• Laura Boyle

Respecting Boundaries is a Moral Imperative

Boundaries are the definitions around every interaction we have - with our friends, our families, our partners. Sometimes ours and others’ are or appear to be in conflict around a particular issue or situation, and that’s when we have to tread carefully. To be respectful partners, it’s our job first to respect our own boundaries and next our partners’ boundaries. In short, the order of operations in interpersonal relationships is: 1) respect boundaries including your own to do no harm; 2) meet as many needs for as many people as possible within the limits of 1; 3) then you get to wants and nice to haves.


In any situation involving more than one person this is true; in any involving more than two it becomes increasingly likely not everyone gets wants. In polyamorous networks, this often means meeting your own needs and parts of the needs of your partners, and then starting to address wants where they don’t tread on folks’ boundaries. If getting everything you want is necessary for you, you’ll want to simplify as many of your interactions as possible - interacting with partners one-on-one, so boundaries don’t overlap in a given situation, or choosing partners who are extremely compatible and similar, so there are very few boundaries in conflict. Even when taking care to simplify your emotional life, there will be times when your needs (to rest, to spend individual time in relationships, to work on your own projects, etc) won’t mesh perfectly with a partner’s wants (or sometimes needs! And that is where compromise comes in), or where meeting your day-to-day needs like your job, rest, and a minimum of time with partners strains the constraints of time, or where simplified still isn’t simple - having a reasonable number of partners for the time you have doesn’t mean life doesn’t get busy sometimes or that your partners won’t occasionally be in conflict and you’ll have to see them separately to respect their feelings where previously a majority of time with them was group time and it made scheduling easier. Focusing on meeting your own needs first, while not violating their boundaries, and then seeing which of their needs you can meet within your and their boundaries, gives a sustainable and flexible framework for the changes of everyday life.



The reason we frame it this way is because not doing harm, maintaining your own boundaries and selfhood, and advocating for your own needs are more important than balancing wants in most situations. Meeting wants past needs should be a balance, not a game someone “wins.” (If you NEVER get what you want because given circumstances never allow, that’s a time to choose to leave, potentially- no one is keeping you captive in a healthy relationship.) Not all relationships, circumstances, or networks might be for you. Balancing wants out after needs are largely met is something that mostly ‘comes out in the wash’ over time in healthy networks. Hinge partners get some of their wants and so do the spoke partners, or one spoke partner gets a few more wants now, and another the next time there’s a busy period or difficult patch. If it’s consistently lopsided, the partners have to decide if that’s serving them or not. Part of the joy of relationships is that feeling of wanting to be with someone and having those fun ‘want’ moments met - so deciding that a relationship that’s managing minimums only for you isn’t enough is absolutely valid.


It’s equally valid to leave if your boundaries aren’t being respected as a pattern; being asked to bend yourself outside your boundaries for a partner or a partner & meta’s preferences isn’t something you should tolerate long term. Short term or one-off, have a conversation about it and bring the boundary to their attention so they return to a set of actions that respects it - people who care for you were hopefully just unaware or forgetful about your boundary and not pushing it intentionally. This kind of adjustment often has to happen in situations like when one party would prefer a soft parallel or garden party style of polyamory and the rest of the network is accustomed to kitchen table - they might not be trying to push at a boundary but it won’t occur to them that a gathering is smaller than you’re comfortable with or that you mean really hinge’s birthday, major holidays and the biggest events in the hinge’s life, not “we’re throwing a barbecue for Memorial Day with a dozen people.” Defining and re-defining conversations will end up happening in some of these situations over time. That doesn’t mean the hinge shouldn’t think to ask sometimes, but it does mean the person with the boundary should bring it up calmly the first few times instead of just getting mad, because social cues are different from person to person. If it continues to be a pushed issue, you can decide this isn’t the network or relationship you want to be in. Sometimes people aren’t for us, even if we have fond feelings for them.


If you have relationships end repeatedly because of boundary issues, you need to keep the basic rules of this framework in mind. Respect your own boundaries, to avoid resentment; your partners’ boundaries, to be able to meet the most needs possible at once; and then see what wants fit in around those. It’s a moral imperative in relationships to respect ourselves and our partners enough to respect our and their boundaries - to not force situations, interactions, or events to fit a script one person would prefer over another’s needs- in order to have healthy connections.

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