Setting Healthy Boundaries In Relationships
Published on September 15th, 2022
Updated on August 26th, 2023
You need boundaries in all relationships- from a new friend to your significant other. Boundaries are the personal limits you set on how you expect others to behave and what behaviors you will accept in relationships. The boundaries may differ and may change depending on the situation or person, and as you grow and learn, your needs and preferences may affect your boundaries as well.
There are different types of boundaries we set in relationships. Such types of boundaries include:
Physical boundaries are set to express your physical limits in relationships and protect your physical body and personal space. These boundaries vary with different people and situations.
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Example: You may be willing to shake the hand of a new acquaintance, but you would not be comfortable hugging a person that you just met. You may be comfortable hugging a friend, or you may not be a hugger at all.
Emotional boundaries help to outline your emotional needs and expectations in relationships. They help to separate our emotional responses, needs, and responsibilities from others’ emotional experiences.
Example: Limiting conversations to only certain topics and stating, “I don’t want to talk about that right now, we can come back to it later.” This type of boundary protects your emotional need for time to process, feel, and pause.
Emotional boundaries can also be set so you do not take on the emotional baggage of others. These boundaries can blur at times as you try to help others. They may entangle the boundaries of their issues with your own.
Mental boundaries are related to thoughts, attitudes, and opinions. These boundaries influence how open-minded we are about a new topic or how easily influenced we are by outside information.
Example: Hearing another viewpoint and considering what is being said before drawing your conclusions based on the information presented.
Why Do We Need Boundaries?
Most of us identify that we need to have boundaries with the people in our lives, especially with those we do not know well. We need to protect ourselves, and we tend to guard ourselves against those new people who may harm us.
You may find that you are not as good at setting boundaries with those you love. Setting boundaries with loved ones can be challenging, especially when we need to change them or increase the insistence on boundaries. We don’t want to disappoint the people we love, so we often bend our boundaries to fit their needs or expectations at the expense of our own.
Example: A close friend asks you to babysit their child again. You have big plans for that weekend that you are looking forward to, but you feel guilty saying no.
- If you say no, she might be mad or feel unsupported.
- If you say yes, you will miss your big plans.
Setting a boundary in this situation may seem rude or mean, but changing your plans will feel awful. This situation may be difficult for you to set boundaries as you do not want to disappoint your friend. Maybe you have previously changed plans, and now there is an expectation. By placing a boundary around your time and social engagements, you show respect and love for yourself and those you have made commitments to.
We need boundaries with people to maintain our respect for ourselves and ensure our needs are met. It is difficult when someone has less rigid boundaries and attempts to impose their boundary level onto us. We may worry the loved one might think we are unkind, stubborn, or not helpful.
As we set the boundaries of how we should be treated and what we are willing to accept, our loved ones begin to understand the expectations and can show us respect in the way we need.
Boundaries Are Not Secrets
Sometimes people confuse the term boundaries with secrets. They are not the same thing. Secrets are pieces of information withheld from others. Having secrets in a relationship can be damaging, depending on the type of secret.
Boundaries are a method of asserting your need for personal space and privacy. Prioritizing physical, mental, and emotional boundaries in a relationship is a healthy practice. In fact, it is a good idea NOT to keep your boundaries a secret from the people in your life, as that can cause you to feel confused, hurt, or disrespected when the secret boundaries are not respected.
Clarifying Your Boundaries
Boundaries are healthy barriers we place in our lives to keep ourselves safe, comfortable, and respected. Setting boundaries with people can be challenging and stressful at times. It is important to define the boundaries that make you feel comfortable and expect those around you to abide by them. It is also important for us to respect the boundaries of others around us.
Note: Setting boundaries is NOT the same as being confrontational. Setting boundaries can be done without causing conflict and causing you to feel like you are a bad person. If you struggle with feeling bad or guilty when setting boundaries, then you may consider seeking counseling. Counseling can help you learn how to build assertiveness skills to help you feel confident in your ability to clarify your boundaries in a healthy and respectful way.
Setting and clarifying your boundaries can feel intimidating at times, but it is okay to respectfully assert your personal space. Remember, you are entitled to your personal space, and people should not expect you to sacrifice your own personal comfort for them. There are ways that you can make setting boundaries as effective and comfortable as possible for you and the people in your life. The following are ways to clarify your boundaries:
Articulate Your Feelings Respectfully
Sometimes, our feelings can help us identify when a boundary has been crossed. Keep in mind that feelings don’t always reflect reality, but they can help clarify your personal needs.
