Once as I was walking to a college class with a guy friend, we ran into my very best friend on campus. As I was introducing them, he said “Hi! I’m Caroline’s boyfriend!” …Um, hello? He definitely wasn’t–especially because I had an actual boyfriend in a different city at that time. What about our friendship led him to be so bold in claiming this? Other times, he offered to kiss me on the porch after walking me home; he basically proposed to marry me when I said I loved the style of his parent’s house; and he “accidentally” put his hand on mine for a little too long. Something was clearly wrong with this picture, and there was a real need for boundaries in this guy-girl friendship. Let’s break it down: 1) why do we need boundaries in our friendships? 2) how can we establish those boundaries? and 3) what do we do when those boundaries aren’t communicated or are crossed?
- Why do we need boundaries in our friendships?
Have you ever been such close friends with someone of the opposite sex that people start asking you “Are you dating or what?” Maybe you respond with the immediate “AH! NO WE’RE NOT!” and freak out, or you’re just trying to be super casual like, “nope, just friends.” Have the tables ever been turned and you’ve thought about a guy-girl pair who seemed super close asking, “when are they going to finally get together?”
There’s something about that almost-dating stage that people naturally take notice of. Countless teen girls that I’ve spoken to have experienced the “dating-but-not-really” relationship where they spend all their time talking to a guy, staying up late and sharing their heart, exclusively being best friends with the guy, doing the couple-y things… and ultimately feeling emotionally used by him because he never asked her out. She feels like she’s being treated as a girlfriend without the commitment from him. This can happen in similar ways when the physical touch lines get blurred, getting cuddly and holding hands with someone you’re not dating. People notice. And the parties involved are left thinking: what even are we?
So, boundaries can be extremely helpful to help protect ourselves from use: physically and emotionally. When we set a line we won’t cross, we aren’t saying “no” over and over again, but rather, we are giving the space for freedom in the friendship to flourish for the sake of love. We experience clarity instead of “what is this?” And we leave room for an invitation to pursuit: calling someone on to intentionally seek a new type of relationship if they desire it, rather than living in an endless gray area.
- How can we establish those boundaries?
Pray about them! Talk about them! These are going to be unique to you and your friendships. I encourage you both to practice the virtue and lifestyle of chastity because, as we know from the Catechism, “chastity blossoms in friendship.” Here are some common boundaries I’ve seen helpful:
- Communication limits. When you’re in bed late at night and texting someone, you’re likely going to feel more vulnerable and be prone to over-sharing. If they’re the first person you say good morning to and the last person you say goodnight to, you could be over communicating.
- Prioritizing same-sex friendships over opposite-sex friendships. Girls, if you have your ladies that you can run to in the toughest times before the best guy friend, it will help you out in the long run! Same for the guys. By investing in authentic same-sex friendships, you’ll find that your experience as a man or woman is better understood because they’ve experienced the unique things only your sex can, too.
- Consider spending time together in group settings instead of one-on-one so it feels a little less “date-y.”
- Clear physical boundaries. Friends with benefits are never “just friends,” and our physical intimacy should correspond with the context of our relationship. Friends, dating and married couples should all have different levels of physical boundaries.
The best way to communicate boundaries is to be clear and honest about them. Be upfront with your friends. “Hey, I actually don’t text guys after 10 pm, so if I don’t respond to you anymore at night, that’s why!” I’ve noticed my own friends receive boundaries really well because I communicated them early on, and my honesty meant a lot to them.
- What do we do when those boundaries aren’t communicated or are crossed?
When our boundaries aren’t communicated or aren’t clear, this can leave room for the gray area to develop again. Many of my friends have been hurt more by the “what are we?” than a flat-out rejection, and they later told me they wished they hadn’t shared so much of their heart with someone who was never even their boyfriend to begin with.
If boundaries haven’t been communicated, it’s never too late to choose to communicate them. It might be difficult to back-track now, but if your friend isn’t willing to respect them and at least try, maybe they’re not really honoring you. Sometimes you’ll fall and mistakenly cross a boundary, but there is room for asking for forgiveness and extending mercy there.
If boundaries have been communicated and are blatantly crossed, though, this is an opportunity for a hard look in the mirror. Mercy is beautiful, but you are also never meant to be used. Please consider if you should actually remain in this friendship if you are seeing boundaries ignored, dismissed or rejected. You are worthy of so much more.
Lastly, sometimes you’ll realize that the boundary is actually meant to change because of a progression in type of relationship. I once had a friend tell me she thinks that you should be closer with your best friends than your boyfriend, at the same level of closeness with your fiance and best friends, and closer with your husband than your best friends (with some transition periods in there of course). If this is true for the context of romantic relationships, then of course there’s a transition period from friendship to dating, too! If you feel your heart’s desires shifting, it’s time to DTR: define the relationship. The purpose of boundaries is to maintain clarity and protect yourself and others from use. But if love propels you into something more than friendship, praise God! Boundaries are good in every single relationship, and we can always take the time to reassess. We at the Culture Project LOVE love, so if you’re ready to move from “just friends” to something more, be not afraid and full send. I believe in you and am so excited to see you thrive in every relationship!