All couples deal with boundaries: what is ok and what is not, what is individual, what is ours, and what is public. A relationship consists of roles and rules that we begin to enact at first meeting, so a couple is actually a complicated social system. What are we free to do alone and what do we share? Do we go to bed at the same time? Will we go to my family every Thanksgiving? Do we combine our finances? Whose name is on the deed? There are obvious boundary markers like wedding vows and implicit boundaries which are personal values. Tammy Nelson’s book The New Monogamy explains this very well.
Sometimes these boundary arrangements are talked about directly but usually couples use trial and error to work them out. we work out these arrangements head on, but more often we go by trial and error. Often we see how much we can get away with before activating the other.. “I thought that having lunch with ex-girlfriends was out?” “I thought we’d travel together.” Why don’t you want to stay over at my place?”
A look, a comment, a hurt silence are what we have to interpret. We figure out how often to see each other, how often to talk, and how much sharing is expected. We cull through our respective friendships and decide how important they’re allowed to be now that we have each other. We sort out ex-lovers—do we know about them, talk about them, stay friends with them on Facebook? Whether explicitly or subtly, we outline the boundaries of separateness and togetherness.
In today’s world the concept of commitment is more open to interpretation. So it’s important to have important conversations early in the relationship to confirm and agree where the lines are. These are typically uncomfortable especially because they usually occur when there has been a boundary transgression. So initiating a conversation ahead of time is the better way to go.
Relationship boundaries will come up through the life of the relationship and preferences change depending on life stage and age. It’s good to be flexible and expect that this is a work in progress – an ongoing discussion!