Setting Healthy Boundaries in Your Relationships
- Why set boundaries?
- Types of personal and relationship boundaries
- Setting boundaries in a new relationship
- Healthy vs. unhealthy boundaries
- Communicating boundaries
- Common mistakes
Your personal boundaries are the rules you set up for your relationships with others. Clear boundaries are like lines in the sand. Having boundaries is emotionally healthy and can save you from taking on too much responsibility for others … or not taking enough responsibility for yourself.
But sometimes, boundaries get blurred. Relationships that lack clear and healthy boundaries can leave you feeling confused, resentful, and exhausted.
Why set boundaries in your relationships?
Your boundaries are the basic fundamentals of how you expect to be treated. They help define your physical and emotional space and reduce conflict and resentment that can drag down your mental health.
Creating clear boundaries is all about respect – your own self-respect and the respect you expect from others. People may not always like what you do or say, or your opinion on a matter. But with clear boundaries, you will still be validated and heard.
Types of personal and relationship boundaries
Many of us were taught to be kind and giving. But it’s easy to give too much and take on burdens that aren’t your own. Having boundaries doesn’t make you rude or self-centered. It communicates to others, “My opinions and needs have value. Please respect them.”
Your boundaries in any given relationship tell the other person what you need, what you’re not comfortable with, and what you won’t accept. Boundaries are important for all relationships, from family members to love interests to co-workers.
Your physical boundaries reflect the level of comfort you have around physical touch. People have varying levels of comfort with touch, and boundaries differ depending on the level of intimacy you have with a person. For example, you might love receiving hugs from family but feel uneasy about hugs at work or in social settings. You have the right to be comfortable around others, and setting physical boundaries ensures that.
There is nothing more personal than how you interact with someone else sexually. But sexual boundaries have been blurred in today’s social media, corporate culture, and marketing contexts. Setting sexual boundaries in your romantic relationships – including how you convey consent, both physically and verbally – can be critical, especially if you’re actively dating.
Your emotional boundaries reflect how you choose to emotionally engage with others and how much of yourself you’re willing to share with someone else.
You have the right not to be someone else’s emotional dumping ground. You do not have to take on someone else’s physical or emotional work. Sure, you can empathize with someone else’s plight. But setting emotional boundaries protects your own emotional energy so you don’t get drawn into someone else’s drama.
Setting healthy time boundaries prioritizes your personal alone time and specifies how much time you’re willing to spend doing certain things, from paid employment to household chores.
What kind of boundaries might you set in a new relationship?
In any new relationship, two individuals may have very different ideas about what a relationship entails. As you embark on a new relationship, it’s important to set limits based on your own needs, expectations, and comfort levels so the other person understands the rules of engagement.
What boundaries should you set in a new relationship? That depends on what’s important to you, what you need for yourself, and what kinds of experiences you’ve had in the past.
What do you expect from a relationship in terms of commitment? Are you looking for a long-term relationship, or are you just enjoying your options right now? At what point could a relationship become exclusive … or are you not looking for exclusivity at all?
At what point are you comfortable with physical intimacy and sex? How adventurous does that get?
What kind of communication are you looking for? What’s too much or not enough?
How much personal space, privacy, and alone time do you need?
You can’t know how others will react to your boundaries, so it’s a good idea to temper your expectations. While it's important to listen to their needs and their reaction to yours, you can’t be responsible for their feelings. There’s a reason you’re setting these boundaries in the first place.
Healthy vs. unhealthy boundaries
Healthy boundaries put everyone on equal and respectful footing in a relationship. You understand your partner’s boundaries, and they understand yours.
Healthy boundary setting involves asking for your needs to be considered and agreeing to consider the other person’s needs. You can respect another person’s feelings, beliefs, and opinions, but you aren’t expected to compromise your own. When boundaries are healthy, both people in the relationship understand what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Unhealthy boundaries are just the opposite. People with unhealthy boundaries are often needy, overbearing, or overly dependent. Some signs of unhealthy boundaries can include the following:
- The person demonstrates remarkable intensity at the beginning of a relationship; they call and text repeatedly; they want to spend every minute together
- They disrespect your beliefs or opinions
- They are possessive, controlling, or jealous
- They are manipulative
- They attempt to isolate you from friends and family
- They guilt or pressure you into doing things you don’t want to do
- Their reactions are unpredictable or over-the-top
- They avoid taking responsibility for their own actions
- They try to make you feel responsible for their feelings
How to communicate your boundaries to others
Boundary setting is not just for yourself; it’s also for any person with whom you have a relationship. Being fair and honest about expectations is good for everyone. It allows you to avoid misunderstandings and missteps.
Setting boundaries is about good communication and respect, but it can be tricky if you’re not used to doing it. While you want to validate the other person’s position and empathize with them, you also want to be firm about what you want. It can be helpful not to use accusatory “you” statements, instead phrasing your needs with “I” statements: i.e., “I need,” “I feel,” “I believe.” And then, you must be prepared to listen to the other person’s point of view. Respect moves both ways.
You might think you’re setting healthy boundaries, but these can be nuanced. Common mistakes people make when setting boundaries include the following:
- Downplaying, apologizing, and over-explaining: Although you want to be nice, don’t downplay your own boundaries. Downplaying and apologizing weakens your stance and makes what you want seem less important.
- Trying to get the other person to change: Boundaries are about getting your needs met, but you can’t expect the other person to change because of them.
- Being rigid and unchangeable: Boundaries aren’t rules set in stone. You’re allowed to be flexible when it makes sense.
- Ultimatums cloaked as boundaries: Ultimatums are about power over another person and often cause conflict rather than avoiding it.
Relationships are complicated, but setting healthy boundaries is one way to establish what you want and need from others.
Unfortunately, many of us aren’t adept at boundary setting. This can cause disharmony in relationships. It can even lead to marital breakdown.