One of the hardest choices I’ve ever had to make is deciding to end or limit contact with someone I love in order to respect my own boundaries.
The first time I did this was due to addiction. The second time was because my emotions and desires weren’t being taken into account the way I needed them to be.
Doing this continuously doesn’t make it easier. The hurt remains, like an ember in my shoe that won’t go out. But something I’m getting more clear on is this: it has to be done.
As women, we are often taught from a very young age not to set our boundaries—because we want to be “cool” with things, or go with the flow, or worse, stay safe. And who can blame us? Often when we set boundaries, we are met with defensiveness, blatant disregard, or even attacks.
But how often are we ever just met?
When the “Me Too” movement began, I was pissed. “Why should we have to set our boundaries, tell our stories, and bare ourselves to others? We are the ones being violated; we shouldn’t have to do all the heavy lifting!” And while I still believe this to be true, and hope that one day it will not be the case, right now, the truth is that if we don’t speak up, people won’t know.
I know it is hard. It means feeling embarrassed, feeling attacked, or even losing someone we love. But if we don’t start saying no and if we don’t start speaking up, no one will ever know that a boundary was crossed in the first place—and they will keep doing things to hurt us and others.
I am talking about sexual harassment and assault, but I am also talking about those little everyday things that we have come to just expect as part of being a woman: an unwanted hug from a friend or acquaintance, a conversation we’d rather not be in, smiling politely when someone says something offensive, talking about things we’d rather not discuss, accepting a massage from a lover, that light touch on the lower back from a male friend to usher us forward, or even having sex with a partner when our level of consent isn’t a “100 percent yes.”
Yes, these situations impact all genders. But as women, we are often conditioned to bear the brunt of them. Smile. Don’t make waves. Be polite. Act like a lady.
I’ve always thought of myself as being very good at creating boundaries. I’m stubborn by nature, and I’m not afraid of a fight. But I recently realized that I wasn’t standing up for myself: not fully and especially not in my most intimate relationships.
I noticed a constant loop with a former partner. He wanted to discuss a topic that felt important to him, one he thought would help us bond with each other. To me, that topic felt triggering and almost traumatizing each time he brought it up. I didn’t feel our foundation was strong enough yet to introduce this topic, but it was mentioned so frequently and usually with the caveat of, “If I can’t talk to you about this, we can’t be together.”
I heard those words; I took them in. I loved this person more than most—and still do—and I didn’t want our relationship to end. So I set aside my needs. I did not set firm boundaries. And I let these conversations continue.
Months passed and as each little trespass built up, I felt less and less safe. A while back, I decided to set a boundary.
I do not feel safe enough in this relationship to hear these things. You are too in and out—committed and then not—for me to not feel threatened by these things. I have a boundary here. I need more safety; I need more commitment before I can have these conversations.
I told him I wanted to take some time apart until he decided if he could honor me in this way. We did. About a week later, he told me he couldn’t. I have never been so heartbroken.
It hasn’t been that long since we separated. I still feel the shock, though the pain is less sharp and more of a dull ache.
And yet—I wouldn’t change a thing.
In a choice between respecting and fully loving myself and being with the person I love, I chose myself. I still imagine a future with him; I still love him. But now I see my boundaries more clearly.
I hope that as women, we don’t have to lose those we love in order to respect ourselves, but if that’s the case, please choose yourself.
Choose yourself when someone touches you in a way that you don’t like.
Choose yourself when you’re merely tolerating a conversation or someone’s company.
Choose yourself when your partner wants sex and you don’t.
Choose yourself when you find yourself “just trying to be polite.”
We need to start using our loud and powerful voices, to start setting and sticking to our boundaries—no matter what situation.
It might mean hurting someone’s feelings or even having to say goodbye. But if we want change, we have to start speaking up, no matter how small or large the violation may seem.
And men, we need you to listen. I don’t just mean listen for a “yes”—because, and this is important to say, sometimes a yes is not a yes. The yes you’re hearing may be coming from fear, habit, not wanting to hurt you, or wanting to stay safe.
So we need you to listen with your whole being. Watch her body language, her mood, her eye contact. Listen to the tone of her voice. Don’t try to convince or manipulate. Don’t give ultimatums. Then ask yourself, once again: Does she want this touch? This back rub? This hug? This attention? Does she want to be having this conversation? Is she okay with all of this? Whatever the situation, be it sexual or not, pay attention to unspoken and spoken boundaries.
I know it feels confusing. Women need to practice saying no and men need to learn to look and listen so we can all communicate in a utopian, transparent, honest, and magically harmonious land. But until then, paying more attention is key—for all of us.
Pay attention to yourself: Do I have a boundary here? Is this okay with me?
Pay attention to others: Does she/he have boundary? Is there something I’m not hearing or noticing?
We have a long way to go, and I do believe it will take a lot of hard work from people of all genders. But I also believe that we are finally ready to step up.
Dear Men: if you answer Yes to any of these questions, you may be the reason someone else says, “Me, Too.”
Author: Natalie Grigson
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman
Social Editor: Travis May