Degrees of Separation

Degrees of Separation

by Mary E. Hunt

Patricia M. is a history and women’s studies professor at a university where feminism is still a dirty word—except to her seminar students. Her students look to her as a role model, a feminist academic who has “made it.” They believe her when she speaks about justice and equality. One young woman made a particular effort to invite Patricia to join her for a drink after class. She longed to be her friend, to discuss her personal life, to solicit career advice. But while Patricia welcomes students in her office to discuss classwork, she consistently turns down their social invitations and steers them away from personal discussions. Some students feel hurt and wonder about her feminism.

Patricia lives with the tension many feminists feel: the tug between wanting to claim that we’re all in the same boat, and knowing that in certain circumstances, some of us steer the boat and others do the rowing. Creating boundaries and setting limits to relationships are particularly important when there are differences in power and status.

Boundaries are ways of saying, “Here is “where I stop and you start,” or “Our relationship is this and this, but not that.” Boundaries mark the outer edges of our social roles and help everyone know where they stand. Boundaries don’t have to be so rigid and impenetrable that they feel like prisons. But neither should they be so fluid that they feel like mist!

To acquit ourselves justly, I believe that those who have the most power also shoulder the greatest obligation to set boundaries. The sheep must be off limits to the shepherd. The divorce lawyer should not seduce clients. The single mother should not date her daughter’s boyfriend.

How feminist professionals should deal with boundaries is the subject of a book being discussed by feminists: Wlien Boundaries Betray Us, by the Reverend Carter Heyward, an Episcopal priest and theologian. As one of the first, and still very influential, “out” lesbian theologians, Heyward’s work demands serious attention. Her book tells the story of her 18 months of therapy with a psychiatrist who is also a lesbian. Upon the completion of their work, Heyward wished to form a friendship (implicitly, a love relationship). Elizabeth (a pseudonym for the therapist who declined any involvement in the book) did not seem to share Heyward’s desire for a personal relationship and refused, plunging Heyward into despair.

Heyward’s effort to rethink boundaries is entangled in this painful episode, which seems to me to prove that at least in the instance described, even stricter boundaries, not more porous ones, are what is needed. Still, her major themes highlight the question we need to ask about boundaries.

Heyward challenges the “prevailing assumption among psychotherapists that they must maintain their ‘professional boundaries’ in order not to harm those who seek help.” She believes that this “tightly constricted” sense of “political correctness” interferes with and distorts the creative, caring connection between patient and therapist. “There [is] something wrong with a system of treatment that notices greater potential for harm than healing in authentic relationships… and that fails to notice as harmful those rules and boundaries that block authenticity,” she argues. The book concludes with responses by friends and colleagues. Unfortunately, none of them adequately raised the hard questions necessary to rethink and reconstruct boundaries.

While I strongly disagree with most of Heyward’s conclusions, I believe she helpfully raises the important question of whether traditional notions of boundaries are adequate for a feminist future. Do feminist ideals break down in practice? Can feminists rethink boundaries so that they work for all people rather than against some of us?

Inequalities Among Women Heyward correctly notes that our notions of boundaries have emerged from patriarchy. Most power arrangements in patriarchy are predicated on a male in power and a female beholden to him. But what happens when both people involved are women? Does this cancel the power imbalance? I believe that parallel power dynamics apply. Transgression of boundaries can occur in both patriarchal and feminist settings. Feminists have not always been explicit in spelling this out, but we need to do so if we are to live safely and responsibly.

Women in patriarchy have learned to pay attention to power imbalances and to safeguard those who are vulnerable. This is not patronizing nor matronizing. Whether the power imbalance is racial, economic, predicated on role or some other difference, it is real. It is simply feminist common sense to admit that gender is but one of many categories which determine power.

Between and among “women even more care needs to be paid to inequalities of power. The dynamics can be subtle, or can surface as a raw need for approval, support, or caring. The myth that equality means sameness—a boundary less, ‘we are all one’ state—needs analysis. All women have been conditioned by patriarchy and -we have a great deal of unlearning to do in order to move into healthy patterns with one another. Such a process is fraught with risk, and thus, safeguards help. This argues for more careful attention to differences and inequalities in professional relationships, rather than a blurring of the lines.

