Today, let’s consider an essential quality of a healthy relationship: Boundaries.
Professional boundaries, personal boundaries, ethical boundaries, boundaries that are set for the benefit of others and those we set for our own benefit. Sometimes they’re about respecting others sovereign rights to their own lives and well-being. And sometimes they’re about doing the same for ourselves. Most often, they serve both purposes.
For example, in my professional organization, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association (UUMA), we have a Code of Conduct. In that Code, it is crystal that we are to have no sexual or romantic contact with any of those we serve as their minister.
In another example, my sweetie is a big introvert. I am most certainly not. My sweetie needs more quiet and solitude in her life than I do. Alas, I need more words and talking things out to find my thoughts than she does. And so we negotiate and find happy places to rest. Time for me out of the house. Time for her downstairs, writing. Time for me typing and talking with friends. And time for the two of us to talk, share meals, and dissect the content of our days in loving conversation.
Finally, in Stone Circle Wicca, we adhere to a Leadership Code of Conduct, and those who attain the Third Degree (the last level of initiation in our tradition) and who are in leadership, also make the Nine Promises in a time and place set aside for binding and sacred oath-making. Third Degree Initiates, whatever our institutional roles as teachers, pastoral care givers, mentors, etc., are held to higher standards of ethics and self-reflection than others in the Tradition are.
Not only do we promise never to engage in bullying, etc., but we promise to work to prevent it in our community. We hold ourselves to a higher standard than others, set boundaries for behavior, and make proactive promises to hold one another accountable for those boundaries. Our Promises are both institutional and personal.
When it comes to relationships, it’s so easy to take boundaries personally. Whether they are or are not, it’s just so easy to feel attacked, defensive, or to project motives on another that simply are not there. In the first example above, the boundaries are there to protect everyone in the scenario. The minister—especially in a congregational setting—has a kind of pastoral power that the congregant does not. There are imbalances of power in the relationship that are complex and absolutely unwise and potentially criminal to mess with.
It makes sense, then, that keeping to the UUMA’s boundaries, set out in the Code of Conduct, is good for everyone. We should all be on the same team. We want to nurture spiritual health for those the minister is serving. In order to do that, we all need to be aware of our roles in the systems in which we serve and the different kinds of power different people have. That’s part of what being on the same team means.
Similarly, my sweetie asking for what she needs and our negotiating for both of us to get what we need is a bunch of good relationship politics, right there. We know that we are on the same team. We were once asked where, on a scale of 1 to 10, we each landed on the question of how committed we were to making our relationship work. “Oh, ten!” we answered in unison. Same team.
When we’re on the same team, boundaries are about valuing everyone’s well-being. They aren’t about believing one of us is out to get the other. They are about acknowledging power, just relationships, and love.
Sometimes, though, we set boundaries that are indeed personal. They may be for our own good, what some might call, “self-care,” and may indeed be very personal. We ask people to stop treating us in a particular way. We withdraw from relationships. We finally get the hell out of an abusive situation and find a way to be safe. We ask for help from those we trust, and we lay down what we need, making it clear that anything less is a dealbreaker.
Boundaries are hard when you, like me, are someone who genuinely tries to love everyone in your sphere. I tend to stick it out in relationships, even when they’re long past isolated incidents of injury. (In those cases, it may be boundaries + transformative conflict that is called for. More on that in a later missive, I reckon.)
When I have had to ask for space, assert my sense of truth or rights, or strongly disagree about boundaries with someone I’m close to, it’s never been easy. It can be hard to ask for what you need. Nevertheless, not doing so can mean you are not showing up honestly and with integrity. You are hiding what you need and lying by omission. I have made this mistake hundreds of times in the course of my life.
Love doesn’t mean no boundaries. Love means having boundaries, because it means that you are tending both to yourself and to the health of others and your relationships with them.
This principle is similar to something I have written about before: Fierce compassion. That compassion can mean saying no. No to injustice. No to the endangering of those for whom we care. And in the case of boundaries we set that are for our own well-being, but which anger others, saying no to others’ rights to hurt us.
And boundaries don’t mean ignoring persistent gentleness or gentle persistence. They don’t mean cruelty. On the contrary, as I hope I’ve made clear, they can be gentle, yet firm and clear. You deserve gentleness, both from yourself and from others, even and especially when you’re being held accountable. And I encourage you to practice gentle persistence in your own setting of and maintaining boundaries.
So today, I ask you, what boundaries do you set for yourself? Where are you not living up to your ethical obligations and pressing against or even breaking boundaries? Where are you taking advantage of others? Where are you being taken advantage of, or even simply hurt, in relationships?
I encourage us all to take stock. What boundaries will help nourish our creative work, our professional obligations, and our personal relationships?
And then, having taken stock, perhaps we can ask for, insist on, or shore up the boundaries we need to respect or assert. Best of luck, dear hearts. Know that I am thinking of all of you as I take stock and do my best to move forward with integrity and compassion.
Blessings on you and your work—