Episode 124: Reasonable Boundaries

Knowing what boundaries are “reasonable” and which aren’t can be complicated in polyamory, especially when difficult feelings are involved.

That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.

Listen here on or on Anchor. Visit the Anchor website to find where else the podcast is distributed or use this handy RSS link.

This episode includes an ad from BetterHelp. Use my affiliate link for 10% off your first month.

Thank you to Chris Albery-Jones at albery-jones.com for the theme music and a big thanks for the podcast art to Dom Duong at domduong.com.

Podcast transcript

How do you figure out which boundaries are reasonable and which are cause for deeper examination? For example: Is it a reasonable boundary to not want your metamour to come around your house when you might be there (even though you’d be fine with that if it was a friend rather than a metamour)? 

Full context: My partner and I opened up our relationship a while back because we were both interested in exploring other relationships. We’re both not totally sure if it’s right for us but decided to try for a while and see how we feel. My partner’s been seeing someone else occasionally for the last six months, which I’ve found difficult but I’ve become better over time at managing the jealousy and insecurity that comes up when they’re seeing each other, and we’ve been communicating very openly about those difficult feelings. 

I think I’d like to have a boundary of generally trying to avoid all being in the same place - e.g. going to the same party where I might see them together or having my metamour around the house when I might be there. This is because I find it uncomfortable and emotionally overwhelming to see them together, and I don’t want to ask them to e.g. not kiss or hold hands when I’m there, as that feels unfair to the metamour. 

But I’m worried that even this boundary of not all being in the same place is unfair. My partner gets to go to my metamour’s house, for example, so it feels a bit unfair that he has to tell her that she can’t come to his. And I’d be fine with my partner having friends around the house, so it’s specifically because they have a romantic/sexual relationship. 

Also we sometimes can’t avoid being at the same events, since we’re all in the same professional community, so it can be tricky to figure out who should do what when to avoid all bumping into each other. 

My partner and metamour haven’t said anything about this boundary being unreasonable, but I worry about it anyway. I generally find it really hard to know when discomfort is just something I have to deal with and when it’s a cause for setting a boundary. 


So you did already say that you wouldn't mind so much if it were a friend. But the thing is, what if it was a friend that you really didn't like? Because sometimes we don't get along with our partners, friends. Sometimes we don't get along with our partners families.

Sometimes — as I asked in the question at the beginning of the episode— our partners do things that really really irritate us. And whenever you're sharing a space with someone, these types of things crop up, even if you're not in a relationship together. That's kind of like one of the difficult things about having a roommate.

And I think this situation is obviously a little bit different because you know, you're trying this out. You guys don't necessarily know if this is going to be how you're going to be so you don't have that kind of foundational aspect of like “We definitely know that we want to have this type of polyamorous relationship. We definitely know that we want to have this type of time we spend with other people and not together”. And all that sorts of stuff. So it does mean that there's a lot more of a cause for you to feel anxious.

There's a lot more of a cause for you to feel scared and nervous about what's going on around you. So having that immediate reminder around you is going to trigger some anxiety. Plus also can I just say like as a person who has been within polyamorous relationships for the past decade, it's awkward as fuck to be around your partner with another partner, because we don't have any cultural scripts for this.

It's awkward as fuck. And there sometimes isn't any way around that. And it's sometimes is just one of those things were like because it's a new thing— it's awkward as fuck. And that's okay. Like the first time we try a lot of things it's awkward as fuck. I'm sure the first time if you've ever had the experience of bringing home a partner to your family— it's awkward as fuck. 

So I just think that there's an aspect of this that you're going to have to tolerate a tiny bit. And there's also a little bit of understanding that can be had on both sides, right because I do think that there's always a little bit room for compromise on both sides when it comes to discomfort. So let's say for example — like as just something to compare this to — that your partner had a very special dish that was culturally significant to him and liked to cook it in the house and let's say it made the house smell of something that made you feel really sick to your stomach. 