Example: If you are beginning to feel resentful toward a friend who keeps bringing up the same topic, your resentment could be clueing you into something. Perhaps she is manipulating the conversation. Maybe you disagree with her statements, or you’re just plain tired of the same old story. Whatever the case, set a boundary!
Try: “I know this is important to you, but for today can we talk about something else?” or if it is a timing issue, re-arrange things: “I can’t talk today, I need to spend time taking care of x, y, and z.”
Bottom line, if you’re feelings seem “loud” or “stuffed”, pay attention. You likely need to express them, or at the very least you may need some space.
Speak Your Limits
Has someone ever offended you but you did not know how to speak up? Not all battles are worth fighting, but if something violates your values or sensibilities, it is worth saying something.
Speaking your mind when you feel offended or violated can be challenging, especially if you know that the person who offended you did not mean to do so. It may be easier to tell yourself that they did not mean to offend, but how can they know your boundaries if you do not tell them? The interaction does not have to lead to conflict, and it does not have to be a lengthy conversation.
Example: You can try using sensitive and brief statements, like:
- “I’m thinking we see this issue differently.”
- “I would like to have a conversation with you but when you use that tone it’s hard to understand.”
- “Please don’t talk to me that way.”
These statements are clear and concise and respectfully express your point. A healthy person in your life will respect these boundaries. If you receive pushback from the person you are speaking with, it may be best to disengage from the conversation. Remember, you can expect your boundaries to be respected, and if someone does not respect those boundaries then you can respond by taking your space.
Use “I” Statements
Conversations can become explosive when someone does not take ownership of their boundaries and blames others instead. Blaming and hyper-focusing on how someone is wrong can prevent constructive conversation and clarification of boundaries. Instead, try using “I” statements.
Example: “It’s not right for you to be that way!” This is vague and feels offensive. The upset speaker could be describing a boundary issue, but it is still unclear. Instead try, “I find myself shutting down when the conversation takes this turn. I would prefer we try to address it differently.”
Remember that both what you say and how you say it makes a difference when setting boundaries. Using a calm, assertive tone will likely be better received than an upset and strained or explosive tone.
Do Not Give In To Pressure
Sometimes it takes time to know where you stand with someone or something (an idea, project, plan). People may also work to pressure you on the spot. Do not be afraid to let things sit before you commit to a new boundary.
When you feel pressured to be agreeable at the expense of your boundaries, there is nothing wrong with saying, “Before I agree, I will need to think about it.” This response is thoughtful and respectful and sets the boundary with the promise of following through with the conversation at a later time.
When Saying “No” Is Too Hard
Have you ever heard someone say, “Whoa! They crossed the line!” or, “That is NOT okay with me.” Or even, “I think that’s something that I need to pay attention to!” When you hear these kinds of statements, whether they know it or not, these speakers are referring to personal boundaries.
From the way we spend our time, to our physical health, to the development of our most intimate friendships, boundaries shape our interactions with ourselves and the outer world.
In short, boundaries define who we are and who we are not.
Example: You are invited to a friend’s house for lunch. It’s a relatively new friend whom you do not know very well. She opens the door to her home and warmly invites you in. You talk, first about small things: the weather, your days; then a bit about personal things: your hobbies, interests, respective families, etc. It all feels normal. You enjoy her company, she expresses that she enjoys yours. You eventually leave hoping you’ll get together again.
Imagine an alternate scenario. Imagine you are invited over to a friend’s house under similar circumstances; you know her but not very well. You drive up. She invites you in and asks if you can help her with some chores around the house. You figure she must need help, so you help even though it feels a bit strange. She then asks if you wouldn’t mind running a quick errand for her while she waits for her kids to get home from school. Again, it feels strange, but you do it. Before you leave her house, she hugs you for a long time telling you how much you mean to her.
These are two very different experiences. The first scenario portrays good boundaries- the friend had set time aside to connect. The conversation had a natural flow- some “chit-chat,” evolving into a deeper conversation with greater substance. Time was not monopolized, but it was not rushed either.
The second scenario feels out of control. The host demonstrates poor boundaries by using her guest and then expressing gushing emotion at the end, and the guest demonstrates poor boundaries by her compliance.
In the second scenario, more appropriate boundaries would have been demonstrated if someone voiced the reality of the situation. The hosting friend could have said, “I think we need to reschedule for another time. I should have called sooner, but I am completely overwhelmed with housework and chores. Can we rain-check?” The guest could have said, “I was under the impression we were getting together to relax and hang out. It feels kind of strange that I’ve been cleaning your house. Am I missing something?”
