Daniel heard the chime of a text coming in, and went to pick up his phone.
Hi. How's it going?
He didn't recognize the number.
Hello. Who's this?
Maria, the woman from the dating app. They'd shared a couple short, introductory conversations. It had gone okay, and he was interested so far, but now a little twist appeared in his stomach.
She'd asked for his direct number, but he had said not yet. Daniel's divorce had finalized a few months ago, and while he was inching back into the dating pool, he wasn't ready to dive just yet.
Oh, hey. Did you try to message me on the app?
Actually, I found your number. It wasn't hard. I just really wanted to connect with you. Hope it's okay.
Maria had been nice so far, and they shared some similar interests. But he'd specifically wanted to keep from sharing his direct number with someone until things got a little more serious. He sighed, conflicted.
The fact that she went out of her way to deliberately get the number didn't sit really well, either. But another part of his brain said to calm down, she's just interested in you. Remember what that's like?
Was there something you needed to talk about?
Not really. Just reaching out.
Oh, ok. Have a good one. I'll talk to you later on the app.
Sure. I just meet a lot of guys on here who aren't serious about connecting. They only want one thing, you know? I wanted to reach out and see if you're for real. Thanks for not blowing up at me. Relationships are something I'm happy to risk for. I'm glad you understand.
Each line cranked that twist in Daniel's gut a little harder, but he wasn't sure why. He felt a little guilty, but he also felt like he didn't really want to talk to Maria at all anymore. This all felt uncomfortable, familiar, and confusing.
Maria's unsolicited texts may seem pretty innocent at a glance. After all, what guy doesn't want to know his date is interested? But there's a reason for Daniel's uneasiness. Maria is testing the fence.
Though their connection could hardly be called a relationship yet, Daniel knew the importance of boundaries, and he'd chosen one for women he spoke to on the dating app. There was a level of access that he didn't want to give to just anybody he happened to match with. Maria sensed that boundary and something within her wanted to know she could cross it--and that he would allow it.
Several subtle but important shifts have taken place in this short conversation, and things are revealed to those who know boundary-breakers.
The boundary-breaker is someone who believes--and wants you to believe--that your boundaries don't apply to them. This can happen to varying degrees, but always feels intrusive and cloying.
A boundary-breaker may be someone with very poor relational habits stemming from unhealed wounds, or having lived in a system where that behavior is normal. They could also be a predator, someone who is out to fulfill their appetites without a thought to the cost to others.
How to spot them:
They will deliberately do the opposite of what you say you prefer, expect, or are comfortable with. This can start very subtly.
They may disguise these intrusions as "accidents".
They will say your boundaries are silly, unreasonable, or based in fear.
They will take more than was offered or asked for.
They will be either oblivious to or uncaring of signs that you are uncomfortable.
They will insist their motives are pure, even generous.
They will demonize any kind of rebuff (you're not allowed to say no).
Maria's initial behavior may seem "diet"-toxic. It's rude at best, but it's the follow-up where flags start going up.
Notice how she framed her dismissal of Daniel's boundary, almost like she thought herself courageous. She also subtly hinted that any resistance from him would've been wrong and unwelcome ("Thanks for not blowing up at me"). These are the kinds of things boundary-breakers do to let you know they make all the rules.
Figure Out What You Want
Every one of us has threads of toxicity running through our story that can shape our choices. Like I said, some boundary-breaking may come simply from a lack of wisdom and being well-loved. A person may have not had healthy boundaries modeled in their family.
Are they aware of it? Are they able to recognize the impact of the behavior and make changes? Are they on a journey to reclaim a healthy relationship with boundaries, both yours and theirs?
Listen to how you feel--how you keep feeling as you interact with this person. If multiple or all of the points above continue to be present with a person in your life, it's a good chance they are warning you of danger. You could be dealing with a predatory disposition or even a narcissist.
Someone who persists in a posture toward you that makes you feel violated, trapped, or shamed is someone you'll want to let go.
Mike Ensley, MA, LPCC is a nationally board-certified counselor in Loveland, CO.
Title background photo by Calvin Ma.