Polyamory Boundaries and Mental Illness

There’s a bit of a debate in poly circles about rules/agreements vs boundaries.

Short version:

  • Boundaries are personal–I will not date anyone who is anti-thiest. (I’m perfectly happy dating athiests, but if you are going to attack/belittle/look down on religions and religious people I am so fucking out of there.)
  • Rules or agreements are relational–Michael and I agree not to start any long distance relationships (we haven’t–we tend to fall on the boundaries side of the debate, but its an example).

For this post I’m going to talk about boundaries just in keeping with the KISS principle (keep it simple stupid). Most of this post applies equally well to rules in poly relationships, but rules get even more complicated because they involve/require the agreement of more people. Have fun with that.

One of the defining characteristics of mental illness as this blog series uses the term is that mental illness is not static. Where developmental disorders and personality disorders such as autism, ADD, and BPD are constants in a persons life and personality, mental illness is constantly in flux. One day you are so deep in depression you can’t get out of bed, the next you manage to go to work, even if you go through half the day in a depression-daze. While episodes of mental illness can last for years, even decades, within each episode there will be fluctuations, good days and bad days. Days where you can eat and days where you don’t dare go in the kitchen.

Polyamory (and most forms of non-monogamy) work because everyone is on the same page. If I think we all want an open relationship, and my partners want a closed triad there are problems coming. Massive ones. In poly, we tend to stay on the same page partly through constant communication, and partly through establishing boundaries and/or rules/agreements to guide the shape our lives and relationships take. These boundaries can be both a blessing and a curse to someone dealing with mental illness. Let’s take those one at a time.

Boundaries as a Blessing

Hard and fast boundaries are seriously fucking amazing when mental illness is rocking your world. Everything is out of control, your mind is tearing you apart, you can’t even manage to reliably dress yourself from one day to the next, and you just know that your job, relationships, and friendships could implode at any time because of your illness. In this mad chaos you have to have something stable, something reliable, something you can fucking control and cling to as a bit of sanity in an insane you.

Boundaries. You said that safe sex was one of your boundaries, and you would never engage in sex without protection. You also told me that that you would only be in a relationship with me as long as I had safe sex, if I ever chose to have sex without protection, you would stop being intimate with me.

I can hold to this. In a world gone mad I can know that this is solid. This thing you have told me that is one of the bases of our relationship.

Some people with mental illness will cling to boundaries, become obsessed with them, parse them and insist on defining them down to the smallest minutia. In a world where your very mind turns against you, knowing that you have something you can rely on is pretty damn awesome.

Boundaries as a Curse

On the other side of the equation, boundaries can be a fucking minefield. Remember what I said about mental illness not being static? One day I need you to not fucking touch me unless I ask you to. It’s a plain and simple boundary, right? Just don’t touch me. The next day I’m hurt and insecure because you never just come over and give me a hug anymore.

Am I playing games? Messing with you? Being manipulative? No. Yesterday my PTSD was acting up and the wrong kind of touch will trigger a flashback (what’s the wrong kind? It’s like porn, I know it when I feel it. But by then it’s too late.) Today I’m coming down off the PTSD, feeling vulnerable, and need to know that you still care for me in spite of my wackadoodle.

Poly partners (understandably) want the triggers and aids for our mental illnesses written out in a neat little “How-To” book. It doesn’t work that way. Stay the fuck away from my neck, except when I’m feeling safe and want it a little rough, and then my neck is fucking awesome. I can’t eat gooey or mushy foods, except when it’s mac and cheese, and no sauces, but ketchup and alfredo are okay, and oh I love a good pesto. Don’t touch me when I’m curled up in a ball shaking, except for when I need to you to wrap your arms around me and tell me everything will be alright. Don’t cater to my illness except when you need to take it into account in order to get anything done…

We can’t give you a clear set of boundaries regarding our illnesses. The best we can give you is vague semi-guidelines that work except when they don’t. And trying to provide clear boundaries for our mental illnesses just leads to problems in a relationship when “You told me it was okay to touch you there!” “It is, just not now…” or “You can’t do that, it triggers me.” “But yesterday you told me you liked it.”

Obviously a lot of this is highly personal stuff, but a lot of it can apply across relationships as well. “How come you said you can’t stand to be boxed in, but when we went out the other night you let Dave back you against the wall?” “Why is it that my asking you to the movies always triggers you, but you go out with Gina all the time?”

I’m not sure how much sense I’m making here. I expect a lot of people who have dealt with mental illness in poly relationships are nodding along, and a lot of folks who haven’t experienced mental illness are scratching their heads going “What does being backed against the wall have to do with relationship agreements? Who has boundaries about going to the movies?”

Mental illness. It fucks with your head in the weirdest ways. Like I said before, I tend to focus on a boundaries approach to relationships, but in my time I’ve had boundaries and rules about what I could eat for dinner, how and when I would kiss someone, how my SOs interacted, and even where I would sit when out at the movies or in a booth at a diner. All to cope with my mental illnesses.

For people trying to find ways to make boundaries and/or rules/agreements accommodate their mental illness quirks, I highly suggest using hard and soft boundaries as a starting point of the discussion. It won’t be perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Before I wrap up let me briefly mention one other fun bit about dealing with mental illness and boundaries. Some people, dealing with some types of mental illness, will be driven to break rules and boundaries. I got no good answers for the kinds of mess this can cause. The law allows an insanity plea for a reason–in some cases people with mental illnesses really can’t be held responsible for their actions. But that doesn’t stop the damage those actions do. If you someone who is self aware enough to know your illness will drive you to break agreements, rules, and boundaries, I can think of two (probably not the best) ideas. First, try to be in relationships where everyone agrees to do without rules and/or boundaries as much as possible. Relationship anarchists and such might be cool with that type of relationship, and if there aren’t and rules or boundaries to break it’s harder to be driven into breaking them. Second, work with your partners to come up with lots of little rules and boundaries with the understand that in this case some rules are literally made to be broken, and it will be a no harm, no foul situation.

Anyone with ideas, suggestions, or experience dealing with rules/agreements and/or boundaries with mental illness, please share in the comments.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

2 responses to “Polyamory Boundaries and Mental Illness

  1. Great post! Thank you very much!

    One disagreement: “Where developmental disorders and personality disorders such as autism, ADD, and BPD are constants in a persons life and personality, mental illness is constantly in flux.”
    As an autistic person with ADD, I have to say that things are actually in flux. Some days are better. Some days are worse.
    When I wake up I can’t stand being tuched, but sometimes I need a cuddle or some deep pressure. Sometimes I just don’t know what I feel, but sometimes I can figure it out, etc’.

    • Thank you for sharing your experiences. Do you think you might be willing to contribute a guest post to a blog series about poly and neurodevelopmental disorders in a few months?

      I think I did a bad job of explaining what I meant in that section–though it may be that I’m just misinformed (me<----not an expert). Every type of medical condition has its good days and bad days, but some medical conditions can also get better and worse. Someone with depression will often vary from a mild depressive state, to a moderate depressive state, to a severe depressive state, and back during the course of their illness. I've never heard of autism varying the same way. I don't know of any instance of someoneone with high functioning autism having a bad episode and become low functioning for a week before recovering to high function, for instance.

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