Great intimacy begins with healthy boundaries with Mel Cassidy
In this episode of REWIND we revisit a conversation with relationship coach Mel Cassidy focused on boundaries. Personal boundaries are a natural part of any relationship, but rarely are they discussed openly until a line has been crossed.
After Covid lockdowns many people have discovering their edge in relationship the hard way. In this episode of AIR I speak with Mel Cassidy, a relationship coach who focuses on polyamory and honest non monogamy, about the art of negotiating agreements and boundaries, especially in complex relationships. We also explore how trauma shows up in intimacy and how to use mindfulness and the messages arising from our somatic experiences to guide towards our deepest needs and desires in relationship.
- To learn more about Mel Cassidy and her coaching and speaking services check out – Radical Relationships
- To find out more about Mel’s Monogamy Detox program check out her online course
If you enjoyed this chat with Mel Cassidy on creating healthy boundaries in intimate relationships you might also enjoy episode 30: Consent and the path of pleasure with Betty Martin
Silas Rose 0:00
Hey friends its Silas and I am taking a bit of a break over July, so I thought I’d replay a previous episode from back in 2021 with Mel Cassidy, a great relationship coach, focusing on ethical non monogamy. In this conversation she really goes deep into the practice of setting healthy boundaries and agreements in intimate relationships. I’ll be back in August with fresh content, including conversations on spiritual community and the shadow, strategies for managing eco anxiety and the art and DJing and holding space from conscious dance. Stay tuned
Welcome to another episode of Awake In Relationship. My name is Silas Rose. It’s been a really tough year for a lot of people, especially those that live alone or are issolated as pademic measures continue.. It’s also not been easy for those in committed long term relationships. Many of us are really discovering our boundaries or edge a hard way. Boundaries are a natural part of any relationship. But rarely are these discussed openly until a line has been crossed. In this episode of Awake In Relationship. I speak with returning guest, Mel Cassidy, a relationship coach with a really unique perspective on particularly complex relationships, about the art of negotiating and boundaries and agreements. We dive deep into how trauma shows up in intimacy, and how to use our somatic experiences to guide our deepest needs and desires in relationship. So if you’re feeling now’s the time to have a challenging conversation with someone you love, I think you will get a lot out in this episode.
Mel and welcome back to to the show
Mel Cassidy 2:44
Hi, thanks for having me back. Silas.
Silas Rose 2:46
So it’s been about a year. I think since our last conversation, we’ve gone through one hell of a year. How have you been spending this time?
Mel Cassidy 3:03
Yeah, it’s it’s been quite a year. I think my own personal journey has been this, you know, many chaptered arc there was first and Facebook memories reminded me of this today is that, you know, during the first stage of lockdown, I actually found a lot of relief of, oh, I have permission to just slow down and do nothing right now. I think I needed that space. And then the summer was a beautiful time of being outdoors a lot and being able to have socially distanced outings with friends to the river and and then fall was a lot of getting cozy and then winter has sucked. Hey, man. Yeah, I am quite ready for winter to be over.
Silas Rose 3:52
Yeah. Yeah, well, here on the coast. There’s definitely signs out there.
Mel Cassidy 4:00
Yeah, I’m, I find that. And a lot of people have used this metaphor that this is the last leg of the marathon. And it’s that time where you feel like, I don’t know how I’m gonna keep going through the rest of this. And somehow you find the stamina to just get through and, and the finish line is in sight. You know, one of my partners who is down in California got his first vaccine the other day, which I’m really, really excited about. And it’s looking like, we’ll be able to get our vaccines here in BC sooner than we thought. And so there’s a lot of hope on the horizon. And then we get to and, you know, I want to say enjoy, but we get to explore what is going to be in this post pandemic paradigm
Silas Rose 4:49
for those who perhaps didn’t tune into our last conversation, your focus on a very specific kind of community. Which is ethical non monogamy. What got you interested in in that?
