I've gotten lots of questions in my Ask me Anything column lately related to healthy boundaries in relationships so I thought I'd spend a little time writing more about healthy relationship boundaries for a bit to help clear up a few common misconceptions.
Before Diving in below, you might want to read the first two installments in this series:
Ten Common Myths About Boundaries
Boundaries Aren't Permanent
Two Essential Kinds of Boundaries
When I work with people to clarify and respect boundaries I find boundaries most often fall into one of two camps. When we're envisioning them, boundaries either seem to be Hard Lines or Negotiables.
Hard Line Boundaries
Hard lines are the kind of boundaries that feel especially important and/or tender to us. They are the ones we'll react most strongly to if crossed.
Hard line boundaries appear to be absolute or unmoveable. We can't imagine they will ever shift.
Often these come up in initial conversations with words like never or always attached. Here are some examples of hard line boundaries I've heard:
"If you cheat on me I will end this relationship."
"I can't imagine I will ever want to be tied up."
"I don't like anal sex."
All of these examples are specific to behaviors and appear absolute or unchanging. Trying to negotiate with these will risk annoying the person sharing their boundary.
There are several pros and cons to consider when using a hard line boundary:
Hard line boundaries are usually very clear. The more clarity the easier to be sure you and a partner are on the same page.
Hard line boundaries can seem simpler to live by. Often hard lines have an either-or kind of feel (see the first example above).
Hard line boundaries don't take into account the personal growth and relationship development that happens over time. Even hard line boundaries will need revisiting in time.
It can be really easy to assume these boundaries are fixed- forever. I've seen many individuals in the couples I work with feel blindsided when their partner wants to revisit a hard line boundary.
For example, I've seen many people who thought they would end a relationship after an affair decide to repair and stay together. Most of those folks would never have predicted they'd stay.
Flexible or Negotiable Boundaries
Flexible or negotiable boundaries are the gray area between an absolute yes or no to a specific behavior or context. There are many pros and cons to using flexible/negotiable boundaries.
Here are some examples from real relationships:
"I like rope play, but I don't like to bottom in group spaces. Let's talk about when and where we want to play."
This boundary is negotiable depending on location-specific behavior. I like this here but not there.
"Sometimes I get really triggered when sexual content comes on tv. If that happens I'll let you know by_____ and you could support me by _______."
This boundary might not even look like a boundary to most people- but boundaries are really about asking for what you need and setting expectations. The part that is negotiable or flexible is the "sometimes" and "if" part of this boundary conversation. There's room for it to flex and change depending on the situation (in this case tv content or stress I'm feeling).
"I like flirting with you via text but this week I have a huge project at work so I'm not going to be available to respond like I usually am."
This boundary is time-sensitive (the project is happening this week). It's clear we may renegotiate in a week or shift back to our previous texting behaviors.
Negotiable boundaries can grow, change, and flex with you and your relationship over time.
Some people think negotiable boundaries don't deserve the same kind of care and respect. Thinking because they're flexible negotiable boundary violations don't cause the same kind of harm. This is just completely untrue. All boundaries deserve respect and care.
Because they are more conscious of the grey area between absolute yes or no, it can be more difficult to be clear about negotiable boundaries.
You need to be willing to keep a conversation going about boundaries- and some people don't want to invest that much energy in relationship maintenance.
Questions to ask about Hard Line and Flexible/Negotiable Boundaries in Relationships
If you're not sure what kind of boundary you want to set ask yourself a few questions to find more clarity:
Is this boundary time-sensetive?
Is this boundary specific to a location or situation?
How might this boundary change as we get to know each other?
When will I be open to talking about this boundary again?
If you want any help clarifying or communicating boundaries, I'm happy to talk with you in a free consultation. I love chatting about boundaries!
Gina Senarighi offers non-judgmental sex-positive, gender-affirming, LGBTQ relationship support online and in the Pacific Northwest.
She often says, “I love love, in all its forms!”
She’s helped thousands of couples deepen their sexual connection, repair trust, and build sustainable lasting partnerships.
She uses her multi-disciplinary professional training to teach communication skills and help her clients handle conflict with compassion.
Gina has supported many couples experimenting with open relationships based in trust and integrity. If you’re considering polyamory you should check out her online resources here.
Although most of her couples are experimenting with less traditional relationship structures, even her more mainstream clients appreciate her open-minded non-judgmental approach and diverse expertise.