how it’s gonna be for a first round. And then you switch. You practice saying no in environments that feel like safe and comfortable and then from there, maybe you can start saying no to like, the person who’s checking you out at the grocery store.
Would you like a plastic bag for 5 cents? No.
Would you like to donate $2 to this organization? No, I don’t want to. (Maybe I did want to, but I’m practicing saying no right now, I’m not gonna give you any money.)
There’s also The Consent Wizardry (Mia Schachner) who I follow on Instagram and has a really incredible yes to no spectrum that is a really helpful tool for people as they’re starting to develop their boundaries. And then I’ll finish with the following questions that I recommend you sit with when you’re starting to develop your boundaries: what am I afraid of? What are my triggers? What do I need and what makes me comfortable or feel unsafe?
What Are Some Real Boundaries In Non-Monogamous And Open Relationships?
Gab: Introspection is really important to determining boundaries. So just to give an example, what are some boundaries that we may have in our non monogamous or open relationships?
Maile: Something that is a boundary for me is dating people who do ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. It’s just something I’m not comfortable with so it’s a boundary for me.
Gab: Wow. I love that. Um, my partner and I have started checking in when new intimacy thresholds are reached (which is a concept we got from relationship coaches Bear and Fifi). So like, if you’re sleeping at someone’s house for the first time, that is a threshold. You’re crossing into new territory. If you are going on a first date, obviously that one is a threshold, but then the second and third date may not be as important to check-in on, at least not to the same degree.
Having those initial thresholds be met with a, hey, is there anything I can do to support you? is important because this is a threshold that’s being brought up so the person can prepare for it. At least in my monogamy, this has been really helpful.
Yaz: My boundary, same as Maile’s, is that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is something that I’m not willing to engage with personally. I’m also not willing to marry anyone. Marriage is off the table for me as well as children. Whether that be having my own with a partner or being asked to raise someone’s child, that is a boundary for me. Not gonna happen.
Setting Healthy Boundaries vs. Attempts To Control Your Partner In Non-Monogamy
Gab: What are different areas in which non-monogamous couples can set healthy boundaries with their partner? And how do we think that differentiates from attempts to control? If you have seen attempts to control in your real life, what does that look like?
Yaz: We could really get into semantics here when trying to think about, what is a boundary? What is a rule? What is a need? What is a want? What is a desire? But instead of getting lost in all of that, if you’re interested in learning a little bit more around how the words that we use have an impact on the way that our cognitive functioning works, there is a fantastic Multiamory episode –– which is a really fantastic podcast run by a whole bunch of poly folks. The name of the episode is Needs, Desires, Boundaries, and More. And they essentially ask the question: is the word itself, and coming to an agreed upon definition, really as important as starting to break down how the use of each of these words actually impacts the way that they’re functioning in our relationships?
Based on my understanding, and this might be different than yours, a boundary is like a bubble that you place around yourself that dictates the edges or the limits of something. A boundary is yours alone. You cannot set a boundary for somebody else. You set a boundary for yourself. It usually starts with something like, ‘I will’ or ‘I can’, or something like that. It’s an I statement.
Boundaries in relationships are usually different from relationship agreements, which are something that you and your partner come to together, and that’s different from a rule. A rule is something that dictates what can and cannot happen, and within polyamorous circles, we used to use ‘rules as the term that we seem to understand ‘boundaries’ as now. And a lot of people in polyamorous circles don’t like to use the word ‘rules’ anymore, whereas 10 or 20 years ago, that was more part of the like, common vernacular. As a general statement, I don’t necessarily think that there is something wrong with setting rules in your relationship if you are 1) coming to a healthier, mutually agreed upon understanding of what a rule is, and 2) that its main function is not meant to control your partners and is instead used as a method to maintain the safety and integrity of your relationship.
We cannot set rules around our partners feelings. I can’t say you’re not allowed to fall in love with somebody else. You can’t.
Gab: Because how do you do that, right?!
Yaz: Unfortunately you can’t! But you can set a rule around safer sex practices. And that’s a rule that I have in my relationship! Safer sex practices need to be used, and that’s a rule and that we’ve agreed upon together. My boundary is that I will not have unprotected sex. My partner has the same boundaries. We’re then able to build that together into a rule that we share in our relationship –– which potentially could be synonymous with relationship agreement, but we could argue about that later.