Mel Cassidy 5:12
Yeah. So I’m a relationship coach and I specialize in working with people who are exploring non monogamy. So different forms of consensual non monogamy, including but not limited to polyamory and relationship anarchy. And even with that, I feel like I have a niche of, I tend to work with people who are really interested in deconstructing the cultural norms of relating, and figuring out a more authentic liberating structure to engage in intimate relationships with. So that’s the work that I do. And I think, you know, the more I get into this, the more I look at how there’s so many different parts of my life that actually led me to this point. I’m not even sure I know that answer anymore. But I think the catalyst for me was my own journey and non monogamy. And, you know, I spent the better part of a decade practicing solo polyamory. And I couldn’t find any materials about that when I started, I didn’t even have the term for that. And so I started writing my own blog, poly Singlish. And because of the blog, people started reaching out to me and asking for advice. And I was like, I don’t feel qualified to give you advice. So I went and got qualified, and did training. I have a search certification and counseling for intimacy and relationships, and have done various other trainings since then. And for, oh, gosh, six years now almost, I’ve been enjoying the process of becoming a relationship coach and working with people all around the world. And it’s, it’s incredible to see the growth that happens for folks. And I’m always honored and humbled that people choose to work with me,
Silas Rose 7:06
are there particular themes that you’re noticing with clients in this past year?
Mel Cassidy 7:12
The theme that’s standing out for me right now, at this point is grief. I think, during the earlier part of the pandemic, there was a lot of anxiety and a lot of, you know, a lot of knee jerk seeking safety reactions that were coming up in relationships. So either people were like, Oh, we have to move in together, otherwise, we’re not gonna see each other and a lot of, or we can’t see each other because we don’t live together, and a lot of quick shuffling and shifting and relationships. And then it’s like we’ve spent the rest of the year trying to figure out how to reconcile that. And one thing that has been coming up a lot in the last few weeks, even, is I’m hearing this from clients, and I’m hearing this from friends, that there’s this grief around Oh, we didn’t get to have the kind of breakup that I would have liked. Or, you know, we de escalated our relationship, but I wish we could have de escalated it in a different way. And so there’s a lot of sadness that it seems to be getting processed around that. At the same time, I’m noticing that some people have managed to find new relationships during this time and our have been able to take the the the isolation element of the pandemic, and use it to their benefit, they’ve gone deeper into their relationships and felt more connected. So it’s really interesting to see this contrast of people being in very different spaces right now.
Silas Rose 8:49
You’ve kind of gone into a new kind of area in terms of your professional work, studying somatic sex education. I actually had a couple of folks Michael, and Penelope on not too long ago talking about this. I’m curious how that training is a shift in your work.
Mel Cassidy 9:08
I mean, I I got interested in somatics, many, many years ago when I was a body worker. So I did bodywork and massage professionally for 10 years. And part of my training included a very, very tiny bit of somatic therapy and somatics is about the mind body connection. And I got curious about it. And then in my own journey of working through healing my own PTSD. I came across Somatic Experiencing work and got to have some Somatic Experiencing sessions that really transformed my experience of my own trauma. And then sort of alongside that, I went to a somatic movement class and suddenly, my experience in my own body changed and I started to look at all these different pieces. And I was like, these all fit together somehow, how do they fit together? What is it that they’re doing for me, and I knew about the somatic sex educator program, but I wasn’t sure what it would include. And so I reached out to some of the incredible folks on the faculty who I knew. And they kind of affirmed for me that this was a good place for me to place my intention on next. And you know, the training is quite intense. I’m only Partway into it. And because of the pandemic, and not being able to meet up for the in person components, I’m not as far along with it as I would like to be. And I’ll be honest about that, however, doing the work, and really, you know, diving into the materials, and as a result of doing this training, kind of seeking out everything else I can about somatics I’ve found that my awareness has been shifting to much more nuanced understandings of the way that trauma impacts us in our relationships. Because when trauma happens, that that’s the consequence of our nervous system being overwhelmed by the circumstances that we’re in, whether that is just that, you know, things are emotionally overwhelming, or maybe it’s physically overwhelming, or maybe it’s mentally overwhelming, or maybe it’s spiritually overwhelming. And then from there, you know, we, that overwhelm, creates a disconnect within ourselves. And somatics is all about bringing us back into a space of wholeness and ourselves between mind body, spirit, and heart. And so taking that approach into my work has been really profound to start revisiting some of my old materials and go, Oh, okay, there’s way more happening in the non monogamous experience that is all about seeking safety than I had even considered before. And so now I get to put that lens into the work that I do with folks, you know,
Silas Rose 12:03
I think that’s kind of a universal need in any relationship really, is safety.
