Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

When Conflicting Needs Meet Consent Boundaries

Let me say this one more time, loudly for those in the back:


I get it, I really do. Someone described for me recently the scenario in which someone overcompensating for deep social anxiety adopted the tactic of plunking themselves down in, or attaching themselves to, social groups or individuals with the attitude of, “Well, I find you interesting, so here I am; if you don’t want me here YOU be the one(s) to leave.” When it takes so much energy/anxiety capital to get into encounter space in the first place, sure, you want to maximize the odds of a meaningful encounter. But that’s only the beginning of the problem for some of the people involved in that scenario, especially women.

It’s a terrible assumption of privilege to assume welcome in any group; just because no-one is saying, “Hey man, thanks but this is a closed group/private discussion”, does not mean there is an actuall invitation or acceptance. It’s also a terrible assumption of privilege that other people will be as willing or able as you are to take a stance, and a dangerous blindspot to not understand how hard it will be for some to take a stance AGAINST intrusion.

A recent client discussion put the struggle into sharp relief: the individual need to connect with people runs up against another individual needs for distance or disconnect. There’s no good way to balance those needs when they come into conflict. The “No” in that equation, the piece that defines the definitive edge of the consent boundary, MUST have precedence. The fear of losing out on connection does NOT trump the fear of being invaded or intruded upon.

I get how bitter a pill to swallow that is, especially for the shy and anxious who are struggling to just get into position to meet people. Yes, it’s going to feel profoundly unfair that someone else’s needs are allowed by default to take precedence over yours… but when you force an attachment or inclusion into a situation without explicit consent, that’s exactly what YOU do to others. You force your needs to override theirs, without clear and explicit consent.

This has been the indomitable gender-biased power dynamic in our culture for generations. Patriarchal desires have ordered and policed the boundaries in their own self-serving fashion for so long that I am still struggling with women of all ages to introduce the idea of “No” to them, to the idea that they have the right to define their boundaries for themselves, to offer or withdraw consent as they themselves choose. It’s an uphill battle, however, against male anger at being thwarted. Women’s fear of that anger is justified, time and time again, from overt and murderous attacks to the dozens of subtle, unconscious microaggressions that permeate our daily lives.

And it’s a sucky thing as a therapist to have to balance compassion–because we’re all human, we all have needs we want to have met, and we all know to varying degrees the feeling of being thwarted in their pursuit–with being a staunch feminist and educator to both the men trying to understand and navigate the sudden shift in whose needs take what precedence now, and the women still battling the terror of saying no and being made to pay for their audacity.

We cannot drive home this point often or deeply enough.


Not getting our needs met is a painful experience. But inherent in the drive for connection HAS TO BE an understanding that not only does everyone NOT welcome connection, but NOT everyone knows how or is willing to risk saying NO directly. Pushing into a situation in which there is a lack of specific welcome is a dominance move, something that can carry (for those on the inside of the situation into which someone is presenting) overtones of aggressiveness: “I’m not going to move, YOU move.”

And that cannot continue be the default pattern. Yes, the expressions of explicit consent may still be fewer and further between than the introverts and anxious people want to suffer through, especially when the cravings for connection are running high and hot. But those are no longer accepted as the dominant paradigm; they can’t be. Too much damage results from that traditional dynamic. It favours a patriarchal power structure far too much, far too often.

So yes, if it seems awkwardly, uncomfortably, like the pendulum has swung all the way over into the other extreme, in which all ambiguity should be treated as an absolute consent barrier (if it’s not an explicit yes, treat it as a no and respect it), that’s because it has. We haven’t yet earned the kind of broad-spectrum trust that allows social and intimate transactions to settle to a stable median set of understandings and expectations. It was unfair in one direction for a disastrously long time; now it’s unfair in the other direction for a while.


This is the way it needs to be for a while. You don’t have to like it, but a failure to respect it just means it’s going to take longer to settle into that workable median than it maybe needs to.

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