The admission of differences by feminists need not result in alienation, but in the full use of one another’s skills in healthy interactions. Otherwise, why see a lawyer, go to a doctor, consult a professor, engage a therapist, or talk with a priest in their professional capacities rather than simply becoming friends with them? Friendship is not therapy. No professional I know has the time or emotional energy for so many such friendships. Heyward sought a therapist; her therapist did not seek a friend.

Many young women seek role models not friends, mentors not lovers. Such needs are nothing to trifle with and something to fulfill with utmost care. As a theological ethicist, and as a professional who has been involved in trying to eradicate the human misery caused by priests and ministers who have overstepped sexual and professional boundaries, I believe in erring on the side of caution as we work to clarify feminist boundaries.

Feminist relationships should be characterized by mutual respect and equality. A medical model in which the doctor knows best, without regard for the patient’s sense of herself, is clearly not feminist. But neither is a wholesale assumption that there are no differences in our roles and responsibilities. Valuing difference in a nonhierarchical way does not eliminate the need for boundaries. It simply challenges us to develop better ones.

Safety and Mutuality In a violent society, safety is the major boundary concern. To achieve physical and emotional safety in therapy, religious institutions, health care settings and classrooms, it is necessary to work within known, implicitly agreed upon limits. Feminists seek to redefine hierarchical relationships and voluntarily share power, but this should not mean abdicating safety.

Breaches of safety, frequent occurrences in patriarchy— notably by clergy or mental health professionals—are a major source of trauma for those whose trust has been betrayed. Heyward strongly emphasizes the concept of “mutuality,” an idea that I also value. As I understand it, mutuality means that both persons in a relationship, especially a potential friendship, have an equal say in whether and how that relationship will progress. Mutuality is also predicated on the fact that both parties need to be aware that they come into the relationship with differences. All of the good will in the world will not change the structural givens of age, race, class or position, among other differences.

Mothers act mutually with their daughters—not by pretending to be their daughters as in the dish detergent commercials—but by acknowledging their roles and inviting their daughters to do the same. Professors and students need to keep before them the fact that one grades and recommends, and the other does not. So too for psychiatrists and clients, where the former is sought out and paid for a particular job, which requires limits for effectiveness.

Professional ethics committees can now benefit from feminist insights as they establish guidelines. The Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle and the Feminist Therapy Institute’s Code of Ethics deserve credit for their clear “no means no” approach. These efforts are not rigid and reactionary, but fair and feminist in their wisdom.

Feminist boundary setting is important because honesty about differences is missing in patriarchy, allowing those with power to mask, ignore, or manipulate it, as in the male minister who seduces his parishioner in the name of God, or the therapist who takes advantage of her client.

Mutuality means that each person has the right to make choices. Sometimes people make choices with which we disagree or by which we feel hurt. But to claim a lack of mutuality because someone does not reciprocate the offer of friendship, as in the Heyward book, strikes me as mistaken at best. From my feminist ethical perspective, “no” is one of the answers that healthy adults learn to say and to hear. Mutuality is not necessarily agreement, but respect for choices, and above all, respect for the choosers.

Role clarity is another essential element of boundaries which is conducive to safety. Unlike Carter Heyward, I believe that boundaries themselves cannot betray us. People betray each other. Boundaries are mutually agreed upon within the framework of roles so that a specific task, such as therapy, can be accomplished.

In a patriarchal society we are used to roles as distancing devices or power plays such as, “Wait until your father gets home,” i.e., a father’s role is to exert control. But feminist clarity about roles, especially efforts to treat one another fairly but sensibly, has a different result. It establishes boundaries which are, or ought to be, designed for mutual benefit and mutual protection.

A therapist is due as much protection as a client so that she can do her job and live her life. A minister needs her privacy just as parishioners need theirs. A mother deserves her life, while a daughter is encouraged to live hers. I work hard to right those situations where therapists or ministers have transgressed boundaries, or where mothers have become overly identified with their daughters. While these interactions should be friendly, they are not the same as friendships—which are predicated on equality, which is inherently impossible in these situations.

