20 Years of Polyamory: Personal Boundaries
(Photo credit: Aunt Owwee)
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Kitty left this comment on the post The Poly I’m Not (edited for space and clarity):
We have roommates now, so Puck and I are sharing a room for the first time ever. We have always slept in the same bed most of the time, but now his stuff is in my room…We have be dating over 6 years, married 1 now, and yet his things in my room feels like a bit too much commitment for me… But now we have a room. We have a bed. And I must admit that the thought of him having sex in there bothers me. Not the sex part so much. Just the idea of people being in my room when I am not.
So I guess my question is How do you deal with personal space and possessions? Are there things that are just yours? How would you feel about a lover of Joshua’s using those things? Is it different if the person is your friend as well? If you say “please don’t let your new lover borrow my favorite blue sweater” is that a poly rule? If not how does that differ for you from “don’t fuck in my bed” or “don’t use my toothbrush” ?
I’ve known poly people with all sorts of arrangements about ownership of beds and bedrooms. I’ve known a lot more poly people than mono people who have separate bedrooms. It might seem strange at first, but when you’re going to have other people around in your personal space, it just makes sense to have your very own personal space if you can. I would never want to prevent Joshua from fucking someone in his own bed, but if that bed is mine, too, then some logistical problems could arise. Practicalities aside, it’s just nice to have your own personal space. If you can afford it, I advocate for all adults to have their own bedrooms, poly or not.
Personal space and the ways that we mix up space with romantic partners can be really emotionally tricky, though. When I first started out as a poly adult, I was married, and my husband and I always shared a bedroom. As we got older and got better jobs, eventually we got houses where we each had our own bedrooms. Still, I usually ended up in the master bedroom or an otherwise larger space, and he usually had a smaller room, sometimes one that wasn’t actually intended as a bedroom. The result of this was that his personal stuff was usually still stored in my bedroom. I remember the first time he moved his clothes out of my closet. I completely freaked. We’d technically had separate bedrooms for years, but when he moved his clothes out of my closet, it felt like a breakup. Were we growing apart? Was he about to leave me? Was he avoiding me? What did this mean?!? It seems silly to me now, but I really understand when I say that personal space is tricky. With Joshua and me now, all our personal stuff is pretty separate. Nothing of mine is in his bedroom and nothing of his is in my bedroom. When we first moved in together, I was so used to my independence that I kept things like household tools that I brought with me in my room, too. I’ve gradually merged all that stuff, and what remains in my room is all mine. Like Kitty, I get weirded out when people are in my room when I’m not there. Even if that person is Joshua.
I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing to be possessive about your things or your space or your time. It’s important to take care of yourself, have a sense of self that’s separate from others, and mind your personal boundaries. When we’re talking about a poly context, it may be more important to mind those boundaries, since we’re often coming into intimate contact with people we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves, and since the areas of love and sex make us inherently vulnerable. On the other hand, it can be too easy to hide attempts to control our lovers with lofty claims about personal boundaries.
I see Kitty’s question as having two parts – one about the bedroom itself and your lover having sex there with someone else or just being in there without you, and the other part is about personal items like clothes.
For the question about personal items like clothes, your toothbrush, etc, my answer is The Analogy. I waited to answer this question until after The Analogy post had posted, because I realized that would be most of my answer. I wouldn’t want anyone borrowing my clothes without asking, whether that was Joshua, his mom, his lover, a lover of mine, a friend, etc. But I’d probably loan my clothes to pretty much anyone who asked. So if Joshua asked if his new lover could borrow a shirt, and I wanted to say no, I’d have to figure out why I was reacting that way. If a relative of Joshua’s visited while I was away and he gave a tour of the house that included my room, that would probably bother me if I hadn’t had the chance to clean up, but I wouldn’t think he’d done something wrong or violated my personal space in some way. So, ideally, I’d feel the same way if we were talking about a lover. I can think of possessions I have that are really personal to me and I wouldn’t let anyone borrow or interact with under any circumstances. What makes it different from a “poly rule” is that it’s not limited to poly. No one can have it.
With the bedroom itself, I can see that it would be a difficult transition, but I think it’s a transition you’d have to work through. If two people are sharing the same space, I don’t think it would be fair for one person to own it. If it’s your space where you can be alone, have guests, have sex, decorate to your desires, etc, where is the other person’s space where they can do the same? If there’s not enough room for both of you to have personal rooms, then I think you have to reduce the amount of space that you think of as “yours”. The bedroom has to just become the bedroom, not my bedroom. You might have to carve out smaller personal spaces elsewhere (my corner, my dresser, my half of the closet, etc). The question of sex in the bedroom will likely come down to logistics. If one person needs to sleep, the other person can’t be fucking someone else in there. But if there are times when one partner is watching TV elsewhere in the house, out of the house doing something else, or otherwise not using the bedroom, the other partner should probably be able to do whatever they like in the bedroom. Since polyamory is a choice counter to the rest of our culture, we sometimes have to make an effort to make space for polyamory. If you said that you could only fuck at your lover’s house, or only in the garage, or you had to get a hotel room every time you wanted a date, you haven’t made much space for polyamory in your actual lives.
In the Q and A post, I talked about having time limits or action items if one person wants to take poly slow. I’d advise doing that with the bedroom question as well. If you’re going to make a transition from my bedroom to our bedroom, I can see wanting to take that slowly. If that slowly is vague, though, it has the potential to remain a sticking point that never quite gets worked out. It makes sense to sit down and figure out how else you can reorder your idea of personal space (an off-limits corner of the room or whose drawers or whose, for example) and then give yourselves some (specific) time to settle into that. You could say, “I need three weekends to move my stuff around so that I’ll feel comfortable with other people being in here,” for example.
Does anyone else have stories about negotiating personal space or advice on this particular scenario?
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Issa is a wild and rebellious mama who wants to live a carefree life where that little anxious voice is put on mute. How about you? As a writer she feels successful if just one other person feels any comfort or inspiration from what she’s written.