When you begin the process of identifying, creating, and maintaining boundaries, you’ll inevitably be introduced to the concept of non-negotiable boundaries.
What is a “non-negotiable” boundary?
By definition, a non-negotiable boundary is a boundary that is not open to discussion or modification.
Another way to think of non-negotiable boundaries are that they’re something you must have or something you can’t tolerate in order to stay in the relationship. I think of them as relationship deal-breakers.
Non-negotiable relationship boundaries are different from the non-negotiable personal boundaries I discuss in my post boundaries 101. Where physical and/or sexual boundaries are involved, a “no” means “no”. Non-negotiable relationship boundaries are less black-and-white, more complex, and require a more thoughtful approach.
As relationship deal-breakers, non-negotiable boundaries must be carefully considered and chosen. In my work with partners, I often find that non-negotiable boundaries are confused with important needs. For example, it’s completely understandable that you would have a need for any, or all, of the following from your spouse:
- Regular attendance at 12-step meetings
- Ongoing therapy
- Transparency around use of email accounts and phone records
- Disclosure polygraph and/or follow-up polygraphs
However, for most betrayed partners these aren’t appropriate non-negotiable boundaries. Why?
If you’re not prepared to leave the relationship if your spouse doesn’t fulfill one of these needs, then it’s not a non-negotiable boundary.
When emotions are running high or you’re highly triggered, you’ll be tempted to create a list of non-negotiable boundaries that look something like this:
- Addict must go to five 12-step meetings per week
- Addict must meet with sponsor once a week for 3 years
- Addict must not have any contact with any former acting out partner
- Addict must not have a recovery slip (meaning a violation of his bottom line/inner circle behaviors)
- Addict must take a polygraph every 3 months for 4 years
- Addict must have a filter on all electronic devices for 5 years
While most of these items are beneficial for the addict’s recovery and the rehabilitation of your relationship, it’s important for you to ask yourself two crucial questions before putting them on your non-negotiable boundaries list:
Is each one of these boundaries, individually, a relationship deal-breaker?
Am I absolutely unwilling to discuss—negotiate—these items with my partner?
For example, Am I prepared to leave this relationship if my partner misses a therapy session? Or misses a meeting with his sponsor? Or if he asks me after 2 years of passed polygraphs to reduce the frequency of his exams?
Most likely, you would be disappointed if he didn’t do one of these, but you probably wouldn’t leave him because of it. That’s why it shouldn’t be on your list of non-negotiable boundaries.
Non-negotiable boundary lists like the one above create the following dynamics for you personally and for your relationship:
- Unhealthy and toxic power imbalances in your relationship created by unilateral rules and regulations about issues that aren’t ultimately relationship deal-breakers
- Conflict and power struggles between you and your unfaithful spouse as he attempts to comply with your boundary list under threat of losing the relationship
- Repeated disappointments for you as your spouse will inevitably break one of your non-negotiable boundaries
- You become untrustworthy to yourself and your spouse as you struggle to respond to or follow through on consequences for “boundary violations” when your non-negotiable boundaries aren’t met
- Even when it’s appropriate or makes sense for your situation, you’re unwilling to discuss with your spouse how boundaries might be altered or re-negotiated—after all, they’re non-negotiable!
For most betrayed partners, there are typically no more than two or three non-negotiable boundaries on their list. Boundaries—especially non-negotiable ones—are very individualized.
No one should tell you what your boundaries, including non-negotiables, must be.
However, here are some common non-negotiable boundaries:
- Causing harm to, or any sexual activity with, a minor child
- Viewing child pornography
- Sexual intercourse with another person
- Repeated deception or lying
When identifying non-negotiable boundaries, ask yourself, “What would absolutely, positively, without question, cause me to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I can no longer stay in the relationship?” Your answers to this question are your non-negotiable boundaries.
Knowing your non-negotiables creates clarity and gives you a sense of your limits.
When you’ve identified your non-negotiable boundaries, share them with a trusted friend, sponsor, or therapist. You can then share them with your spouse. Not as a threat, but as an exercise in sharing with him your reality, and as an expression of your self-care and self-respect.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2015)
My spouse has violated my non negotiable boundary of being honest. I’ve discovered he’s been lying to me, his sponsor and his therapist. I told him he had to leave. The last time he did this I had some place to stay and he went to in patient treatment. After he finished treatment, we continued to live apart until I felt he knew and understood what I meant by my bottom line. Now, he refuses to leave and I have no where to go. I’m in hell, trapped here with someone I don’t want to be with anymore! What can I do now?
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Cathi, I’m so sorry to hear about your situation. I would recommend that if you don’t already, find a qualified therapist to work with to explore all of your options and come up with a plan for your self care — as soon as possible. Go to http://www.iitap.com (International Institute for Trauma & Addiction Professionals) or http://www.sash.net (The Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health) or http://www.apsats.org (The Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists) to find qualified therapists in your area.
I guess they fall under non- negotiable boundaries. We’ve been separated/divorced for 4 years now, her married lover spends time at (now) her house where both my boys 16 – 21 choose to live. I’m the tough love guy. She’s the enabler. So they got it easy. It disgusts me. I’m recovering, recently discovered the co-dependent, interdependent heirarchy and am busy putting old useless ideas to bed. Not I try to put on my oxygen mask before I help others. I use to devote my life to others advancement, as a teacher, stay at home dad, my mom’s end of life issues. Did her after work listen sessions. Made dinner or went out 3 night a week. Now I have time to devote to my own healing. But I still have no idea why our dynamic changed from her words. Just my own observations. So thanx for your take on how to deal with “rolling boundry breaking”. Hers a silly example that never actually happened.