Different areas that you can explore would include things like: safer sex practices, disclosure, communication, spaces and actions. What boundaries do you have around a partner giving oral sex versus P-in-V sex versus making out? Do you have different boundaries around a partner you live with having sex in your bed versus that partner having sex somewhere else in the house? What about different places, like the beach? What boundaries do you have around time spent together, around social integration? Your partner may be introducing their other partners to meeting family, that kind of thing!
You likely have some boundaries around social media, or at least hopefully you do. And then boundaries around intimacy –– emotional intimacy, physical intimacy, spiritual intimacy, intellectual intimacy.
Gab: Someone asked what ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is. And it’s a non-monogamous dynamic where two partners are agreeing not to communicate at all about it. Like, it’s none of my business whatever you do. So they’re agreeing to an open dynamic, but not necessarily to the disclosure and boundary setting that we’re talking about. I could understand why, for people who are communicating in their relationship and sharing and disclosing, someone in a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ kind of scenario is not really compatible with the type of non-monogamy they’re practicing.
I don’t think it’s possible to set boundaries around somebody else’s feelings. Like that is impossible. So I have never thought to do that. But, um, I have boundaries around disclosure and viewing intimacy thresholds as that entry point for understanding where a connection is going, that’s really helped. If you guys are falling in love with each other, if you guys are sleeping over for the first time, those are huge emotional and physical moments in a relationship, and I wanna stay informed. But I don’t really need to know the day-to-day stuff.
When I started out in non-monogamy, I was like, you have to tell me everything. And now that I’m more experienced, I really don’t actually care about everything. It’s like, now we’re talking too much about these very specific details, about our day-to-day schedule and agenda. So I think there’s wiggle room in terms of how we wanna be communicated with and for me, intimacy thresholds really helped with that. I really only care about progression (and bracing myself for change).
Maile: One really practical boundary that I have in my life is that Sundays are family days for me. My nesting partner and I have opposite work schedules, we have three kids together, and Sundays are the one day a week that neither of us has to work. So that is a family day for me and if I’m dating other people, I let them know ahead of time.
Hey, Sundays are a no go for me. It’s not a day that I’m gonna wanna make plans. And honestly, it’s a day that you probably won’t hear from me communication wise unless it’s really important. That’s just a really practical boundary that I have so that my family gets, you know, priority on that day.
Gab: We kind of already dove into how boundaries differ from rules. So let’s maybe talk about how boundaries differ from control instead because Yaz is right, rules are not necessarily something bad, but how can we know that we are setting boundaries in a healthy way versus trying to protect ourselves from any discomfort in non-monogamy?
Yaz: I think the best way to look at it is that rules are usually word statements that start with the word ‘you’ and that a boundary begins with ‘I’, right? But then you can also break down rules into like two different categories, imposed rules and agreed rules, and those are gonna be our most helpful differentiators.
An imposed rule is, you are not allowed to text your other partner when I’m in the room. Whereas an agreed upon rule looks like, my boundary is that I feel the closest to you when we’re not on our phones when we’re together. And then your partner being like, oh, I have the same boundary. I also feel closeness when we’re not on our phones talking to our other partners when we’re together. So let’s create an agreed upon rule where when we are spending intentional date time together, we’re not talking to our other partners, and if an emergency comes up, please let me know.
There’s always gonna be nuances when it comes to those things. But I think that’s probably the most helpful way to think about it. Is this rule being used as a way to infringe on somebody else’s freedom? And there’s enough research to suggest that when you impose on someone’s freedom, they’re more likely to be resistant to that. So an example would be like, if I say do not touch my water bottle under any circumstances, all of a sudden your brain is like, I literally have to touch this fucking water bottle! So it just doesn’t actually achieve the thing that we’re trying to do.
And if we look inside and we think about where this desire for rule setting coming from, it’s usually coming from a way to protect ourselves, like Gabby was mentioning, because there’s a fear or there’s a trigger, or there’s something here. So if we start to be honest with ourselves around why we’re choosing to set a rule, then we can say, okay, this is my way of trying to protect myself but is there a more adaptive strategy that I can use in place of infringing on my partner’s freedom as a way to bring closeness and connection to us?
