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)