She’s mad when she gets home from work. Muttering to herself in the kitchen, she throws and breaks a coffee cup against the cabinet. I come in and say, “you can’t just break my coffee cup like this, I don’t care how mad you are”. She glares and throws the saucer. “You didn’t say I couldn’t break saucers”. I add, “Well you can’t, not in this house”. A glass glass breaks against the floor. She smiles and I interrupt before she speaks. “You can’t break any dishes, glasses, bowls, no breaking of any kind”. She goes out to the patio and slams the door. Moments later I hear my dog Yelp.
I couldn’t verbalize the boundaries fast enough or complete enough to stay ahead of her displaced acting out.
Only part of that actually happened, but periodically there would be an episode, followed by a non-apoligy apology. With no offer of repair. Just, “I’ll never do THAT again”. I tend to be the peacemaker, and lead with agreement, so I was vulnerable. But short of ending the relationship, I set boundaries for her to go to therapy. I had to learn her triggers, let her talk down her day, she had meds, but no talk therapy. She never actually healed. It was more like me laying low. Learning about her, as we raised our baby. After the second child, she acted out more passive/aggressive types of behaviors. All I’m really curious about is, were there boundaries I should have set and then ended the marriage. She went on to driving drunk with the children, insisted on arguing in front of them instead of taking it to the other room. Final straws: she slammed our 10 year olds head against the granite counter with a too heavy slap to the back of the head while we were discussing/arguing about how to improve his progress in school. And we are both public school teachers. I didn’t call the police in spite of her non caring attitude as the knot swelled on his forehead. I admit, I verbally shamed her, like “how could you do something like this to your own child and just stand there, defiant and uncaring”. Then she jumped into her role of great mother and pushed me away from him as she comforted him. Was she just psychotic? Acting out some childhood abuse? I just get to guess. If I’d called the cops,vshed never work again and our child would have to choose to lie or testify against her. The assumptions we grow up with don’t seem to carry much weight now. I try to put my guilt of inaction behind me, as now they live together, and enjoy the company of the married guy she favors. I see them when they feel like it, need money (I make them work for it) or show up to an invitation to go out to eat. I haven’t chucked all my baggage yet, but I keep trying to be mindful and present in the moment.
I invite any comments that your followers may have. Other sound opinions are like gold to me. It’s hard to put it behind you when you don’t even know what happened or why.
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Hi James, I’m so sorry to hear about your difficult situation and all that you have been through. Please see the information I shared in response to your comment on the Boundaries 101 post.
Oralee Wright says
My husband was all talk and zero action. He was still charging his phone bedside the last time I entered what was out home. Over a year in therapy and STILL no bottom lines…a therapeutic separation has become a nearly complete divorce. He thinks he is in recovery. He thinks that he is a victim because he says he’s sober, and I feel like he’s chosen his addiction of nearly 50 years over a loving wife. I can’t…the negatives and abuse far outweigh the positives. It’s sad, sometimes I feel the joy of freedom, and others, I feel depressed. Fortunately I have a good therapist and group that I attend. Thank you for teaching me about the concept of personal boundaries. Once I understood, I have distinct memories of my childhood self attempting to set them and having them disregarded by the adults in my life. Those memories have lead me to trust in my intuition and ability to know what I need. As an adult, I am finally able to trust that I know how to take care of myself. I am forever grateful!
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
You are very welcome Oralee! I hear that you are trusting your intuition and know that you can take care of yourself, which is wonderful to feel. I am grateful with you!
I am newly going through all this! I’ve known over the last seven years something was going on, but not the full extent until last week and my gut reaction was to pack a bag and leave. Having only been a week so far, I’ve only got what I’ve read to go on, I don’t want to throw away my relationship for this, and I’m happy to separate with my partner for the time being to let us both heal and address our own problems; incidentally me leaving was what took him to realise he had a problem and he’s already attended his first session… obviously its very early doors, but for me to see a way forward, I’ve been looking at this concept of boundaries. What I dont quite understand though, is to have these boundaries there has to be an element of trust and complete transparency, what’s to stop him reverting back and hiding everything from me? I dont want to be his mother and monitor his every movement etc.
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Hi Jazmin, I hear that you’re wondering how to create boundaries without trust and transparency, and you’re fearful your partner may deceive you again. Is that right?
I can completely understand why you would be fearful about your partner hiding and reverting back to old behavior. I would be too. When I’m feeling the need to protect myself or set a limit, I spend some time thinking about my feelings, what I want, and what is in my circle of influence or control. That is always the best place for me to start.
Setting limits and creating boundaries is complex. Some boundaries you have the power to create without any action or agreement from another person. Some boundaries require an agreement. Not understanding the difference means more wasted time, frustration, and even heart-break.
Would it fit for you to use a 5-Step Boundary Solution Clarifier to sort through the questions you have? You can download a free copy here. If we were working together that is where I would start — you and your reality. You are the expert on what will be best for you, and it won’t serve you well for me to coach you in a quick blog comment. If you’d like more individualized support and guidance from me, I would love for you to join my community for partners moving beyond betrayal here.