Boundaries—the foundation of safety and protection—are vital to anyone who has survived betrayal trauma. And the most powerful boundaries are those that are non-negotiable.
Non-negotiable boundaries are:
Something you must have or something you can’t tolerate in order to stay in a relationship. Non-negotiable boundaries are relationship deal-breakers.
Survivors of betrayal trauma are eager to establish non-negotiable boundaries because they seem to promise a path out of the chaos, crazy-making, and gas-lighting that are so common when you’re in a relationship devastated by serial infidelity or sex addiction.
Non-negotiable boundaries give survivors clarity about what they’re willing—or not willing—to tolerate in their relationship. Non-negotiables are a kind of hard, red line that says “this is as far as I’m willing to go with you.”
That’s the good news about non-negotiables.
The bad news is that partners often create non-negotiable boundary lists that are actually not non-negotiables, but rather important relationship needs.
In my article, Non-Negotiable Boundaries, I outline the pitfalls of confusing non-negotiable boundaries with important relationship needs.
Here are a few examples of requests a partner might make that are important relationship needs, but are likely not non-negotiable boundaries:
- Addict attends five 12-step meetings per week
- Addict takes a polygraph every 3 months for 4 years
- Addict goes to individual therapy with a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) weekly for 2 years
When emotions are running high, a partner may say she’ll leave a relationship should one of the above not happen, but in reality, she likely won’t.
Addicts often feel intimidated and controlled by their partner’s boundaries—especially non-negotiables. Addicts sometimes agree to a boundary only out of fear of losing the relationship, even when the boundary is truly outrageous. For example, expecting you to FaceTime or Skype with her/him every waking minute when the two of you are apart.
What can you do when your partner creates a non-negotiable boundary that is no longer workable for you, or one that you want to re-visit?
Here are 5 guidelines for working with a partner’s “non-negotiable” boundaries:
Boundaries Involving Others Require Agreement
First, keep in mind that when another person attempts to establish a boundary that requires you to take a particular action, they cannot demand that you comply.
For example, your partner can say that her non-negotiable boundary is that you must take (and pass) a polygraph every three months for the next three years. She has your consent only if you agree. An adult cannot tell another adult what they will— or won’t—do. Your partner can request that you take a polygraph every three months for three years, but you have the right to say yes, no, or negotiate an alternative agreement.
“But If I Don’t Agree, She’ll Leave Me“
While it’s hard to argue with the simple premise of this statement, I want to highlight why you need to carefully consider agreements you make with another person—even so-called “non-negotiable boundaries” from your spouse.
First, are you willing to say yes to anything your partner asks of you? If she/he told you that their non-negotiable boundary is for you to take out an ad in a national newspaper with your photo, full name, and the caption “Sex Addict,” would you agree? Probably not.
Before you agree to any request, you need to carefully consider if you’re willing to follow through, not willing to follow through, or if you’re willing to follow through with modifications.
Believe it or not, when you’re presented with a truly outrageous request and you say no, you will likely earn the respect of your partner. While they often don’t admit it, I believe that some partners actually lose respect for their spouse because he’s not willing to hold his own boundaries around her attempts to control, or her emotional or physical abuse of him.
If you agree to a request that you believe is unachievable or one that you’re simply not willing to do, you are setting yourself up for resentment, a broken promise, and probably a future slip or relapse. Before you agree to any request you feel uneasy about, discuss it with your therapist, mentor, or sponsor.
If You Freely Agree, You Are Not a Victim
Addicts often hold the view that they are victims of agreements they enter into, or the demands placed on them by their partners. Both views are distorted thinking.
First, you are free to say yes, no, or to propose an alternative agreement when receiving a request. And although your partner may attempt to tell you what to do by making demands or issuing ultimatums, you are not obliged to comply with any demand made by another person unless you have a prior agreement that the other person is in a position of authority over you (supervisor, officer, teacher, etc.).
And even in these kinds of hierarchal relationships, you are still free to refuse to comply with an instruction or order out of principle, ethics, or safety.
I Agreed to the Boundary, But I’ve Changed My Mind
So, what if you have already agreed to a request that you were uncomfortable with—or made out of fear—and now you want to renegotiate the non-negotiable boundary? That can be tough because by definition, the hard red line is non-negotiable.
First, get feedback from your therapist or sponsor about the boundary/agreement you’d like to change. If your therapist supports making the change, come up with a clear proposal for how you would like to amend the agreement. This approach is far more relational than opening a conversation with, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Start with what you are willing to do.
I recommend presenting your alternative agreement in a therapy session if possible so that you will have support if the conversation becomes challenging or contentious.
Ask Your Partner to Review Non-Negotiables
Over time, many partners realize that the many non-negotiable boundaries they established immediately after discovery are, in fact, simply important relationship needs. Although they would be distressed if you went to fewer 12-step meetings, therapy sessions, or polygraph exams than they originally wanted, they’re not prepared to leave the relationship over these lapses.
One of the most common examples is recovery slips. Partners often say, “If he slips, I’ll leave.” They very rarely leave over slips—but they do leave after repeated deception and broken agreements.
Reviewing existing boundaries from time to time—including non-negotiables—helps both of you stay clear about your agreements. It also creates opportunities to discuss changes you may want to make, as well as acknowledging and celebrating your progress.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2017)
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