And it wasn't necessarily that you didn't like your partner or you don't appreciate his culture or that you necessarily have anything against his culture, but it's kind of hard for you to be like, “Ew this food is gross”, and you don't want to be like, “Ew, this food is gross”, especially if in those situations. You have kind of a little bit of privilege over your partner, but I do feel like there are ways to navigate situations like that, where you can go “Ookay, like just let me know like we can work around this”.

You can tolerate being a little bit of meh for a little bit of time, as long as you have a kind of work around for it. And I'm not saying that this metamour is like disgusting and I'm not trying to compare your metamour to like something that makes you want to throw up. But I'm saying that like just like this situation, you can respect that they have a relationship and it does sound like you do have respect for that.

And you don't want to be a person who's like “Can you not kiss because it makes me feel weird?” I totally understand that. But I do feel like there's understanding to be had on both sides. Right? There's an acknowledgement — I think it would benefit you three to sit down and just acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation. And maybe ask like, does this other person— does this the metamour that you have, have other partners and is there an interaction there? Is that awkward?

Or are they just experienced with having other partners in their house so it's less awkward for them? But let me tell you like even after having tons of experience, sometimes it's still awkward for me. Sometimes I don't enjoy doing that. Like I actually— I don't necessarily have like a firm boundary, but I do kind of prefer things to be a little bit more parallel, simply because like the pressure on my shoulders to not feel anything sometimes it makes me so uncomfortable that I'm way more uncomfortable by the pressure to not feel anything that I am by any feelings of jealousy that I might have. 

So it's almost like because I feel so pressured to be okay with everything and to get along with the metamour and to make everything perfect — that in and of itself makes me so uncomfortable that I don't even have to be jealous of them. It's just uncomfortable. And that's okay. So, I think that you can all kind of acknowledge that this is a new situation. None of you have cultural scripts for this. It's awkward. It's weird, and there may be just some awkward and weird bits as you fumble along and you may have reactions that you don't expect.

I remember once— like I've been to— this isn't exactly the same sort of example but it is an example. I've been to lots of different types of play parties, for example, and one time I went somewhere with a partner where there was a lot of loud music, which was already overwhelming for me. And there were people doing adult things. And for some reason, I think it was the combination of like the loud music so I couldn't hear them and it was a new environment and a lot of things like that really triggered me actually. 

I had to like step out and step away because there was something about that situation that made me feel like I don't know if that person whose face I can't see is okay. And I don't know if I'm seeing abuse or a consent violation or you know, that happening in front of my eyes and it really upset me. I was able to like deal with it and get over it and be all right.

But I didn't expect that at all. And I had been in lots of different situations like that. So there may be times where you have a reaction that you don't expect and that's okay. Try to not like make yourself be in a situation or put pressure on yourself to always have a perfect reaction to things. And I know that's really hard, because there is a lot of pressure to be okay with everything, to be super cool, to not be bothered. And even though people say “There's no one right way to do polyamory” that certainly is like the right way, right? Like we don't want to acknowledge it.

We want to pretend like it's fine, but actually the right way is being like totally fine, totally happy, never being upset, never being jealous, right? That's the ideal way to do polyamory. And that's the shit that people pretend like isn't there but is totally there and totally puts pressure on you. And it's absolutely fine. 

So I think like firstly, think about the fact that you're going to have all sorts of these weird awkward situations when you live with somebody in lots of different ways. And even though this is obviously different because it represents a romantic and sexual relationship that is very different and you don't have a cultural script for so it's very different in your head. In terms of a friendship, you have a cultural script for him having friends.

But think about like, this isn't the only type of situation that you have dealt with before. And think about how you might react in those other types of situations, how you might negotiate boundaries then. Worry a little bit less about whether or not your boundaries are “fair”, because for example, like let's say in that example of you not liking this food that was super special to your partner, the level to which that bothers your partner has to do with like how you handle that, but also has to do with your partner's own feelings. There's something that I think is worth thinking about and that, you know, we always want to be punctual.