If you connect with the above scenario, or you find yourself chronically pushed into uncomfortable situations, feeling responsible for troubled people, or just downright unable to say no, you may need to work on establishing firmer boundaries.
How To Set (And Respect) Relationship Boundaries
In any relationship, it is important to have and respect boundaries. This is especially important in your romantic relationship. People may sometimes think that a person cannot have boundaries, personal thoughts, or privacy from their significant other, but this is not the case. Setting and respecting boundaries with your significant other can actually strengthen your relationship. It can also help to improve your overall mental health and wellness.
While it is important to have boundaries with your significant other, they can be challenging to set sometimes. It can be misunderstood to mean that boundaries limit how much you are there for another person. This is not the case, as boundaries mean making your privacy and personal needs a priority. Healthy people have healthy boundaries. Relationships that have unhealthy or unclear boundaries often struggle in the long run. The following is a list of ways to set boundaries with your significant other, and many of these methods can also apply to other loved ones in your life.
Get In Touch With Your Needs
To set proper boundaries, consider what boundaries look like for you and your significant other. Think about how much private time and space you need. Consider your own need for alone time to take care of yourself. It can also be helpful to learn about your personal beliefs and what open and honest communication means to you.
Respect Your Significant Other’s Privacy And Personal Space
A part of setting boundaries is respecting your and your significant other’s privacy. Everyone deserves privacy and healthy boundaries that respect privacy also promote trust. Struggling to respect privacy is an indicator of distrust and poor boundaries in a relationship.
Tip: The following behaviors can be considered an invasion of privacy:
- Looking through a significant other’s phone messages, emails, or computer documents
- Accessing a significant other’s accounts without permission
- Tracking a significant other’s whereabouts
- Asking others for information about your significant other
Each of these examples is an invasion of privacy, even if your significant other knows about your activity. Even if you have your significant other’s permission, these behaviors indicate distrust. They do not respect your significant other’s right to privacy or personal boundaries.
If you struggle with not engaging in these behaviors, it may be helpful to consult with a therapist. A therapist can help you build trust in your relationship. They can also help you and your significant other set healthy personal boundaries.
A great way to reinforce boundaries is to spend time with your friends and allow your significant other to do the same. It is okay for you and your significant other to spend time away from each other when bonding with friends.
Consider creating ground rules if either of you struggles with spending time apart. Such ground rules could include:
- Coordinating check-in calls or texts
- Setting expectations for behavior
- Planning ahead with your significant other
- Checking in with your significant other before committing to plans
- Considering other responsibilities that may put unnecessary pressure on your significant other
Note: If you struggle with being without your significant other, or struggle to feel comfortable with your significant other spending time with friends without you, take time to reflect on where that discomfort comes from. Allow yourself to confront the part of you that is uncomfortable with the time away from each other. Do not be afraid to open a dialog with your significant other about your concerns and expectations for how each of you should behave.
Set Clear Workday Boundaries
Time at work can be stressful for both you and your significant other. Each person in a relationship can be expected to sometimes be unreachable while at work. Sometimes workday responsibilities can get in the way of personal time or time at home. A critical part of building boundaries with your significant other is understanding that they need to focus on work when at work. During a workday, your significant other may prioritize work-related issues. This may make them not readily available to you, and that is okay.
If you or your significant other gets frustrated by the lack of communication during work hours, talk about boundaries and expectations for communication during the workday. Everyone’s work schedule is different, so workday boundaries will be based on your and your significant other’s circumstances. Have the understanding that the workday will cause personal matters to take a back seat.
Express your needs and expectations for when and how often you can communicate with your significant other. In return, respect the same boundaries that they place on you. Remember that whether there are one or two working partners in the relationship, work time should be dedicated to working. While you may be able to communicate during the workday sometimes, it should not be an expectation for each day.
Schedule Personal Time
Some significant others may have circumstances that make it harder to have alone time. Scheduling time that is for you and time that is for your significant other can help with creating a routine of self-care. Whether it is after work, Saturday mornings, or on game day, have clear expectations for your and your significant other’s personal time.
Commit to not interrupting your significant other during their personal time. Consider that your significant other’s personal time can be an opportunity for you to get some time to yourself as well. Even if it seems like they are not doing much during their personal time, you still must respect their need for space.