Mel Cassidy 12:07
I like to consider, you know, what, if everything that we do as human beings is part of our strategy for safety, every single thing, whether it is going for a walk, or reaching out to connect with a friend, or creating something? What if all of these in some way are serving our inner experience of safety and our own existence?
Silas Rose 12:32
Well, that’s probably a good segutransition into today’s conversation, which is about boundaries, how would you define healthy boundaries?
Mel Cassidy 12:39
The best metaphor I ever heard for healthy boundaries came from my colleague, Marsha Paczynski. And she said that the skin is an example of a healthy boundary, because the skin keeps out bad things and keeps in good things, but it’s still porous. You know, it can allow some things in so your skin can absorb moisture, your skin can absorb vitamin D, your skin will repel dirt and dust your skin keeps in your muscles and your blood and your bone. And also the skin has resiliency, the skin has bounced. And this is something very important, you know, we tend to think of boundaries as being this kind of brick wall. Or as you know, when we assert a boundary that it has to come across as a bulldozer plowing through against what somebody else wants. But really, boundaries are more like a trampoline in that, you know, we can we can have someone push into our boundaries a little bit, and be okay. You know, it’s like, if I push against your skin, if I remove the pressure, your skin will bounce back. But if I continue to push against your skin, if I never let up, then eventually your skin will bruise or break. And that that is the point at which, you know, are we experienced hurt with our boundaries. And I think that the skill a lot of us have lost or have underdeveloped in ourselves. And this is I could go on and on about the societal reasons for it is noticing. When someone is pushing against our boundaries, we tend to tune out of it, because we’ve been taught to endure and tolerate so much, that we just dissociate from the sense of infringement on our boundaries.
Silas Rose 14:32
Hmm, no, I think it gets normalized in some level.
Mel Cassidy 14:35
IItt does. It does. And, you know, we were taught as even as children to not speak up against others. And I’d like to think that that’s changing for kids these days, that there’s so much more available for them in terms of consent education, but that’s not universal. That’s not across the board in the whole country or the continent or even the world. Um, and so going back to like, what is the definition of boundaries? Boundaries are that which protect ourselves and they allow in what nourishes us, but they also give us resiliency.
Silas Rose 15:16
So what would be some red flags that might suggest that you know, oneself or someone you love has has weak boundaries?
Mel Cassidy 15:23
I wouldn’t say that it’s weak boundaries. But I’d say an underdeveloped sense of our own boundaries is a maybe a better way to phrase that, because what will happen is if someone has an underdeveloped sense of their boundaries, you don’t know until they’re freaking out about it. And then it can come across as like, Wow, where did that come from? Why are you so upset. But I think the signs that we’re not tuned into our boundaries are around, you know, someone’s pushing into somebody’s boundaries, and they’re feeling tired, they’re exhausted, they feel mentally overwhelmed. You know, I think about how, in my own experience, when I was not wanting to tune into my own boundaries, I would dissociate in conversation. I, I knew that I had a tendency to sort of go into people pleasing mode. And that’s something that I’ve seen for quite a lot of folks. Because we don’t want to question the status quo, we don’t want to get into conflict. And so we just go into this, like acceptance and, and we sort of overcompensate for our discomfort, through trying to placate the other person, we might go into a self sacrificing mode. And for some people, they go to the extreme of being even more self sacrificing, and allowing their boundaries to be even more compromised, because they think that that is somehow demonstrating love or affection or care.
