Boundary Checks

So I’ve been wanting to talk about this for awhile now, ever since last year when my grandma’s gross ex boyfriend tried to creep on me. In this context the phrase “tried to creep on me” means that he brushed his hand/arm across my tits “by accident” two times in the span of 30 minutes, and only stopped when I crossed my arms over my chest and gave him the stink eye. Unfortunately I thought that was the end of it (why the fuck I would think that, I do not know).

Months later, the first incident almost forgotten, I was alone with him in the house, went to leave, and found the door unexpectedly locked. My body squashed against it in the aborted step, and rather than wait for me to move out of the way, he pressed his chest against my back, effectively restraining me, then snaked his arm around me close to my body to unlock the door. In hindsight the appropriate response to this massively inappropriate and creepy fucking behavior should have been a screaming fit, or at the very least some kind (any kind) of verbal acknowledgement of the behavior instead of what I actually did, which was to physically spring away from him at the earliest opportunity, but not leave immediately or otherwise acknowledge my discomfort.

For many years, and in many instances this lack of extreme response would be considered growth on my part. Rarely in my life have I been guilty of under-reacting. So I’ve been working on suppressing my initial reaction (a screaming fit) in favor of my second, third or even fourth reaction. And to those ends, I have become more employable, a better friend, and a safer driver. Also, less scary in general. However, the issue arises when a quick response is required and I sacrifice crucial seconds, even minutes, hours, or days in trying to decide what alternative reaction I should pick. Meanwhile in real life, I find I have just been talking about the weather with a disgusting molester for 10 full minutes after he mushed me against a door in a wholly creepy way. Which is what happened, and which is why I decided right then not to speak to him or be around him again.

At first, I was going to keep what happened to myself, but I told my uncle after he tried to insist that I be in physical contact with man. This lead to me learning that he’d done the same (well, similar) with my mom. Although mom also got a declaration of love, the massive grossness of which I can only hope I never have to know for myself. Which means that, had I kept quiet, I would have never realized that (of course) this guy isn’t just creeping on me, he’s after my whole fucking family. And everyone else’s, I’m sure. This is just how he acts towards people. Because creeps are never creepy to just one person.

I’ve seen this happen with my friends, and with myself over and over. Beware the person (ladies are not exempt from this rule) who stands too close, who touches without implicit or explicit permission, and especially those who continue after implicit or explicit request that they stop. These consistent boundary violators tend, at best, to be crazy and at worst an all out criminal abuser/assailant. No one ever deserves to be assaulted (like I even have to say that) but predators have a way to zero in on who they think will be the most advantageous target for their bullshit, and it starts with boundary checks.

A boundary is a line that we would prefer is not crossed, or is only crossed in certain circumstances or by certain people. It can be physical, most people have a concept of personal space which is very important to them, especially in western cultures. But boundaries can also be emotional, or even mental. A person may not be comfortable being touched by or touching others, except by specific people or in specific circumstances. Another person may have a real problem with phone calls after a certain hour, or with discussions that broach a certain subject. Part of developing relationships with other people involves learning these boundaries and, in general, respecting them. Sometimes friends can test each others boundaries, maybe even provide safe a space for another friend to break or change those boundaries as they learn and grow. Sometimes friends unintentionally cross boundaries they didn’t know about. Sometimes boundaries are crossed that the boundary holder didn’t even know they had. It’s all part of being in a community and developing as a person in relation to other people. In a healthy environment, all these things can be negotiated and defined safely.

A person can respect someone’s boundaries and still test them as a way of checking one’s own status. A person may stand slightly closer to someone they like in order to see if the other person welcomes this action, or if they move away. The tester might try, in a round-about way, to broach a subject that hadn’t been discussed before (romantic relationships, for example), but will back off if there’s any indication the behavior is unwelcome. In a normal boundary test, the tester leaves the situation with an idea of how they’re expected to behave. You can’t get all your information from boundary tests, but you can start to get a feel for someone.

From time to time, something goes wrong and someone either doesn’t understand boundaries, or doesn’t respect them. People who are predators, or abusers will take advantage of another person’s ignorance of their own boundaries, or inability to articulate their boundaries in order to meet their own needs regardless of the needs of their victim. In the same way that a person who is planning on breaking into a house will check the windows and doors for openings, abusers will perform boundary checks on someone they think might be a good match for them.

A person who makes a boundary check might continue to stay in the personal space of someone they had their eye on, moving to stay close even when the other person moves away. This is a true check, as the checkee now has to either match the escalation of the checker, or accept the violation of their boundary. Either option is uncomfortable. The people who accept the violation of their boundary will likely find themselves with a new friend they weren’t intending to make. The people who match escalation by calling out their checker may end up feeling a little crazy, or like they are the asshole for ruining a perfectly good whatever was happening by “freaking out,” especially since a checker will downplay their part. But chances are, when the boundary checker next makes their rounds, the “freak” will be avoided in favor of quieter prey. Usually boundary checks don’t stop at one round, but continue until the checker has all they want from this particular quarry, or when the checkee finally gets wise and chucks their checker out on their ass.

image of two artists model dolls sitting side by side, one with its arm around the others shoulders.
Could you please take your hand off my arm?

One way to easily and politely deal with boundary checks if things like physically moving away or changing the subject don’t work is to politely name the action and then request that it stop. You might sound a little lame, or a little crazy, but being able to name the action and request it to stop is an incredibly valuable skill. I recommend those that are new to the process try it out on friends and family in safe places. If your friends or family aren’t doing things they don’t like, you can even get them to practice with you by pretending to do something you’d like them to not do (standing too close, talking about taboo subjects) and have you name the action and ask them to stop.

As evidenced by my own story, I’m not so great at this. With my grandma’s ex-boyfriend, I was preoccupied with other family drama, on top of being at the end of a long, stressful day. I already spend a lot of energy trying to act appropriately in the face of normal behavior, and the extra juice I would have needed in order to process that properly just wasn’t available. I felt really foolish about it for awhile, which is maybe why it took me a whole year from the initial draft of this post to the finished product, but now I feel less ridiculous. My family are great boundary checkers, and it’s taken me awhile to realize that my mother also does a lot of checking. I grew up in an environment where my boundaries were considered rude and selfish. It’s only as an adult that I’ve realized what my boundaries might be, let alone to be able to articulate that fully. I think a lot of people fail to realize the importance of personal boundaries, which makes it easy to go from one bad situation to another without fully understanding what it was that lead to our issues.

3 Replies to “Boundary Checks

  1. Wow, that was a really great post. Thank you so much for writing it! Only after reading it I noticed how much I care about people’s boundaries but rarely pay attention to my own. If someone crosses them it’s usually too tiring or troublesome to do something about it. I’m afraid of what kind of reply I’ll get – that happens a lot with my brother, he often judges/dismisses my emotional/mental boundaries.
    Thank you a lot, again. That made me think and analyze a lot of things I didn’t pay attention to until now. I really like your other posts as well!

    1. Thank you. I think a lot of people think it’s too uncomfortable to be articulate about their boundaries and not push the subject, but in my experience, it pays off in the long run. I’ve been in situations where I wasn’t comfortable with someone doing X, but didn’t say anything, then they started doing Y, and I still didn’t say anything, then they progressed to Z, and I kind of flipped out. Then the argument is always “well, you were okay with X and Y, I didn’t think Z would be such a big deal,” and if I’d just been clear that my boundary was all the way back at X, I would never had the fight or weird freak out, or anything.

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