By Jasmin Figueroa
Day 1 of 5: Renegotiating Boundaries and Experiencing Romance
I am a rose of Sharon,
a lily of the valleys.
As a lily among brambles,
so is my love among maidens.
As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,
so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house,
and his intention toward me was love.
Song of Songs 2:1-4 (NRSV)
Over the past year, I have been spending a significant amount of time reflecting on the messages that I received about romantic relationships from childhood until now. While “little Me” was definitely captivated by popular media’s depictions of romance as relatively effortless, idealistic, characterized by grandiose gestures, and (most importantly) steamy, I was stunned to discover as an adult that I was unprepared for the reality of trying to enter into a romantic relationship. In fact, the entire prospect seemed much scarier than I had anticipated.
What I assumed would be a thrilling season of infatuation and romance as my would-be partner and I got to know each other soon turned into an unexpectedly rough period of navigating self-doubt, fear, and—perhaps most illuminating of all—a re-examination of my relationship with boundaries.
After a lot of confusion, reflection, and a few good therapy sessions, I came to understand that some of this tumult comes from absorbing some of the more pragmatic messages from within my “real-life” communities about romance and boundaries. For example, while popular media taught me that people in love always get their “happily ever after,” my communities taught me that this is a privilege that not everybody gets to experience. After all, I grew up around loving and hard-working people who were also doing their best to survive various degrees of marginalization, so I was taught that women—particularly those of us who are not white, wealthy, thin, or straight—are prone to experiencing more hardships in our society. As a result, it is our responsibility to do everything we can to remain safe as we strive to get ahead in life.
Because of this, I received fewer messages about love and romance and more messages about the importance of boundaries. These, more often than not, took the form of warnings. Some were explicit: “Don’t worry about boys now. Wait until you finish school and get settled.” Or the Christian version: “Don’t awaken love before it so desires” (Song of Songs 8:4). Other messages were implicit: “…Or else you’ll get pregnant, and then what? What if you pick the wrong person and get hurt/waste your time/end up alone?”
I also learned about what it meant to be an attractive woman who was worthy of being a romantic partner—she was feminine, sweet, and accommodating. It was assumed that the partner I would be lucky to get would be a cis-straight man who was a headstrong leader and could provide for me materially and spiritually. We would complement each other when the time was right, once he matured into the man he was supposed to be (i.e. later than me, which is why I had to be careful not to fall in love too young or with the wrong person). This was the formula for success, and if I deviated from it, as the logic went, I was at risk of making a critical mistake in my life.
Thanks to studying attachment theory and critiques of purity culture, consumerism, and patriarchy, as well as listening to the wisdom of people who have experienced healthy expressions of love, I am slowly learning that many of the messages I received growing up, while intended to be loving and protective, fall short because they are imbued with fear.
This causes me to reflect, once again, on boundaries. What are my boundaries, and where did they come from? What does it look like to seek out boundaries that align with my values and interests, honors my agency, and does not prevent me from experiencing life and love? How do they encourage or restrict healthy relationships? And speaking of relationships, what does healthy romance look like? Can romance and healthy boundaries coexist?
While there are not very many examples of healthy romantic relationships in the Bible, I chose to reexamine the Song of Songs, a biblical love poem, through a more expansive (and feminist) lens than the one I was given growing up. I was originally taught it through interpretations that emphasized the ancient community’s warning not to “awaken love before it so desires” and pointed to the protagonists’ experiences as reserved only for people who were married.
Now I can see it as subversive. Not only are the lovers in the poem not married, but much of it centers the experiences (and pleasure!) of the young woman. She and her lover negotiate their own sexualities with one another, and in the process, they communicate their vulnerabilities, demonstrate consent, and show what it looks like to have relaxed boundaries with one another and firmer boundaries with their communities. What is clear is that this experience is theirs to go through, and the poem reveals the character’s desires and their thought processes, both as individuals and as a couple, as they seek to give and experience love.
If you are like me and are interested in exploring messages regarding boundaries and romance, I invite you to take a few moments to reflect on the messages that youreceived growing up.
Where did they come from (e.g.: family, friends, scripture, media, etc.), and what did they teach you? How have these messages compared with your lived experiences? Given this reflection, take the time to reflect on what kind of love you would like to give and receive. Finally, take a few minutes to assess your boundaries as they are today, following the same questions as above.
Feel free to revisit this exercise over the next few months and years, as self-awareness is a process, and we are always growing. Peace to you.