Tuesday, March 25, 2008

boundaries

The post about cheating got me thinking about a related issue: boundaries. Another one of the ill-advised disclosures I made to Mera on our first date was that I have really bad boundaries. So bad, in fact, that I didn't think twice about telling her.

Obviously I'm aware of my bad boundaries, but until recently I have considered this to be an interesting quirk, another fun, wacky thing about me that makes me unique. Hence, it has never occurred to me to try to curb my boundary-breaching tendencies. Often I find myself on the edge of some risky and somewhat titillating experience and a still small voice inside me will raise a timid objection. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" But before the words can register in my brain, I've already leapt in with both feet.

The wake-up for me was sort of anticlimactic. Last month, my most recent ex-girlfriend, SK, was in town. (Forgive me, SK, for telling this story. I hope you don't mind.) This trip to Portland had been in the works for months, long before Mera and I got together, and the plan had always been that SK would stay with me while she was here. Sounded perfectly reasonable to me, however it made Mera a little nervous. I tried to reassure her that SK and I are now terrific friends and no longer sexually involved, etc, etc, but Mera was always uneasy.

Of course it didn't help that I planned to let SK sleep in my bed. It's a big enough bed and we're perfectly capable of sleeping in it together without accidentally rolling over and beginning to have sex. And anyway, I knew that's not the kind of space we were in. To me, sleeping in the same bed was completely innocuous and not the least bit threatening to my relationship and I just wanted Mera to understand that.

SK came and stayed one night then left for a few days to attend a conference. I went out for drinks while she was gone with one of my kayaking friends, a very "normal" sort of person. Older, more conventional than me, like a lesbian aunt who always wants to give me advice and weigh-in on things. I was explaining that things between me and Mera were sort of strained, which I did not relate to SK being in town. Then, later, I explained that SK was in town and, after some questioning, revealed that we were planning to share a bed.

"Wow," she said, stunned. "You have really bad boundaries!" And you know: she was right. Suddenly I realized that my bad boundaries issue wasn't just a nutty quirk in my personality, it was a problem. A problem that I should maybe work on solving. Even though I thought sharing a bed with SK was totally benign, it was making my girlfriend uncomfortable. I was a fool to ignore that aspect of the situation. I realized, looking at my incredulous friend across the table at County Cork, that I was often and regularly a fool, reveling in my bad boundaries and never considering the damage, often subtle, I was causing with my recklessness.

Since that conversation, I have watched myself carefully and started noticing my own pulls towards slightly bad behavior. There are so many opportunities to make a crass joke that's just a tad over the line, or to flirt with someone totally inappropriate, or to slightly encourage the wrong kind of attention. I had no idea how often I let my behavior slide into a gray area, hovering all-too-close to a danger-zone.

For example, there's a woman at work who had a little fling with me last summer. Just a make-out fling that didn't last too long, but a little fling nonetheless. Every now and again she makes herself available for flirting. She lingers in my office, she sends me unsolicited myspace messages, etc. And the old me would have subtly encouraged those behaviors. I would have engaged her while she lingered in my office, I would have responded to her myspace messages. Not because I was trying to start something up, not because I wanted to cheat on Mera or do anything really bad. Just... just because. Just because it was an opportunity, and maybe part of having bad boundaries is being a closet opportunist? Who knows.

So, since my conversation with my kayaking friend, I have stopped myself from crossing these lines. I am professional with my old fling from work, I ignore her myspace messages, etc. When I'm about to make a gutter-minded wise-crack to the wrong crowd, I check myself. I don't do it. Before I would just feel like I was letting a good opportunity slip by, I would regret my inaction. But now I feel powerful, I feel like I'm conserving vital energy and I'm not doing anything subtle but still troubling for my relationship. When I go home to Mera and she asks me if I flirted with "that woman" from work, I can say "No," and know that my answer is absolutely, 100% true. And that feels really good.

4 comments:

mcCutcheon said...

congratulations! I know this isn't an easy thing to learn. I have yet to teach my mind to be faster than my mouth. unfortunately I'd still sell anything and anyone for a good joke...

Unbalanced said...

This situation sounds very similar to something I went thru with my girlfriend. She was staying overnight with a friend after a long day at work as it was more convenient than driving all the way to her home. My problem with it is this is a woman she has flirted with before and it was reciprocated (sp?) not to mention she slept in the same bed as her. I was not comfortable with that at all. However, at the same time I have boundary issues of my own. I'm a very touchy-feely person, to the point that there are several people that I kiss (closed-mouthed) on the lips. These are people I've known most my life and are very close to and they are like me, very affectionate. Problem is, my girlfriend isn't comfortable with me kissing "some" people on the mouth. By "some" I mean, straight men and lesbian women. I try to put myself in her shoes and understand that I might not be comfortable with it either. I've made a concerted effort to offer my cheek rather than my lips for those kisses now.

Grumpy Granny said...

Boundaries, like sexuality, are very fluid. As I commented on your just-previous post, my boundaries around cheating were not all that strong when I was in relationships with men. Now that I have met the love of my life, it's very different. Part of it is that what we have is so mutual. I don't feel like G. is ever keeping anything from me, and even though I am a VERY private person, and have a hard time discussing "deep" subjects face to face, I find that I simply cannot NOT talk about everything with her. The thought of ever doing anything to hurt her is nearly intolerable to me, so that keeps my boundaries strong and makes them feel very light. I guess the most important thing to "get" out of this is that you place boundaries because they work for you, make you feel better, help you in some way in your daily life and relationships. It's when you start to "hold back" or keep yourself from doing something you might really want to do (has nothing to do with infidelity, just anything), and said boundaries start to chafe you. Then, is the relationship flexible enough to accommodate a change or shift in boundaries? Or has it become "fenced in"? As with anything else, you can't set boundaries just to please someone else and expect them to hold up over time.

Once again, another completely thought-provoking post.

GG

not drowning waving said...

hey RPP, no worries with the story - only regret we did not catch it sooner for the possible hurtfulness since there was none of that in anything i looked forward to in staying at your place! glad it all worked out.

also touched by how Mera brings something out of you that asks for this kind of attention. knowing how tame our intimacy was in comparison to your life with M helps me understand why the flirting/boundary compromised person had to exist to seek out other pieces to fill the empty places 'we' had.... makes so much sense. and i write with only good heart and appreciation!

not wanting to loose something important is a great way to look at things a-new. Inspiring. thanks for sharing... SK