READ MORE: Here’s The Secret To Feeling Secure In Non-Monogamy
It really comes down to like, why am I trying to do this? What am I trying to achieve? Can I be more honest here? Is there a different way that I could do this? So, common rules that exists in ENM or polyamorous relationships that I’d say are like, ‘sticky rules’, are rules that try to dictate someone’s capacity to develop emotions for someone, which you can’t really determine. Next, for me personally, would be veto power. I’m not into that. If you are practicing hierarchical polyamory, is there such thing as ethical hierarchical polyamory? That feels outside of my pay grade haha. And then the next sticky one for me would be the one penis rule. No!
Gab: Just to elaborate on the One Penis rule, that’s typically when a couple where it’s like, a cis man and cis woman and the man is saying, you can have sex with whatever cis women or non-binary folks you want to, as long as they have a vulva. But if they have a penis, don’t touch them. There are other contexts in which a one penis rule exists but at least from my perspective, it typically stems from cisheteropatriarchy. And it’s often partners who only view a cis man’s penis as a designator of ‘real sex’.
It feels like they’re saying, what we do is real sex so you can have all the fake sex you want, as long as the real sex that we’re having together is prioritized. And as someone who has dated men in monogamous scenarios who are like that, it doesn’t make me feel good as a bi person! It makes me recognize that that partner doesn’t see my bisexuality as valid. And even though I’m getting what I want, I’m still not being seen in the relationship. So what’s the point? I could just be single and go do what I wanna do.
In terms of how I avoid exercising ‘control’ in my relationships, the core wound I feel that I deal with in my relationships is my fear of abandonment. I’m sure that’s true for many of us. But there is not a way for me to like, measure and control how close other people are in order to prevent me from getting abandoned because that’s not how that works.
So when I’m thinking of an adaptive strategy for when something is triggering my fear of abandonment, I’m thinking, can I negotiate an aftercare scenario in which we come together after you go on a date and are intentional and reconnect? Or like, I haven’t really seen you in a while and that doesn’t feel good for me. I really desire X amount of face-to-face interaction. Can we schedule this frequently so that I feel a little bit more secure as you are getting closer to a new person?
Maile: Yaz was talking about the idea of like, rules that are more of agreements, and I really liked that. I am polyamorous. My nesting partner considers themselves to be monogamish. He’s not really actively dating most of the time so we come up with agreements together to make him feel safe and heard while I’m exploring other relationships.
Whether it’s about safer sex, about how we engage after I’ve been with another partner, or even just respecting my partner’s boundaries if they don’t wanna be sexual and lovey dovey the minute I come home from a date or they need a little space to process. And I recognize that they often times have to do more emotional labor than I do in the situation and being very mindful of that as we come to those agreements.
Gab: What’s the best way to request something of a partner? My question was gonna be, what are positive ways to receive someone else’s boundaries? But I do think it’s worthwhile to be like, what’s the best way to make that request before we even get into the receiving of it?
READ MORE: Here’s How Emotional Abuse Can Look Different In Non-Monogamy
Maile: I’m super curious to hear what both of you have to say on how to kind of bring this up. I’m thinking specifically from the times where I’ve negotiated kink boundaries, where it’s literally like, let’s schedule time, we’re gonna sit down, we’re gonna talk about our preferences, about what we’re interested in and not interested and what our hard limits are. What are we wanting to explore? I don’t see why you couldn’t do that also in a non-monogamous relationship without the kink dynamic. People in the non-monogamous community, who have been having these conversations, wouldn’t really bat an eye if you’re like, hey, I wanna schedule time to talk about our boundaries and stuff.
Yaz: Just schedule it in! I think it’s also important to think about it contextually cuz sometimes, things come up in the moment where you’re like, I didn’t realize that this would feel like a boundary break but this crosses a boundary for me, and I’m starting to get really nervous and I’m gonna have a panic attack or like, whatever starts to happen. Sometimes you just have to have that conversation right then and there, and there isn’t time to schedule it for later. So I think it’s consent-forward to ask your partner, whoever it is that you’re about to express this boundary to, whether or not they have the space to receive it.
If I was like, oh, something just happened, I see that my partner’s in the middle of a conversation with someone, they’re having a great night. Do I feel okay about saving this and holding onto it until our check-in on Sunday, or do I have to have this conversation with them right now? You kind of gauge that for yourself depending on the severity of the situation and where you’re at contextually. But if you have like regularly scheduled meetings with your partners where openly having boundary reevaluations or sharing how you’ve been feeling about boundaries these days, is a really awesome way to try it.