We don't want to be late to a meeting but sometimes you're late to a meeting and that actually gives someone a like a five minute break to themselves that they actually needed. So they're not actually at all mad that you're late because even though you kind of “failed” in your ability to deliver, you're ontimeliness— that's the total right English word whatever— you actually helped them in a way that you didn't foresee. 

So in a situation that in the example I gave like, okay, so maybe he can't cook it– but maybe he actually hates cooking and maybe he would rather have a bigger kitchen or has a friend to cook it in that kitchen, like, do you know I'm saying? Not every situation where you feel like you're inconveniencing somebody else is necessarily an inconvenience to them.

So I would just talk really honestly about it. Like say like “Look, I feel really awkward. Can we work around navigating—“ Can you work on like a safe word even like, if you are feeling a little bit overwhelmed, maybe you decide, “Okay, we'll go to this party altogether. But if I'm feeling a little weird, maybe I'll just leave a little bit early. Maybe I'll have a plan B.”

Worrying less about what's fair and ask them what is appropriate for them. Because it may be that this other person doesn't have another partner, your metamour doesn't have another partner. So it's not a comparable situation just because your partner can go back to the house of your metamour, because if they don't have another partner there, then maybe there's no situation like that.

I had a very firm boundary in my previous relationship with a partner that I lived with that I didn't want anyone sleeping in my bed. And that's just a thing that I have. It comes from stuff that I've grown up with, and it applies across friends. Like I just don’t — I don't really like people I don't know in my room where I sleep. Like I when I go to hotels, I put the sign up that says don't clean while I'm here like. And it's not even because I think anyone's evil or mean. It's just my own personal feelings about where I sleep. And I have that boundary. So we always had that boundary of like, look, people can come over but don't sleep in my bed.

Don't sleep where I sleep because that's just such— like, even if you change the sheets, like I know— and that's weird, but that's from my own personal background. It didn't bother my partner, and we discussed it and there were you know — I'm perfectly happy to explain that to a metamour if I have to. So sometimes you just have things like that and that's absolutely okay. They come from personal preferences. They come from our different types of backgrounds and situations have different traumas and things that we don't expect.

So sometimes stuff like that happens. So just be really honest about it and talk about it. Don't worry about what is “fair”. And what seems fair. Worry about what works between the two of you because there could be a situation for example, where you get pregnant and maybe like your partner absolutely freakin loves Swiss cheese but every time you know when you're pregnant you smell Swiss cheese, you hurl. 

So maybe like while you're pregnant, your partner can't have any Swiss cheese. You know that you're gonna have stuff like this, or stuff like you know, you negotiate stuff with other people. And as long as you're really honest about it, and as long as you try and create like opportunities for yourself to be like, “Okay, maybe we don't make things so rigid. Maybe we don't make things so harsh. Maybe we say, okay, like you can be around and like, you know—“ 

Maybe they're gonna feel weird about kissing in front of you. Like I always found it okay — like I did feel a little weird, but I always found it okay, if my partner kissed somebody else in front of me, it didn't bother me. But my partner felt weird about it. You might actually feel a lot better like having the conversation with them and just breaking the ice and saying, like, “Look, I feel super awkward about this.”

But you know— and maybe it's a thing where you guys feel a little bit awkward but as you get to know one another, it becomes less awkward just like your first dates. It's just like anything you try for the first time it feels super freakin awkward like and that's okay. It doesn't have to feel 100% perfect all the time and you can have a little bit of an emotional upset. Maybe one day you know— you never know what life can throw at you.

Maybe somebody that you love very dearly passes and you're emotionally triggered by almost anything. You never know what kind of shit life is gonna throw at you. So just… worry less about like the rigidity of the boundary, how fair the boundary is, and think about how you can all work together to come to a solution that works for you all in every single situation. And I think that that will actually help you feel a little bit more secure, rather than trying to rely on this boundary of like, “Okay, we're never going to be at the same event together. We're never going to be at— you're not allowed in the house, whatever”. 

