boundaries and manipulation

from evy's notebook

The concept of boundaries in a relationship seems to be all the rage these days, positioned as the more ethical version of rules. I love so much about boundaries, but I've recently seen several conversations around boundaries that have gotten me thinking. Often one person says they're enforcing their boundaries while the other says that the first person is being manipulative. I've been in situations like this myself. Can enforcements of boundaries be manipulative?

[for context: Rules describe what another person can or can't do to you, such as "you can't smoke in my house" or "you can't date other people". Rules can be good sometimes, but boundaries are often more useful. Boundaries describe what you want your experience to be, such as "I want my home to be smoking-free" or "I want to be in an exclusive relationship". These are pretty similar sentiments, but the phrasing of a boundary can be nice because it acknowledges the free will of the other person. Someone might smoke in my house, or they might not. But just because they have free will doesn't mean that there can't be consequences if they do smoke. Perhaps I'll force them to leave, or never invite them over again, or even stop being friends with them. While I would always prefer to spend time around people who take care to respect my boundaries, boundaries are ultimately up to the person setting the boundary to prioritize them.]

Because boundaries focus on the person setting them and not what another person should or shouldn't do, they might seem like a non-coercive version of a rule, but I don't think that's true. If someone knows their actions will have consequences they won't like, they might feel pressured to not take those actions. Sometimes this is good, but sometimes it leads to situations where people feel like they're being manipulated by someone else's boundary setting.

After I was in a monogamous relationship for five years, I told my partner that I wanted to be polyamorous. He didn't want our relationship to change, but when I said "you can join me in this journey or we can break up", he decided to do the former. While I respected his decision, I worried that in setting a new boundary around how I wanted to experience relationships, I had coerced him into a relationship where he was unhappy. In some ways, one could say I gave him an ultimatum.

There have been several times in my life when I've stood up for things that felt important to my wellbeing, threatened to leave if my needs couldn't be met, and was then accused of using an ultimatum. It's common to hear the word "ultimatum" used with negative connotation, as something that is "abusive" and reflects poorly on the person speaking it. Empty threats are manipulative - their main purpose is to get someone else to act a certain way. Honest ultimatums focus on the enforcement of a boundary regardless of someone else's actions, and that does not fit the definition of manipulation. They're often a last resort, and may still feel coercive and scary, but ultimatums that are honest and phrased as a boundary (i.e. never absolutely requiring the other party to take some action) are important and good.

Defences of boundaries are not always ultimatums, and ultimatums don't always defend boundaries. Ultimatums are sometimes manipulative, but are also sometimes a fantastically powerful way to stand up for one's needs. I do think it's important for people to look out for others and try to meet others' needs alongside their own. But if I'm ever in a situation where someone isn't interested in respecting my stated boundaries, I hope that I can respect those boundaries and prioritize myself.