Emotional Consent

Have you ever had the experience of someone venting their emotions onto you or roping you into an emotional conversation, and you never actually consented to sharing that kind of experience with them? How did that feel?

Did you ever feel used, abused, or drained by someone emotionally, especially someone who expected to be granted automatic access to your emotional resources? Did this encourage you to open your heart more to such people, or did you learn to keep your heart closed in such situations?

Just as you need physical consent for sharing physical intimacy with someone, consider that it’s also important to seek consent for engaging in emotional intimacy with someone. This includes something as basic as having an emotional conversation.

On the flip side, just as you may assert boundaries for physical intimacy, consider doing the same for emotional intimacy. Both are requests for your personal resources, and you have every right to deny someone access.

Just as no one is entitled to physical intimacy with you unless you consent to that, it’s wise to regard emotional intimacy in the same light.

Both forms of intimacy can be wonderful and rewarding. They can also be draining. And they are both risky in some situations. Being physically intimate with someone isn’t 100% safe. Nor is sharing emotional intimacy.

You get to make the choice of whom you let in and when. People aren’t entitled to automatic access to your personal resources.

This includes when someone is feeling physically or emotionally needy or entitled.

Emotional Boundary Management

Watch out for manipulative patterns here as well. For instance, if someone labels you emotionally dismissive, it’s similar to being labeled sexually frigid. In both cases there’s an assertion of entitlement to your personal resources (physical or emotional) when consent isn’t willingly offered.

Such labels may be used in an attempt to coerce you into changing your attitude or behavior for the benefit (self-interest) of the person using the labels. Either way it’s a form of nonconsensual emotional manipulation, an attempt to control you when you don’t willingly consent. Don’t fall for it.

Just as you’re free to grant or not grant someone access to your body, you’re also free to decline access to your heart – and your mind for that matter, like when someone feels they’re entitled to free tech advice from you just because you know more about computers.

No one can assert the right to emotional validation from you any more than they can assert a right to have sex with you, regardless of how needy they feel. Someone can only be granted access to physical or emotional intimacy with you by your consent, and if you withhold that consent, then no means no.

What if you’re the one seeking physical or emotional intimacy with someone else? You can invite and offer that type of connection, but don’t assume that you’re entitled to it. Give the other person a chance to decline. Don’t be emotionally creepy or rapey.

If someone declines to grant such consent, you aren’t entitled to coerce or manipulate them into doing what you want. If you find such a relationship unsatisfying, you do have the option to disengage from the relationship and get your physical and emotional needs met elsewhere – with someone else who is willing and able to consent… or on your own.

Pre-consent is a valid option too, like with a relationship partner. Just as you may have an understanding for physical consent (so you don’t necessarily need to ask for it explicitly each time), you may have a similar arrangement for emotional consent. But someone can still choose to decline. You can still say no to an emotional discussion if you’re not feeling up to it. And you don’t have to permit someone to emotionally vent at you, even in a relationship. You can be emotionally intimate without ever going there, just as you can be physically intimate without ever wanting to explore certain kinks.

Maybe you have friends where you both feel it’s okay to unload on each other emotionally at times. But even in such situations, I think it’s good to check in and make sure it really is consensual. Some people may assume that emotional venting is okay at any time, but is that a valid assumption? Isn’t it wise to check if it really is okay with the other person? What if they’re emotionally tired or just not in a good state to listen? Be very careful about assuming consent if you aren’t certain you have it.

One reason I share this is because I’ve received a lot of emails over the years from people who feel emotionally drained by their relationship partners, friends, family, and co-workers. You may not see just how much venting drains other people who are subjected to it. They may do their best to listen and be compassionate, but that doesn’t mean they actually like it, and many would prefer not to be other people’s emotional teddy bear.

It’s up to you when you do or don’t grant consent for various forms of intimacy. Open your heart when you feel it’s wise to do so. You can make these decisions out of self-interest, generosity, kindness, or based on any other values that resonate with you.

Your body. Your heart. Your mind. Your rules.

Opening Your Heart

What do you consider worthwhile opportunities to share emotional intimacy with someone? When do you feel inclined to open your heart willingly? Pay attention to when these kinds of connections feel good to you.

Also pay attention to when it doesn’t feel good to open your heart. When have you done this and wished afterwards that you hadn’t? Where have you experienced regrets on this path? Have you ever emotionally invested in someone and felt punished for your efforts?

One pattern I’ve noticed is that it doesn’t feel good to open my heart with someone who’s stuck in entitlement, neediness, or a victim mindset. That’s just a massive turnoff, so I don’t open my heart in that direction much. I’ve done too much of that in the past, and it’s super draining. It feels like having my energy vamped away – energy I’d rather invest elsewhere.

On the flip side, I usually love opening my heart with someone when the invitation aligns with curiosity, passion, growth, or shared interests. I like it when someone just wants to explore how we might connect, and they aren’t coming from a place of neediness and attachment. Those kinds of connections are refreshing, and I often find them energizing and inspiring. This is usually how I connect with someone when we have an in-person meetup together, like I’ve been doing for many years (currently on pause due to the pandemic).

Sometimes I also feel good about opening my heart to someone who wants to connect on the basis of sadness, grief, loss, frustration, regret, or even anger. I usually don’t find it draining to engage with these emotions if the person has a growth mindset. It’s also good when a person invites me to engage with them on this level in a way that leaves me feeling okay to decline. Then I feel like I can make a conscious choice.

Just as our physical resources are limited, our emotional resources are too, so it’s wise to manage them carefully, like investments.

As I’ve gotten better at making these consent-based decisions according to my personal boundaries and desires, I feel more emotionally strong and stable. I’ve become more receptive to emotional invitations from people and in directions that feel aligned to me.

Remember to practice good boundary management with your emotional space. You can save yourself a lot of grief by paying attention to your own feelings and honoring those. That’s perhaps the best guide I’ve found on this path. When you’re being emotionally manipulated, you can probably feel the misalignment between the person’s stated intentions and how you’re actually feeling in response.