A Quick Guide for Gay Men Who Want to Set Better Boundaries

by | Gay Mental Health

Often times you’ll see the advice that you should just “set boundaries” to handle challenging relationship dynamics. But what does this even mean? You might be wondering:

• Why are boundaries so difficult?

• What are the benefits of boundaries?

• How do I actually set a boundary?

• What do I do after I set a boundary?

So let’s start addressing some of the questions you might have about boundaries:

Why are boundaries so difficult? 

Your boundaries might need to vary with different people. The problem with universal boundaries is that they don’t take into account the nuances and needs that arise in different relationships. Universal boundaries are rare, and this is just one of the reasons boundaries can be so difficult.

Boundaries might also feel off-putting because they’re sometimes associated with setting cruel and rigid limits. If you’re someone who doesn’t want to be viewed as “mean,” then this belief can make setting boundaries all the more challenging. This can be particularly hard for some gay men who have learned to survive through “people pleasing” or catering to other people’s needs to the detriment of their own. 

Your sense of self-worth may also influence how easy it is to set boundaries. In fact, it’s common for gay men who struggle with a low sense of self-worth to have challenges with boundaries.

What are the benefits of setting boundaries?

➡️ Healthier relationships.

➡️ Honouring your personal integrity. 

➡️ Increased sense of self-worth. 

➡️ Modelling how other people should treat you. 

➡️ Establishing realistic expectations in your relationships.

When do you actually need to set a boundary?

So how do you know when you need to set a boundary with someone? If you feel: disrespected, uncomfortable, or underappreciated with someone, that is when setting a boundary can help you. And that’s it really. The “when” of setting boundaries is quite straightforward. The “how” of boundaries is the more difficult part.

How to set boundaries:

Step 1: Reflect on what boundaries mean to you

This is an important step to start with because it helps you to understand your current relationship with boundaries. It will also help you to anticipate some of the challenges you might face with setting boundaries and how to work through them. 

Here are some questions you can reflect on: 

• What messages did you receive about boundaries in your family of origin? 

• How do you feel when someone sets a boundary with you? 

• When have you set a boundary before? What made you act differently that time? 

Step 2: Assume people are generally trying to meet their own needs 

This one is about mindset. Most people spend their days focusing on their own needs. However, when you feel hurt or upset by interactions with another person, it can sometimes feel like that person has gone out of their way to inflict damage on you. This is understandable, and it’s important to recognize these feelings and listen to them. 

It can also help take the edge of these feelings and communicate boundaries more easily if you communicate from the mindset that people are generally not trying to hurt you, but just trying to meet their own needs. It can make the conversation about boundaries more relational and feel less isolating. 

Of course, there are some caveats. If you’re being abused, threatened, or feel emotionally or physically unsafe, your safety is the most important thing. You don’t owe an explanation for setting boundaries to someone in these circumstances. 

Step 3: Find your responsibility

When we want to set a boundary, we’re often focused on what another person did wrong. Coming from this place can make setting a boundary feel more like an attack to someone else. But when you can acknowledge the part you’ve played in a relationship dynamic that isn’t working for you, this can disarm the other person. This disarming may then help them be more open to reflecting on, and acknowledging, their own role as well.

Step 4: The mechanics of setting boundaries

One method of setting boundaries is called the “ARC Method.” In this method, the focus is on acknowledging your part in the dynamic, stating the issue objectively, and opening the conversation to a solution. This is broken into three steps:

1️⃣ Acknowledge your part

2️⃣ Report the issue

3️⃣ Collaborate on a solution

Example of the ARC Method:

Acknowledge your part: I want to acknowledge that I’ve waited so long to say something about this even though it’s been making me uncomfortable for awhile.

Report the issue: I’ve noticed that when we talk about Sam, he’s talked about as my “friend” even though I refer to him as my husband/partner. I know that it may be uncomfortable to use the term “husband/partner” because you’re not used to it, but it’s important to me that my relationship is recognized.

Collaborate on a solution: How can I support you in using these terms when we talk about Sam? 

Step 5: Kindness

If you’re talking about boundaries with someone from the mindset in step 2 (people generally act from their needs), then you can genuinely package your conversation with kindness. This helps to keep the conversation more open and relational.

An easy way to express kindness during a boundary-setting conversation is to genuinely praise and validate someone by identifying their strengths.

Some ways to praise or validate are by starting sentences with some of the following:

• I’m so proud of you for…

• I really admire how you…

• I can understand how it must have felt…

• That must have been scary when…

• I’m so glad you…

• I’m impressed by how you…

Step 6: Expect pushback

It can feel surprising when you do something that’s healthy for yourself and then get pushback from someone else. Yet, this is exactly what can happen with setting boundaries.

It would be great if people cheered you on when you set a boundary, but the reality is that setting boundaries requires consistency, and is often uncomfortable.

So what to do about this pushback? The first thing is to expect it, this can reduce the shock when it happens.

The next step may seem counterintuitive: instead of reacting defensively, respond by validating the other person’s reaction. When you validate the other person’s reaction, this keeps the conversation open by inviting them to take responsibility for their feelings and for you to own your responsibility in the conversation.

Let’s continue the example from step 4:

Hypothetical you: I want to acknowledge that I’ve waited so long to say something about this even though it’s been making me uncomfortable for awhile.

I’ve noticed that when we talk about Sam, he’s talked about as my “friend” even though I refer to him as my husband/partner. I know that it may be uncomfortable to use the term “husband/partner” because you’re not used to it, but it’s important to me that my relationship is recognized.

How can I support you in using these terms when we talk about Sam?

Other person: I can’t believe you’re bringing this up. We were having such a good time, now it feels ruined.

Hypothetical you: I completely understand that this might feel shocking, like it’s coming out of nowhere, and like I’m shaming you. I know you value our relationship. If I was having a good time and enjoying myself, I would probably feel upset too.”

After you validate the other person’s feelings, say nothing! I know it’s tempting, but leave space to give the other person an opportunity to clarify and/or take responsibility.

The takeaway:

Boundaries are not a one-time thing. Like any skill, setting boundaries takes practice and repeated attempts. It might not always go as you planned. And that’s okay. If you’re feeling discouraged, it can be helpful to remind yourself of the benefits of setting boundaries:

➡️ Healthier relationships.

➡️ Honouring your personal integrity.

➡️ Increased sense of self-worth.

➡️ Modelling how other people should treat you.

➡️ Establishing realistic expectations in your relationships.

I hope this guide has given you some ideas about how to set better boundaries. If you’d like some additional help with understanding and setting boundaries in your life, counselling can be a helpful way to expedite this process. Click the button below if you’d like some additional help.

Blog Bio Jordan Gruenhage Canada Gay Counsellor Therapist

Jordan Gruenhage

MA, CCC, RCC

As a counsellor at The Centre for Gay Counselling, Jordan excels at helping fellow gay men understand their emotions better, heal from past trauma, and grow their sense of self-worth so that they can enjoy living fully as themselves. He believes that gay men have inherent worth, and that they deserve to live fulfilling lives. Interested in working with Jordan? Click the button below to get started.