Wednesday, March 13

Boundaries & Expectations - What's OK, What's Not

Boundaries and expectations are interesting to me, because they're so incredibly personal, and yet so incredibly public at the same time. I'm talking about physical and emotional boundaries and expectations in relationships - specifically, with other guys.

Until I sat down to think about it, I'm pretty sure I didn't have clearly set boundaries when it came to physical or emotional contact with other people. I mean, part of me didn't want to specify boundaries because it felt like it should be sort of obvious. Just keep the commandments. I do what's right, and I don't do what's wrong... right?

But the reality is that boundaries aren't a re-hash of commandments - they're the guarding walls that keep me from getting that far. The things that ensure that I'm not going to find myself carried away in the heat of the moment to somewhere I don't want to go.

The boundaries for physical contact between guys with SSA are the same boundaries that are given between anyone, as outlined in True to the Faith:

“Never do anything outside of marriage to arouse the powerful emotions that must be expressed only in marriage. Do not arouse those emotions in another person’s body or in your own body” (True to the Faith, 32).

That seems simple. Added to that are some other important boundaries that apply - don't touch the private parts of others; don't let them touch me.

...but the reality is that it's a bit more nuanced than it first appears. The last-resort boundary is the same for everything and is never crossed. But, depending on my experiences, the more fuzzy "arousing those emotions" will fall somewhere on a massive sliding scale. On one extreme, maybe I can appreciate a guy's touch and, as long as it stays within moral boundaries, it's not arousing to me. On the other, maybe just being close to a guy - even without any actual physical contact - could be enough to set off my emotions. And it's probably different with different guys.

Which means that each relationship needs to have boundaries - not just a set of boundaries for myself.

But what about when just being close sends my mind spinning? When arousal isn't even based on physical contact? What then? Do I completely cut off contact altogether?

And what if close contact causes emotional turmoil? If getting a hug, or touching my back, or brushing my arm are physically intense? What then?

I'm not sure that I've found the answers to those yet - except that in my life, the answer was to commit heavily to the gospel boundary. Don't do anything that causes arousal or gratifies sexual emotions.

But touch involves two people. And that's where it can get complicated.

If I'm going to be friends with a guy - and physicality will be part of our relationship - I may or may not know where our expectations and boundaries overlap. Most likely, I won't. If someone I know could be set off by my touching his elbow or putting my hand on his shoulder, I won't know that unless he tells me. And it goes the other way as well with expectations - if he needs a hug and doesn't tell me, there's no way I'll know.

For me, knowing others' boundaries is important so that I can help them stay safe. Simply talking about them makes us more willing to follow them... and means that I'm less likely to do something that will be a trigger, and vice versa.

The same thing applies in emotional situations, but boundaries are more nuanced there. I'm on one extreme: I'd be willing to let a stranger show up on my doorstep and talk for as long as he needed; other people have issues with friends who text them too often. One of the big issues with emotional boundaries is that people don't talk about them. And if someone oversteps their bounds, it causes huge distress to the relationship because the other person often doesn't even say anything about it.

On the other hand of boundaries are expectations - which are essentially minimum expected interactions. Physically, this may be a handshake, or can grow depending on the person or even the development of the relationship. Emotionally it follows a similar pattern. Reciprocity (asking back the same questions, offering similar information) is usually an emotional given... and it changes as the relationship changes as well.

Good relationships are ones that stay within those bounds - expectations at the minimum, and boundaries along the max.

Now if only there were a good way of actually determining them without straight-out asking... asking about physicality is fine. But asking about expectations and boundaries in emotional communication comes across as a DTR.


  1. David,

    You have illustrated and discussed precisely what I learned in my first relationship where I actually fell in love with a guy. Kissing needed a DTR and as I came to love him more, we, knowing the commandments, wanted to not get close to the razor's edge. We talked candidly about what types of actions were 'too much', leading towards emotions that could lead to full on intimacy. Having those conversations was awkward for both of us, but it created a trust and a connection too....illustrating our commitment to continue to grow the relationship in the way the Lord has asked us to do.

    I think a conversation like this between guys with SSA might be the hardest thing in the world... but if someone else is as strongly committed and filled with testimony as you are, then I think the Lord would hear your prayers and give you each the righteous desires of your hearts..

    Particularly in that vein, it would probably be unwise to only seek that type of open discussion about physical limitations and effects on emotions with just one friend. It would be a miracle if you could find friends that could be openly honest with you about these sorts of things. Perhaps you have already. If so, it would be an answer to my prayers for you.

  2. I love it when people talk about their needs and how they interpret things. In my experience so far, it tends to happen after the fact, but every now and then we bring it up before, and it's always awkward and useful.


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