Maile: I love to schedule, I will schedule anything. I’m like, let’s schedule a check in! Let’s schedule the boundary talk! It works. So why? At least in the mainstream conversation around relationships, so much is supposed to be just like spontaneous and ‘authentic’. And I don’t really know if it’s an ADHD thing on my end but I just don’t think humans are built like that in general. I think we should all be really intentional and schedule things and check-in on a partner’s capacity.
Going back to something Yaz said about having to have a conversation in the moment, I have found in the past, when I feel a little funny about something, that if I don’t jump on that and voice my opinion and I just let it fizzle out, I’ll start second guessing. Like, maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal. Maybe I’m not gonna say anything. And then after a while, that thing I never brought up is bothering me and it’s continuing to happen. And now I feel terrible because I’ve just kind of gone along with this thing that I knew I didn’t feel good about. So sometimes you really do have to say it in the moment and be like, you know what? Something doesn’t feel right here. Because if not, it can truly fester and that doesn’t feel good for anybody.
Yes. Um, it’s so uncomfortable. A and it just gets worse. You like those feelings of like Definitely. Oh, that like after a while it’s like, oh no, there was, there was no question. That definitely made me uncomfortable and now it’s continuing to happen. It just escalates to like, this ugly place.
Gab: I can think of so many occasions where that happens! And how do we receive boundaries in a way that makes the other person feel heard and seen and understood?
Yaz: One of the first anecdotes that I gave at the beginning of this was, was the way that my partner responded to me when I asserted some of my first boundaries, which was, “Thank you so much.” Like that must have been so challenging to tell me, like, good on you for being able to like look inside and figure that out about you. Thank you so much for trusting me enough to, to give me that information. Seeing it as a gift is fantastic because it makes you actually feel important that you’ve received this like, very special information from someone that you care a lot about. And it’s also really nice for the person who’s giving that boundary to hear like, okay, this wasn’t a burden. They don’t hate me for saying this, they see this as valuable.
So just thanking somebody off the bat and acknowledging that they have maybe done a really challenging thing for them is a good listening technique. It’s always nice to hear somebody confirm what you’ve said so saying like, thank you so much for telling me that! From what I just hear, it sounds like you’d like it if ______? Or, it’s no longer comfortable for you if _______? Reiterating what you’ve heard makes me feel like, okay, you really did listen to me. And then of course the most important part about receiving a boundary is upholding the boundary and putting an effort to actually do what’s being expressed to you.
It’s important to consider that certain boundaries may have a separate conversation attached to them around what happens if there is a breach in that boundary. There isn’t necessarily a conversation that needs to be attached to every single boundary. Like, if my boundary is that I will not share my sparkling water and you drank it, I’d probably be okay. We’d talk about it and I’d be like, please don’t do that, but if you’ve set a boundary around disclosure and that boundary is broken, it can feel like you’ve just been cheated on, or a relationship agreement has been broken, and that might have a different conversation attached to it. Having an understanding of what the severity and the weight of the boundary is important.
Gab: Oh my gosh, that’s so helpful because so many people now are like, if you have a boundary around XYZ and it’s breached, that’s cheating. And that doesn’t actually feel true for me for all of the boundaries I’ve set! For some, yeah, but let’s talk about how that would make me feel and what I’ll wanna do in that circumstance.
Maile: Yeah, I am somebody who has ADHD and when it comes to verbal conversations, I have so much going on in my head and it’s really hard for me to retain some of that information. So after having a boundary conversation, I generally will put it into text and be like, hey, just wanted to follow up! These are the boundaries that we have decided on, I’m gonna add it to my boundary list and put it in writing and ask like my, my partners to do the same.
Gab: Someone said that positive reinforcement can be really helpful. And I agree! Cause that’s really helpful for my partner. It makes our relationship feel so much more communicative and just creates more reasons to celebrate. And when it comes to receiving a boundary, being like, okay, so here’s what I’m hearing from you, before they even get into asking questions, or figuring out the specifics and the logistics of it. Sometimes jumping directly into questions can feel like, are you receiving what I’m saying at all? I’m setting a boundary! I can feel like almost distracted.