I used to have a very toxic friendship with one of my female friends. She always made jokes at my expense, was very judgemental, temperamental, and didn’t show me much respect. I cut off ties with her, but she and my boyfriend of over two years are still friends.
I don’t tell my boyfriend not to see her or contact her, because that would be toxic, but it does make me very uncomfortable for them to hang out together. How do I approach this with my boyfriend while still keeping my relationship healthy? Thank you!
— My Beau is Friends with My Foe
In my workshops about sex and relationships, things always get a little complicated when the vibrator demos are over and it’s time to talk boundaries. Typically, workshop participants are clear on some things: “My body my choice,” “Don’t touch without consent,” but it’s in communicating their boundaries with confidence where the situation gets sticky.
This “boundary confusion” tends to happen with people socialized as women who are socially instructed through experience and cultural mores to be polite rather than assertive, passive rather than in control of their bodies and affections, and/or grateful for rather than discerning about the attention directed toward them.
Therefore, when it comes time to clearly state boundaries (what we desire, what we don’t) we feel ill-equipped, disempowered, or just plain “bitchy” for doing so. This can come out in small, seemingly innocuous ways like instinctively apologizing when someone runs into you on an otherwise empty sidewalk, or in directly harmful ways like feeling unable to speak up when we’re relationally unhappy.
The other boundary-blocker is the fear of controlling our partners. A great way to check in with yourself about whether you’re being communicative or coercive is to ask yourself: What are my expectations? Can I accept a “no”? What do I expect my partner to do with this information?
If your goal is to express your vulnerable feelings to your partner (“My history with Foe makes it hard for me to feel at ease about your relationship. My deepest fear is that eventually you’ll start treating me the way she used to”) you are likely communicative. If your goal is to change, put down, or control him, you might be in coercive territory (“Y’know I just thought you were better than Foe but I guess you’re not. Stop seeing her”.).
Clearly stating boundaries for yourself concern what you own and what others may only access with your permission. This includes the physical (your body, affection, sexuality, and time) and the mental (your intimacy, your emotions, your trust). The only person you can control is yourself. In this way, clearly stating boundaries (“I don’t want to have a relationship with Foe”) is different from rules you place on somebody else (“Stop contacting her”).
You say it makes you “very uncomfortable” when Foe & Beau hang out. In order to communicate your boundaries, it’s important to dig into this discomfort a little deeper to discover the root emotions fueling it and to do a self-safety check. What level of harm is being done here? Feeling discomfort because you just don’t like having Foe in your social zone is much different than feeling a deep fear that she’s turning your boyfriend against you or that something is going on between the two of them. You’re entitled to ask him questions and to get clear, honest answers that’ll inform this process.
Make a list of emotions and automatic thoughts that pop into your head when you think about this discomfort. Then, make a list of your relational, emotional, and physical boundaries (remember, that pertain to you and not to controlling him). Look at these lists side-by-side to see if any of these emotions or thoughts seem irrational or if, conversely, they point to your boundaries being violated.
Then, can you share your vulnerable feelings with your boyfriend and re-state your boundaries in a way that honors both of your autonomies? Or, are there so many boundary violations happening that you feel unsafe, manipulated, or unconsidered? Remember, you can’t control who he creates friendships with, but you can choose to leave if this relationship crosses your lines.
Anyone who needs assistance leaving an unsafe relationship should contact Safe Passage at safepass.org, 1-(888) 345-5282.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a pleasure-positive sex writer and educator living in the Pioneer Valley. She has a website bursting with sex resources, advice, and workshops at yanatallonhicks.com.