Silas Rose 17:02
So how does trauma affect our ability to kind of articulate and assert our needs and wants in relationship,
Mel Cassidy 17:09
The way that it’s going to do that for each individual is going to vary slightly. But speaking more generally, when we’ve experienced trauma in any kind of relational setting, whether that is in our childhood with the caregivers around us, or in adolescents, with our peers, or as adults and intimate relationships, or communities or friendships, we learn adaptive mechanisms, you know, we we get overwhelmed. And we go into a kind of reflex response of coping with that trauma. So sometimes that is running away. Sometimes that means shutting down, sometimes that means we try to fight it and counteract it. Sometimes that means we go into people pleasing mode. And the specifics of what that look like are different for every different person in every situation, what happens is if we don’t get the chance to examine the trauma, and integrate the experience of what happened, and I say, integrate, rather than healing, because I think that there’s always a bit of scar tissue internally, from trauma that that can be tender. But if we don’t get to integrate that experience, then what happens is, in our intimate relationships, the moment something similar, shows up our nervous system, our brain is immediately like, Ah, I recognize this pattern, we’ve been through this before. Quick, Quick Response Team, and we go back into the old pattern, and that is very hard to break the habit. And, and that’s really one of the it’s very hard to break that habit. And I think this is one of the crucible points of intimate relationships is learning how to be conscious of what our triggers are, and how we’re responding to them. And then learning how to separate the story that we’re carrying from the past and its impact on us from the reality of what’s happening in the present moment.
Silas Rose 19:13
I think it’s pretty common for both men and women actually, in it at any stage in a relationship that one encounters this sort of inner dichotomy between body and mind where the mind is reaching out for connection, intimacy, but the bond is saying no. So how can we begin to work with those somatic experiences to get to the emphatic yes,
Mel Cassidy 19:37
I think it’s really important to listen to the body. You know, if your body is shutting down, if your body is feeling that fear response, you do need to honor it. One of the principles that I learned from somatic movement is to slow down and then slow down even more. You know, the slower we go, the more we can tune into the precise sensations. And, you know, we can even do this working with our own body. But this does translate into the emotional work we do. Like if you just do the simple movement of opening and clenching your fist, there are so many micro movements that go on in this action that we perform on a daily basis multiple times a day. And then if you break it down to just your thumb going in and out, and then you slow it down even further, you start to sense places where you’re stiff places where your joints feel more free. And the more you slow down, the more your mind is able to build a conscious connection with the movement. And in the same way, when we’re dealing with trauma responses coming up in our own body. When we’re feeling that disconnect between mind and body, we need to slow down. I mean, if you imagine two vehicles traveling and one is going 120 miles an hour, and the other one’s going up 40, you know, the one going up, 40 is not going to catch up to the other one, and the other one needs to slow down. So we need to really slow down and in relationship. If one person’s having a trauma response, you have to slow down to that person’s speed, the more we can slow down and hold space for the minutiae of the inner experience, the more we’re actually doing to support the healing and integration. Because as we slow down, we start to understand the experience better. I personally feel like the more we can understand and experience, the more chance we have of integrating it more fully into how we move forward from that.
Silas Rose 21:50
Yeah, sounds like a mindfulness practice, I’d say so very much. So perhaps a lot more fun than meditation. So then, the nuts and bolts of forming boundaries is really agreements. And when you talk about agreements, and particularly in complex relationships, what would be the difference between an agreement and say, a hard and fast rule?
