Exploring Physical Boundaries For Couples

April 10,2012

Have you ever noticed your entire body tense up when a stranger gets too close while walking by you on the street? If you have, you’ve had an experience of feeling your boundaries. Each of us has an elaborate set of boundaries that help us determine what feels safe and what we want. Some boundaries are physical – as in the above example of passing someone on the street – and other boundaries may be emotional, spiritual, psychological, philosophical, and so on. Our boundaries can be influenced by our beliefs, past experiences, fears, and desires. For example, if you were physically abused as a child, you may need people to keep more physical distance from you. If you have a value around being self-sufficient, you may have a boundary that makes it difficult to accept emotional support from another person.

Boundaries can be tricky for couples because in many ways, letting another person into your life requires lowering many of your boundaries. It may feel difficult to open up to another person, or to put trust in them, or to allow them to touch you. Even in long-term, established relationships, boundaries constantly come back into the foreground and require renegotiation. Here is one simple exercise you can use to start exploring some of your boundaries with your partner (you may use a friend if you are curious about the exercise but not currently in a relationship). We will start with physical boundaries, as they tend to be slightly more straightforward than other types of boundaries.

Stand facing your partner on opposite ends of the widest room in your home. Having at least 15-20 feet is preferable, but smaller spaces are manageable as well. Take a moment to close your eyes and check in with yourself. Feel your feet planted on the ground, notice what emotions are present, and see if you feel any sensations in your body. Open your eyes when you feel ready.

Partner A will take the lead for the first part of the exercise. Partner A will stand still, and when they feel ready, will say “OK” to Partner B. Upon hearing this word, Partner B will start walking towards Partner A very slowly, maintaining eye contact the entire time. Partner A gets to notice what it feels like to see Partner B moving closer. What emotions get stirred up? How does your body respond? What is this experience like? Can you feel your partner getting closer to your physical boundary?

Partner A should say “stop” at the point that they start to feel uncomfortable, and Partner B should immediately stop moving. At that point, Partner A can play with the boundary a little by asking Partner B to take a tiny step or two forward or a tiny step back. Partner A can try to find the precise location of their physical boundary, in other words, the exact spot when they start to notice even the tiniest bit of discomfort. When they are finished, Partner A can tell Partner B to walk backwards, returning to the other end of the room while maintaining eye contact. Take another moment to close your eyes and check in with yourself, only opening your eyes when you feel ready to proceed. Next Partner B gets a turn, repeating the same steps.

Once both partners have had a turn being the one in control, you can try experimenting with different ways of approaching each other. Maybe one of you would like to try having your partner walk towards you with their eyes closed or focused on something else. You could try having your partner run, crawl, or hop towards you. Try asking your partner to walk away from you with their back turned to you, and see how that feels different from having eye contact. You could ask your partner to come towards you mimicking anger or embodying vulnerability. Allow yourself to experience your boundary in a number of different ways. There is no “right” or “wrong” here, and no contest around who has the bigger or smaller boundary; the exercise is only to get a sense of what your boundary really feels like in and around your body.

When you are finished, take a few moments to talk about the experience with your partner. What did you learn about your boundaries? Which forms of the exercise felt more challenging, and which felt easier? Were there any surprises? How do you think your physical boundaries affect your relationship as a couple?

To talk about your boundaries further, call (415) 658-5738 or visit my Appointments page to set up a consultation.


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I'm Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist and writer specializing in helping you have more fun in the bedroom.

I have bachelor’s degrees in human sexuality and sociology from Brown University, and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. I’m also a licensed psychotherapist. I’ve been working in the sex therapy field since 2002 and have been featured by The New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, and many more.

If you’re interested in improving your sex life, you can work with me via my online courses or personal coaching sessions. I look forward to supporting you in creating the sex life you’ve always wanted!