Some feminist professional groups, like those in therapy and ministry, are developing norms and guidelines for feminist boundaries. I join those who acknowledge that there are professional relationships, such as therapy and pastoral counseling, which are not ethically appropriate springboards for intimate relationships. The power differences and the kind of sharing which goes on in these settings preclude the conditions for romantic friendship. In the case that Carter describes when the client is so clearly in love, I hope all therapists would have the good sense to decline politely, recognizing the emotional and ethical land mines ahead. I believe that her psychiatrist acquitted her feminist professional obligations correctly, prioritizing her role as healer; even though she may have made some questionable moves along the way. Professional conduct is her right as well as her responsibility and it should be respected.

Clarifying and keeping reasonable role expectations, and not investing a professional relationship with expectations appropriate to friendship will help to keep everyone safe. Life is not without its risks, of course, but feminist attention to boundaries, mutuality, and role clarity, can help to reduce those risks.

Transcendental Boundaries The result of Heyward’s effort to dissolve the boundaries set by her therapist led to a confusion in the therapeutic work. Heyward describes two instances of childhood abuse which she deals with effectively in therapy. Then, given her relational problems with the therapist, Heyward decides that the abuse did not take place as she had thought. It is impossible to know what really happened, of course, but Heyward seems to use the incident to discredit the therapist (who is an expert on abuse issues) and also to blur the boundaries between pain experienced by an individual and that experienced by others.

Heyward sidesteps the trap of so-called False Memory Syndrome but goes another step down a similar road suggesting that “as a sister earth creature, I was being drawn into experiencing as my own the effects of violence and brokenness in the world.. .My pain was beginning to open me to a larger realm of suffering.” She explains, “In effect, I was immersed mystically in the violence and abuse that result from our fear of our own most sacred relational power.” I do not think this confusion of individual and group pain is useful or correct.

Violence is so widespread in our society as to form part of its very fabric, but it does not have an identical impact on all of us. When violence occurs in the form of sexual abuse or physical assault, it is very specific. Of course sensitive people, especially those of us who struggle to eradicate violence in both its contextual and episodic forms, feel the effects of it. But we are not somehow channels. We are survivors or, alternatively, those who luckily have been spared the worst, at least for now.

To mystify violence as if it could be picked up through osmosis by some people, especially religious professionals, seems to me a wrong and dangerous move. Theoretically, it sets up the religious professional as a mediator of experiences, hardly the stuff of empowerment for women. Practically, it spiritualizes something which is very concrete. “False Memory Syndrome” is a growing form of backlash against anti-violence work, so to elevate memory changes to the mystical realm does not help. Memory is a tricky thing. But, in fact, far more violence is forgotten than redressed, so offering a quasi religious way out is no solution.

Rather, after protecting victims from further harm, careful work needs to be done to understand who did what to whom, and to hold those accountable who have acted unethically, bell hooks in Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery offers a model of integration of difficult personal experiences and political analysis. She does not back off from what happened, nor does she privatize or spiritualize it. She names it, claims it, and seeks to get rid of it.

Setting boundaries can have positive ripple effects. To return to the story of the women’s studies teacher, I believe that Patricia’s students will learn more about healthy relationships from noting her clearly drawn limits than they would if she pretended to be a power-equal and a friend.

Role clarity means that Patricia is available to the students as their professor, to teach and counsel, and to grade and recommend, without any suggestion of partiality or favoritism; that is why they pay tuition. Patricia’s continued reflections on the sources of her own boundary configurations assure that she is not mindlessly mirroring patriarchal dictates, but that she is bringing her growing feminist wisdom to the questions.

The students will eventually understand that her choice not to socialize with them is not a personal insult, but rather an expression of mutuality. Patricia has a circle of respected friends. Her seminar attendees are her equally respected students. This is a model of healthy feminist boundaries at work.

Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D. is a feminist theologian who is the co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland. She is the author of Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship, which won the Crossroad Women’s Studies Award in 1991.