Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Boundaries, Violations, and Consent

I went to visit my aunt last month, in Houston.  She lives in a stately subdivision, filled with elegant two stories and wide, tree shrouded streets.  Two streets down is the bayou, ringed around with parks and a running trail.  

After dinner one night, I followed her out front to walk the dogs, and really, the scene before me almost seemed staged to my slightly-more-private, New Mexican eyes.  Everyone was out in the street.  Children rode bikes and scooters.  Neighbors met on the sidewalk and talked in little clusters.  A gaggle of junior high girls walked past with arms linked, exuding the self conscious air of new independence.  I literally saw one man watering his lawn with a hose, talking to another over the hedge.  It was a scene straight from Pleasantville.  

Flabbergasted by the connectedness and community I saw before me, I turned to my aunt.  "You guys have a very ... involved ... neighborhood, don't you?  Is it like this every night?"

She smiled happily.  "Yep.  It's a little bit of heaven."



I have been thinking lately, that personal boundaries are like this.  Each of us is a house, on a street, with a white picket fence (or bricks, stucco, barbed wire ... whatever your style is, really).  We meet people out on the street every day.  These are the folks we nod to in the check out line, the random person on the Internet forum, the server who brings us our food.  They are the people on the outer most fringes of our interactions.  

Then, there are some people we interact with who we invite into the yard to talk.  These are the acquaintances - people we chat with at church or social functions.  People we meet at bars, or at the playground when our kids are playing.  You might friend them on Facebook, but wouldn't really post on their wall nor would they post on yours.  

Eventually some relationships build to the point where they migrate into the living room or even kitchen of your house.  Things get a little more intimate.  Now you share experiences, hang out on a regular basis.  You know some of each other's stories.  

Very few make it into the inner room of your house.  These are the people you trust the most.  They know your fears.  They see your true self.  Sometimes they see your true self better than you can see yourself.  



This is all assuming we live in perfect world, where we establish and clearly communicate our boundaries, and everyone else both recognizes and respects them.  The problem is, more often than not, this is not the case.  

Some people come walking down the street, see your house, and push themselves in.  They demand admittance straight to the inner room.  They see your house as a place they have a natural right to be.  You have no say in the matter.  

What does this look like in the real world?  To lay aside the metaphor for just a moment, it is ... 

A refusal to acknowledge 'no' 

A demand to have their own opinion heard, without listening to yours

Assumption that you will do something, without asking

Speaking for you 

Expecting to be able to give 'correction' without first building trust

Dismissing or not acknowledging your experiences or feelings

Telling you how you *should* feel in a situation

Giving advice without first building trust or being asked

Treating your personhood with disrespect by talking down or condescending to you

Telling you that your voice is unimportant, less than, or silly

Violating your personal space 

Sexual assault


Some of these violations are a person tramping through your fence from the street and stomping on your yard.  Some of them are a pushing in through the front door, and pissing on your living room floor.  The very deepest violations are an abuser laying claim to your inner room, setting up a throne, and holding court in the inner sanctum of your soul.  



There is a lot of talk about consent circling around on the interwebs.  I want to add my two cents, but first, let me make it clear.  In the case of assault - an abuser will push themselves into your house by force, no matter how fortified your fence or strong your front door.  

What I want to address here, is the shame that comes along with a boundary violation.  Many of us are raised to think that we do not have a right to assert our boundaries.  We are being 'mean', or a 'bad person', or even 'un-Christlike' if we refuse a person access to our front yard, living room, or even inner room.  When a person comes off the street and demands access, we are unloving or stubborn or uncooperative if we say no.  

This internalized shame causes us to ignore our natural red flags that get thrown up, and in the effort to be good people, we raze the fences, take the front door of its hinges, and roll out a red carpet straight to the inner room of our hearts.  Our houses get muddied from all the dirt being tracked in, and it's a constant, 24/7 block party.  There is no peace.  There is no quiet.  There is no rest.  There is no trust or sanctuary for the soul.  

The good news is, it does not have to be like this.  Shame, once identified, can be harnessed and made to work for you.  That's what I am learning to do.  Once I saw it, I and named it and made it my bitch.  Now when it rears up, I tell myself, "This is shame.  Shame is not true.  I do not have to listen to this."  It is the canary in the mine telling me that somewhere a boundary has been threatened, and I need to firm it up.  

I've also clung to the idea of 'emotional consent'.  Physical consent, obviously, is what we give when we're letting someone into the inner room sexually.  Emotional consent is what we give when we let someone into the inner room emotionally and relationally.  Someone earns our trust, invests in relationship, and if and when we feel it is appropriate, we can open the door to the inner room of our hearts.  These are the people who can bring correction.  These are the people who share the loads.  These are the people who hold for us the emotion when it becomes too great to bear.

And why are they safe?

Because they love us.  Because we know they love us.  They have proven that they love us.  Because they have invested in us and waited and not pushed and respected each boundary as they came to it, waiting for emotional consent each and every time.  And as a result of this long process of slowly connecting and gaining trust, a love builds up.  

This love never gives up.  
This love cares more for you than for self.
This love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
This love doesn't strut,
Doesn't have a swelled head,
Doesn't force itself on you,
Isn't always "me first,"
Doesn't fly off the handle,
Doesn't keep score of your sins,
Doesn't revel when you grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God for  you,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

This love never dies.  
(taken from The Message paraphrase)