The writing on the wall
Boundary-crossers and the language of indebtedness
This is part one of a brief series inspired by, of all things, a laser-printed wall sign in my partner’s apartment. It’s an attempt to really pull apart what I think about what it advises, especially as I have often found myself passing the words along to my clients.
Boundaries. People love to talk about them. Who has good ones, who doesn’t. How do we set them, and when? What kinds of boundaries do we need with our parents, our workplaces, our romantic partners, our friends, ourselves? And why are boundaries such a hot topic right now?
To me, it seems to go along with the surge in popularity of trauma talk, which I deeply welcome. As we go on in this world with more abuses, more power imbalances, more police violence, more fascism, more climate catastrophe, more illness and isolation and denial…I could go on. But the point is that at the same time, people are talking more about, and building more and more tools to support, spaces where they can speak truth to one another. More and more, people are finding ways to connect to others who lift them up, make them feel seen, and respect their personhood. More and more, people are finding ways to move away from the people and situations to whom they’ve been bound by trauma.
As part of this process, we also deeply need to recognize where our boundaries are, and how to know when they’re being crossed. It’s easy, especially for survivors of trauma, to unconsciously repeat the habits of relating that we’ve been taught. Changing our responses—setting good boundaries, enforcing them, and repairing or removing ourselves when they’re crossed—is a process that takes several steps, and usually, several repetitions.
How the sign on a door changed my thinking
The first time I walked into my partner’s apartment after nearly three months of pandemic outdoor dating and desperate waiting for our vaccines to cook, I saw two pieces of ordinary printer paper, turned to landscape format and stuck with blue painter’s tape to his hallway door. They were situated so that when the door was standing open to the middle of the space he could see what they said, every time he passed.
On the bottom piece of paper was a block of smaller text and bullet points, explicating how to put the text on the first piece into practice. But on the top piece was the large, bold text that I found unforgettable, and yet at first, unfathomable.
Nobody owes anybody anything.
Even so: Be kind. Be respectful. Be forthright.
The first sentence, of course, struck me first and hardest: nobody owes anybody anything. What? I even shared this with a close friend at the time, who totally disagreed. Of course people owed each other things, he reasoned. Responsibilities, agreements, commitments exist in relationships.
And well, sure. People often at least feel obligated, especially when the agreements they’ve previously made don’t exactly fill them with joy. Obligation, while not the most loving word or idea in the world, is generally about something we’ve agreed to willingly, and now feel a duty to follow through on even when times are tough.
But what really stands out to me here is the word “owe.” If “obligation” is the language of responsibility, “owe” is the language of indebtedness. How do we usually hear people use that word, when talking about relationships?
“Come on, I got you into this club. You owe me.”
“Sure, she hit me, but she raised me. I owe her.”
“We brought you into this world and fed and clothed you for 18 years. Don’t you think you owe us at least this?”
“But I bought her dinner! Doesn’t she owe me? I feel cheated.”
The language of owing isn’t about mutual support or responsibility; it’s about a transaction. Its presence implies that one person’s actions, thought by another to be a kindness, were in fact an attempt to incur a debt — one that you’d better repay if you know what’s good for you.
But here’s the thing, this sign said. Nobody owes anybody anything.
Going out with someone doesn’t mean you owe them sex. Marrying someone doesn’t mean you owe them children, or a house, or the cleaning of that house. Bringing a child into the world and raising it isn’t incurring a debt of care from that child. You marry someone and decide what you both agree to build together—what you’re obligated to do, when it gets hard—and renegotiate those agreements if they stop working for both people. You have a child and you obligate yourself to care for it and make it into an entire human, and however well and lovingly you do that, that child still gets to choose whether to have a relationship with you when they’re an adult, or care for you when you’re old. If you go out with someone and wine and dine them, all they’ve agreed to is to go out with you. If they find they want to have sex with you afterward, it’s not because they owe you sex.
To be clear to the point of pedantry, of course there are times when people owe people things, like when one person has borrowed something from another and they’ve agreed to pay it back. But most forms of indebtedness are incurred under duress of some kind. Mortgages, student loans, and credit cards are all debts we supposedly enter into willingly, but looked at more closely, what choice do we have? When you talk about debts you owe to a bank, you’re already talking about an imbalance of power so skewed they had to pass a bunch of laws to protect people from it, and it’s still a massive racket. Start talking about debts and what you are owed in intimate contexts, and you are talking a lot of bullshit.
What does all of this have to do with boundaries?
Often, when people start thinking or talking in terms of what they’re owed, a boundary violation is not far behind. The language of indebtedness is the language of entitlement, and when someone feels they are owed something and you refuse to pay up, it’s not a far leap to them coming after it (and, to extend a metaphor, breaking your kneecaps about it).
The mother who has told her adult son for years how grateful he should be that he was even born never stops berating him, even as he doggedly cares for her in her old age. Another set of abusive parents, cut off by their child, will not stop stalking their kid and begging for explanations. At work, you keep staying late not because you get paid more, but because your boss keeps telling you how your kind of loyalty is rare and pays off in the long run, and has he mentioned lately how lucky you are to have this job? On a date, a person who’s spent some money or special attention keeps pressing to come inside, for just one drink, to just have a kiss, to feel it just this once.
It’s worth noting that the sign on my partner’s wall was something he had cribbed and adapted from an old online BDSM resource, and it was talking specifically about situations in that scene. The assumption of owing in that first sentence was about what someone who was looking to cross your boundaries might make you feel you owed them—a scene, a service, sex, an invitation, an explanation. You don’t owe anyone any of that, this brief treatise advises, no matter how nice someone was to you.
And that sense, that relief from indebtedness you never agreed to incur, is the first step in setting healthy boundaries.
Next: Kind, respectful, forthright. Yes, all three. Yes, it’s hard.
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