Mel Cassidy 22:14
Well, agreements are about mutuality, it’s about coming together with equal understanding, whereas a rule tends to be something that is unilaterally imposed. And this gets tricky, because I think in the patriarchal, monogamous default that most of us have been raised with, we experience rules being classified as agreements. So we make relationship agreements, but actually, it’s what one person wants, and the other person just agrees to go along with it. There isn’t the negotiation, there isn’t that space of mutuality, and, you know, negotiating agreements, is not easy. I mean, if you think about, like, peace treaties are a form of agreement. And the reaching mutuality and a peace treaty is not an easy process, because everybody has things that they want, the stakes feel really high, and you don’t want to lose your autonomy because of an agreement. And so when it comes to intimate relationships, you know, we don’t want to allow ourselves to fall into spaces of endless conflict. And one of the strategies that we use to avoid conflict is to just go along with what the other person says, and just accept accept the status quo. So if you’re making what you think are agreements, but there haven’t really been a lot of discussion about it, then it’s probably worth exploring, you know, are we trying to avoid some kind of conflict here, or maybe we need to brush up on our skills here. I also think that with agreements, an area that it gets tricky to explore in is, there are all sorts of implicit agreements that we have, culturally, you know, if you and I are sitting down in person, there’s a kind of implicit understanding that I’m not going to get up and throw a glass of water in your face or something like that. And, you know, that’s maybe an extreme example, but from culture to culture, the implicit understandings change. And even within subcultures, the agreements that the cultural agreements that exist can be different. And these are all implied, these are all expected that everyone understands. But there’s much more beneath the surface of that and so when you have relationships between people who are coming in from different cultural perspectives, you can’t just assume that the, the implicit understanding is there. And I found that working with my clients who are on the autism The Spectrum this also comes up a lot, that the implicit agreements of society around them are not always so obvious. And so there has to be a little more work to break it down. For me, as someone who didn’t grow up in Canada, there’s still a lot about Canadian culture and North American culture that I find totally baffling. And I don’t know if I’ll ever understand it.
Silas Rose 25:23
You’re not the only one.
Mel Cassidy 25:27
I’m sure there are some Canadians who also feel baffled by it.
Silas Rose 25:31
For anyone that’s in a relationship, in a conventional kind of monogamous relationship. At what point, do you think that conversation needs to happen?
Mel Cassidy 25:40
Well, with the conversation of agreements, I think there’s not a single conversation, it’s more like you’re having a four course meal. There are appetizer agreements, you know, which I think are very important to have at the beginning. And maybe those are more like, if just clarifying the understanding around things like sexual health. You know, I might tell people, This is how often I get tested for STIs. This is, these are the sexual health precautions that I use with all my partners, right? Those are more just kind of informing somebody, but maybe there are agreements that come out of that mutual sharing. So very important to have those kind of foundational agreements or appetizer agreements, I think, as a relationship develops, then you’re going to start exploring more of those, like main course, or entree agreements, which is going to be more like, Okay, well, what are we doing? How often do we see each other? How, how do we want to connect with each other socially, and each other’s social circles, and so on, and so forth. And then there are, there are kind of occasional agreements that might be circumstantial. I like to call them like seasoning agreements. So they’re like side dish agreements, which might be agreements that govern the specific set of circumstances, like, maybe you’re both going to a festival, and you want to have some agreements around that. Or maybe some people will have had agreements, specifically for while they’re in lockdown with COVID. And the pandemic, some people might have agreements that are just about, you know, when families around, we’re going to do something different in the way that we present our relationship. And then the sort of fourth course of that that was pointed out to me recently is having dessert agreements, which is, you know, having an understanding and agreement around well, what if this relationship that we’re doing doesn’t work out the way that we hoped it would? How do we want to continue to engage with each other at the end of the day. And I think that’s an important consideration, too. And so all of these are things that you can talk about at every stage in our relationship. But I, you know, I don’t think that we need to sort of run into the main course, you know, on your second date, you know, can take take one step at a time and move into the agreements, as it feels called for. And I think it’s good to practice having those conversations early on, even if you don’t come to some kind of concrete agreement at the outset.
Silas Rose 28:18
Do you actually in writing these down? What’s that?
Mel Cassidy 28:21
Oh, writing the agreements down? I think that depends. For everybody, you know, what’s going to work for you, I think, personally, it’s helpful to create some kind of written record of the conclusions you come to at the end of the conversation just for the sake of clarity, if nothing else. And also, bear in mind that you have permission to change those agreements. You know, if you find that it’s not working, you can renegotiate that. I think that it’s really beautiful to look at how you can fashion your agreements into something that reflects your vision for the relationship. And that can be something that in you know, a long term relationship, or a nesting partnership, or an anchor partnership, that you create a celebration around. I have a couple of pieces of artwork that I created based on my agreements with one of my partners. And so those sit by my bedside table as a reminder of this is what we’re building in our relationship. And this is how we have agreed to show up with each other. So I think that’s useful, but at the same time, you know, there’s things that I add to that over time. There’s things that we may take away from that as things change.
