Many of us will be familiar with the concept of ‘drawing boundaries’ – with friends, family, or partners – in acts of self-preservation. Therapists will lecture you on the importance of boundaries and how we, as adults, are responsible for creating them as well as adhering to them. But it’s all so much easier said than done. Particularly for women, who are brought up to altruistic members of society – whose needs never come first and for whom sacrifice is second nature. My teenage self allowed partners and friends to use and abuse my boundless kindness – and I took pride in what I considered selflessness, but was really a dangerous tendency to people-please at my own expense. Moving forward, I know that it is okay to say ‘no’ to people, to plans, to anything I’m uncomfortable with. But it doesn’t come naturally to me; I worry about being a pain, or melodramatic. Internalised misogyny will rear its ugly head, calling me a ‘bitch’, ‘nag’, ‘kill-joy’ (the list goes on) whenever I consciously decide to put my foot down – however big or small the circumstances may be. 

So, how do you say ‘no’ and assert your needs when every fibre of your being is urging you into begrudged compliance and stoic silence? First, you take a deep breath (or several), take some space, and think ‘what is it about this which makes me uncomfortable?’. In order to address the issue you need to familiarise yourself with where exactly the issue is coming from and – from there – how it can best be mitigated. Without completing this step, what should be a calm conversation in which you outline your specific boundary, the situation can quickly escalate into a screaming-match with a mutually dissatisfying conclusion. Often, we might avoid these first steps because there might be some shame, or guilt, in wherever the negative feelings are coming from (these feelings are equally important to work through).

A really good example of where boundaries become important, but also risk creating conflict, is when jealousy creeps into a relationship. The green eyed monster is a notorious home-wrecker. We get jealous, paranoid, insecure – we register these as ‘ugly’ emotions which are best hidden away, when in fact they’re pretty normal (we are, after all, only human). When faced with a sudden pang of jealousy we have two options: suppress suppress suppress or act on it. To act on jealous impulses may be to lash out – either at a partner or the object of your jealousy – or to get revenge (i.e. make them jealous in return). Really, when jealousy happens, it’s a good time to start talking about boundaries.

For people in non-monogamous or casual relationships these conversations can be sticky; b. But a boundary-related conversation can alleviate jealousy and insecurity by tackling it head on. You probably wouldn’t love it if your sexual partner of several months slept with one your mates, or even someone within the same peer-group – that’s fine! Say it. Establish that boundary. If you’re not comfortable with your non-monogamous partner having unprotected sex with other people, then tell them. And if they respond negatively to as basic a request as that, then that’s on them. Remember that often what seems like a ‘big ask’ to us is often the bare minimum – but if your expectations have been sufficiently lowered then even the most basic of needs can seem like ‘too much’.

Of course, not all boundaries are good boundaries and this is important to bare in mind when you’re having these conversations with partners. If somebody’s boundary involves cutting ties with (perfectly nice) friends or family members, then chances are it’s not a ‘boundary’ they’re setting but a limitation on your freedom.

Relationships are complicated and it’s difficult to write about boundaries in such a generalised way given how nuanced all human relationships are. The takeaway from this piece, I hope, is that it’s more than okay to not be comfortable with everything your partner says, does, and wants – it is okay to say no and to establish (healthy) boundaries. If there’s something bothering you in your relationship with another human – be they romantic, sexual, or platonic – take this as your sign to start unpacking whatever that is before you sit down and have a chat about it! 

With illustration by Emily Perkins (@emp3_art)

Alice Garnett

Alice is our resident sex columnist whose interests include pints, pink, and all things love-related. When she's not evangelising Singledom she's busy hyping up her East Midlands home town, demystifying...