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I felt awkward talking about my COVID boundaries — so I checked in with a sex expert

It helped a lot

Will social distancing help us learn more about setting boundaries in our relationships?
Will social distancing help us learn more about setting boundaries in our relationships?motortion - stock.adobe.com

I was visiting a couple — many feet apart from them. They are my close friends.

One asked me, “Maybe in the fall, would you join our bubble?”

They meant they wanted me to be their exclusive social partner if Massachusetts experiences another coronavirus spike. In this scenario, we’d become one unit, following the same rules in two households. It sounded tempting; after all, I live alone.

But I didn’t know if I could commit to that kind of exclusivity. I also didn’t know if their rules for cleaning, socializing, and shopping matched mine. What if they were more relaxed about gatherings? What if they were more strict and didn’t allow for takeout?

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I said I was flattered by the request and that we could talk about it later. The conversation felt intimate — like we were negotiating the terms of my joining a couple’s open relationship. I didn’t know how to state my needs, and I didn’t want to offend them.

Weeks later, a friend asked if she could swing by for a quick socially distanced meal in my driveway. I wanted to see her, but knew she’d visited places I consider risky (stores, social events indoors with friends, etc.). Instead of telling her I was uncomfortable, I lied and said I had a work obligation.

I didn’t want to make her feel bad — or judged. But I also wasn’t comfortable with the exposure. My sister is high-risk, and I want to be able to see her this summer. That’s my priority.

Massachusetts may have entered Phase 2, with people eating inside restaurants, but I’m still following the rules of Day 1, wiping down boxes and bleaching door handles.

The problem is that like many, I can be a people-pleaser, and I have trouble saying, “Here’s what I need.” As July 4 weekend approaches and the people I care about start expressing an interest in social time (for which I am very grateful!), I am trying to figure out how to express my preferences for interaction, which sometimes means no interaction at all.

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Many of these conversations about coronavirus comfort zones remind me of the conversations people have (or should have) about relationships and intimacy. So I called up a friend who knows about explaining boundaries to someone you love — my longtime friend JoEllen Notte, a mental health advocate who focuses on sex (her recent book is “The Monster Under the Bed: Sex, Depression, and the Conversations We Aren’t Having”).

She agreed that all this talk of touching, being mask-free, and sharing air indoors can feel like the sometimes awkward conversations you might have with a new sexual partner.

One of the roots of our issues, she said, is that we, as people, are not great at communicating and respecting boundaries.

I asked her how to make peace with choosing one partner over another, even temporarily. What if I’m more comfortable with a friend than a family member? What if my sister chooses to stay with me for weeks, even if it means being away from her husband?

“I think for a lot of people there has been that [realization that] maybe we don’t want to be locked in a place with anyone for an indeterminate amount of time,” Notte said over the phone. “I’m seeing a lot more [questions like]: `I didn’t know my partner was like this because I’m usually not around them 24 hours a day. Does that mean I love them less?' I think it’s making us all look at and challenge the assumption that if you love somebody, then of course you want to be with them 24-7. And my fantasy is that this whole situation results in us being a lot more understanding about those couples who have separate bedrooms, and people who love each other but never want to live in the same house.”

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I asked Notte for some help with boundary-setting language during COVID. So many simple events — like a barbecue — can bring on anxiety. What if it’s a buffet?

Her advice: The question to ask is, “What does that look like for you?” Because sometimes we’ll be saying what sounds like the same thing to each other, and you’ll mean, “We live together and we don’t talk to anyone else. We don’t go anywhere, and we just hunker in,” and I’ll be thinking, “Well, we live together and then I can I go get a haircut because the salon is open now, and that’s safe. And maybe I’ll wear a mask sometimes.

By asking detailed questions, negotiation happens naturally, Notte said. But it also might bring some judgment.

“ A great skill to develop [for] life in general ... would be that recognition that other people aren’t us. They’re going to have needs that we don’t understand. ... One of my closest friends goes to the store every single day. And the first couple of weeks I was like, this is awful, why she doing this? [But she was ] engaging in things that looked like normal life for her. She was really going to lose it if she wasn’t able to do that. And that made me kind of change the filter on what I was seeing a little bit.”

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I asked Notte one question about sex — she’s an expert, after all. At the start of the pandemic, there were jokes about how we’d see a bunch of quarantine babies in a year. About how single people must be miserable. I wondered whether that put pressure on people to feel a certain way.

“There was a lot of, like, sexual peer pressure. Even among single people,” Notte said. “There was a lot of, ‘Oh, I miss it so much. It’s been like, two weeks. I’m just desperate for sex.' And I remember one day going online just being like, ‘Just in case no one else has told you all this, it’s cool if you don’t want anyone to touch you at all right now, and you’re totally fine with no contact.' Because it felt like nobody was saying that and the cool right thing was to talk about how horny and lonely you were. I was like, ‘Cool, I’ll be over here hiding.‘”

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If you’re interesting in learning more about setting social boundaries during COVID-19, sign up for a Love Letters “Taking Care” talk with representatives from the Boston Public Health Commission program Start Strong. Meredith will talk with members of the teen group on Tuesday at 1 p.m.. RSVP at https://takingcare10.splashthat.com/

Meredith Goldstein writes the Love Letters column. This July 4 weekend, she’ll be standing 20 feet away from barbecues, and she hopes you understand. She can be reached at Meredith.Goldstein@Globe.com.