I think that is sometimes what people rely on but actually if you feel supported by your partner, if you if your partner and your metamour if you have the kind of relationship where you can all talk together and talk about the situation and figure out like “Okay, how do we work out with this?” and like you just be real honest to be like, “Look, I don't want to be like you guys can't kiss in front of me. But at the same time like I'm really anxious about this. And so can we talk about how to brainstorm a solution together?” 

Just be honest with each other. And that might actually make you feel a lot more secure in the long run. Instead of just this hard boundary where you're gonna feel like “Oh, am I imposing stuff? Am I making a rule? Am I?”. You know, because you don't want to feel like that either and I totally understand. 

So to sum up, apply this situation, even though it's obviously different because they have a sexual and romantic relationship and because this is new for you, you have no cultural scripts, please try to remember that. But apply different situations and think about different situations in your life, or when you live with someone and you maybe don't get along with their friends, don't get along with their family, don't like something that they do. There's always some type of negotiation that goes on in those situations. 

No two people — maybe some two people, I don't know — but very, very rarely are two people just perfectly fit and then sync with one another and never get on each other's nerves. Never have any conflict like that. It's just not something that happens right? You're always going to have some type of thing that doesn't completely mesh. So just give yourself— remember that to give yourself a little bit of a break. Please try to remember that even though people say there's no one right way to do polyamory, there absolutely is this pressure on your back to be perfect.

To be happy with everything, to not have a problem, to not be a wet blanket and that you know— this pressure does exist and you can identify it and understand that it's just an inner voice inside of you that doesn't want to ruin things. It wants to protect you wants to protect this relationship because it values it, and it's going to be okay. Because you know what, even if you were to explode on your partner and your metamour, even if you were to like have a big emotional upset, it's not the end of the world. And at the end of the day, you will be there to take care of you and if you can reaffirm to yourself that you will be there to take care of you.

Even if you lose this relationship for whatever reason down the line, you will be there for you and that can help out a lot. Don't think about your boundaries in terms of like fair and unfair and whether you know— and try not to be so strict about them because that strictness is just trying to make up for the kind of unsured-ness, you feel— unsuredness is not a word.

Anyway. It's just trying to make up for the lack of kind of security you have in the situation, which is totally normal because you're trying something new — again, no cultural script, and you guys don't necessarily know how polyamory is going to play into your life in the future. So there's a lot of unsureness— there's a lot of not knowing what's going to happen. So it's natural for you to feel a little bit scary, but don't try to respond to that by making everything super strict. 

Instead, have a conversation with your partner and your metamour together. Like all sit down, talk about the situation. Confess that you feel a little bit out of it. Create strategies for how you can manage these situations. Is there a way that you can excuse yourself if you all go to the same place together? Can you have a backup plan if you want to leave? Just think about different ways to manage these situations that are just honest about your emotions and don't necessarily put anybody on the spot because you can't control how you feel.

But you can control what you do in response to it. And if you decide to just be super honest about it, I think that they will probably also super relate, especially your partner. And it'll be even better for you when you get a partner down the line and your partner feels awkward about bringing them over and things like that. So lets— you know disclosure is always awkward. It's awkward as fuck everyone feels awkward. Even with lots of “experience” under my belt. I still feel awkward as fuck. It's just an awkward situation. And that's absolutely fine.

So try not to beat yourself too much over the head about it and just be really honest. See how you guys can work and problem solve the situation with different strategies, whether it's like a safe word where you just need to excuse yourself whether you have a backup buddy, you can call and talk to you or your therapist. Just give yourself a little bit of leeway here because it's totally okay if this is awkward for you. 

It doesn't mean that you're a jealous, terrible person. It just means that you're normal, you're human. And you just want to make sure that you protect your relationship and that you don't “ruin” another relationship even though that's not something that is completely within your control. So yeah, I hope that helps and good luck.

Subscribe to Non-Monogamy Help

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.