Silas Rose 29:40
For someone that that is in a long term relationship where there’s a lot of unexpressed or unacknowledged expectations whats a good first step to starting the process of agreements.
Mel Cassidy 29:54
And you’re already in a long term relationship, and there’s a lot of unexpressed things. I think the first step is to resource yourself with extra support, because that is a process that could bring up a lot of stuff. It could bring up a lot of vulnerability and a lot of fear. And, you know, if if you’ve never voiced what’s going on for you, it’s probably going to feel very clumsy to do that at the beginning, and that clumsiness is totally okay. However, the clumsiness and the fear of being clumsy, can make us so afraid that we, you know, we go back into a trauma response kind of place. And so to resource yourself externally, whether that is with a counselor, or coach, or even just, you know, a sympathetic friend, that you can bounce ideas around with first, I think is a really good idea before you are able to bring them to your partner, and to invite your partner to do the same thing. I think that, you know, the process of coming into agreements, the first step is we have to really know ourselves, we have to be clear on our own boundaries, and our own desires and our own capacity. And that is an intense amount of self work, especially when we live in a society that tells us we’re not allowed to have boundaries, and that having desires is selfish, and that having limitations in our capacity is not allowed. So you know, there is a tremendous amount of self work that needs to be done there. And I don’t think that you get as far doing that alone, versus if you do that with support. And once you’ve been able to do that, with support, in the process of talking with your partner about it, you might feel you might find that the two of you need external support as well.
Silas Rose 31:48
So zooming out after the year we’ve just had, what sort of opportunities for intimacy and connection do you see going forward in the post pandemic world?,
Mel Cassidy 31:58
it’s gonna be interesting. I know that there have been a lot of predictions that we’re going to have a renaissance or it’s going to be the roaring 20s. Again, but I I know that a lot of people I’ve talked to don’t want to find themselves in a mosh pit of human beings anytime soon. I think it’s going to be a more slow process. For some, I don’t doubt that there are going to be people who will kind of work hard to make up for the last time of the past here. And I’m sure we’re going to see a kind of, I feel sure that we’re going to see an increase in STI rates and, and sexual health concerns over the coming year, as people kind of get are able to get out there and explore. And, you know, it’s that thing of, when you’re so hungry, and you go grocery shopping, you’re not necessarily making all the best decisions, you’re not really thinking through what you’re putting in your cart, I have a feeling that there may be an element of that that happens for a time. What I’m hopeful is that the time we’ve had during this pandemic, to do self examination and to deepen our connections in our existing relationships, including friendships and family connections, or maybe to distance ourselves in some relationships with friends and families as the case may be. I’m hoping that that work is I hope that that work supports people to be making more conscious choices. In the future, I think that the nature of online dating is going to change. I’m hoping that we go back to more of a slower process, more getting to know each other. I’ve seen that happen already through the pandemic, just because of the COVID safety measures, people are taking more time to talk online and video chat before actually meeting up in person. And I don’t think that that process is going to just evaporate. I think a lot of people have found that that has helped them feel safer in their connections. And hopefully we continue that in terms of, you know, the ways that communities connect. I don’t know how that’s gonna go. I’ve seen so many communities feel fractured through this through misinformation or differences in approaches to the severity of the pandemic and the safety measures. And I suspect that there’s still going to be a sense of grief for a few years as people reconcile losing some communities and losing some relationships and having to renegotiate how they engage with people based on what happened during the pandemic.
Silas Rose 34:54
Well, Mel, it’s been a great conversation. Thank you again, and how can people find out more more about what you do.
Mel Cassidy 35:01
Yeah. So the best way to get in touch with me is to go visit my website. It’s radicalrelationshipcoaching.ca. You can also find me on social media on Instagram and Facebook at radical relating, I post on Instagram On Facebook fairly regularly. And you can also message me through those channels too. And then I have been offering various courses online through the pandemic as introductions to non monogamy including some of the basic skills like boundaries and agreements. So if you’re interested in knowing more about that, make sure you do go to my website and sign up for my mailing list so that you can stay informed about when those are happening again.