Setting boundaries in relationships is a skill we all could use some practice on. Even under the best circumstances, knowing how to set healthy boundaries in relationships can make your connection stronger. Though every relationship has (or needs) them, boundaries become increasingly important when we look at romantic relationships.
“If you have struggled with people-pleasing or low self esteem, it can feel difficult initially to begin expressing your wants and needs in relationships, because there is such a fear of how the other person will react. Boundaries can be a way to practice building your self-respect, and sense of self-worth — you deserve to be heard, and deserve to express your wants and needs within your relationship.”
While learning how to set boundaries in a relationship can be difficult, it’s beneficial to do. When you do so, you can maintain your own identity and create the kind of personal space that’ll be rewarding for both partners. Regardless of how uncomfortable it may feel in the beginning, setting boundaries really can be easy. With just a little practice, some skills, and an understanding of how your relationship can grow, boundaries can be the building blocks of a healthy partnership.
Read on to learn what boundaries in relationships look like, understand why they’re so essential, and discover how you can set them on your own or in relationship counseling online.
What Are Some Examples of Healthy Relationship Boundaries?
As noted, we often talk about relationship boundaries through the lens of romantic partnerships. In reality, any relationship that requires communication and respect on both sides needs boundaries.
Platonic and romantic relationships with healthy boundaries will be fundamentally stronger than those without. Healthy relationships require that both partners:
- Respect each other’s feelings
- Ask for feedback when needed
- Make honesty a priority
- Express gratitude to one another
- Give each other personal space
- Avoid codependency
- Respect differences in opinions
- Validate each other’s perspectives and feelings
- Take responsibility for their actions
“Communicating our boundaries and needs in an assertive way — whereby we respect ourselves enough to say our wants and desires, and say it in a way that’s respectful of the other person – is key to cultivating healthy relationships because it can help prevent feelings of resentment and disrespect that often build up over time if we don’t express ourselves and our needs.”
The Importance of Healthy Relationship Boundaries
Strong boundaries are necessary for every relationship. They ensure that each person is respected and gets what he or she needs. They also allow for both parties to maintain an independent sense of self so they don’t become invested solely in one another’s world.
Despite popular belief, that old idea of “completing” one another actually isn’t all that healthy. Relationships that allow each person to maintain their own identity typically end up being healthier, more long-lasting, and substantially more rewarding. Building a relationship on mutual respect, trust, and growth is how to make a relationship last.
Healthy vs Unhealthy Relationship Boundaries
Healthy relationship boundaries are meant to establish a sense of love and respect between partners. Unhealthy boundaries do the exact opposite. Unhealthy boundaries are constructed to manipulate and control one’s partner. These result from a disregard of the partner’s values, beliefs, and limits. When unhealthy boundaries arise within a relationship, it is important to evaluate if you have fallen into a toxic relationship. If so, it may be time to consider getting out of the relationship or seeking counseling.
7 Tips for Setting Healthy Relationship Boundaries
Whether you’re setting boundaries in a new relationship or a long-standing one, these tips will help you navigate this new process.
1. Start setting boundaries early in the relationship.
Boundary setting from the beginning is always going to be easier than trying to course-correct months or years into a relationship. The longer a relationship goes on, the more set in their ways each partner tends to be. So, the earlier you can establish boundaries that work for both of you, the better they’ll work. Another benefit to starting early is your boundaries will become habits, and you won’t have to work as hard at them.
Even if you’ve been in an established relationship for a while, and you’re just now realizing that you need to set boundaries, all hope is not lost. Setting boundaries in relationships means you’re heading in the right direction. Establishing healthy boundaries at any point is better than never doing it at all. It may take slightly more work for both of you to change the way you approach your relationship, but the payoff will be well worth it.
“Expressing our boundaries, and sticking to them, is a practice, so be patient with yourself! You can start to build your boundaries “muscles” by practicing expressing your wants and needs in smaller, or lower stakes situations, to get more confident stating your wants. For example, if you order an iced coffee and you get a hot coffee, can you practice asking for what you want here?”
2. Know where the boundaries need to be created.
The first step to setting healthy boundaries is getting clear on what aspects of your relationship dynamic you and your partner should discuss in the first place. For couples, this can include sexual boundaries, healthy emotional boundaries, intellectual boundaries and boundaries around external relationships. Couples therapy can help in discussing these boundaries.
- Sexual boundaries: It’s beneficial to talk about sexual boundaries and needs regardless of whether you’re in a new or well-established relationship. Boundaries enable you to feel safe, even in very intimate, vulnerable positions. Couples should revisit this discussion after time has passed, as there’s always the potential to want to explore sexually at different points of a relationship. Check in to make sure you’re both still on that same page.”
- Emotional boundaries: For some, healthy emotional boundaries may feel a bit more abstract. Setting emotional boundaries can include creating limits for how you behave during tough or combative moments. For example, you may rule out yelling or name-calling, establishing a mutual expectation that this boundary is not to be crossed. These clear boundaries and expectations should be set in advance based on mutual respect, so when difficult and painful emotions come out, there are ground rules on how to navigate them.
- Intellectual boundaries: It’s important for partners to respect one another’s values, beliefs, and ideas. Boundaries need to be set so that no one person feels like they need to conform to their partner’s views. If there are arguments and disagreements that result from these differences, it might be smart to establish boundaries to make sure your loved one feels validated in their opinion.
- External boundaries: A partnership also needs boundaries around external relationships — friends, co-workers, and other family relationships all might need boundaries in place that can honor your partner’s comfort level. For one partner, innocent flirting with co-workers may be a deal-breaker. Another might have concerns about spending time away from the relationship with friends. How will family time be handled? Once boundaries are set and clear, you both can continue feeling safe and understood.
3. Clarify your personal boundaries to yourself first.
If you’re unsure what your personal boundaries are, it’s going to be hard for others to follow them. To help figure out your own limits, start by tuning into your emotions and thoughts.
Our emotions and thoughts serve as a kind of compass for where boundary lines need to be drawn. Emotional discomfort may indicate an area where a boundary is needed, while pleasurable emotions tell us we’re on the right track.
We also need to tap into what we value, in a non-negotiable manner, in all facets of our individual lives — whether that’s maintaining a hobby on the weekends or spending a certain holiday with beloved family members. To hone in on your specific values you can ask yourself questions like:
- What is important to me?
- What are my needs?
- What are the traditions/hobbies I want to keep?
- Am I always striving for personal satisfaction and happiness?
4. Communicate your boundaries.
Once you’ve had the time to reflect on your boundaries, the next step is open communication. Studies consistently show that open communication is key in any relationship. Neither of you are mind readers. You shouldn’t have to guess each other’s boundaries, though many of us fall prey to this behavior. Therefore, it’s important to learn how to communicate effectively. State your needs clearly — both in advance, and when your partner crosses a boundary in the moment. Of course, this is easier said than done.
Figuring out how to say ‘no’ and speaking your truth when you’re upset can feel scary when we first start doing it. However, when you face your fears in an open way to your partner, you’ll often find that internal healing occurs.
Try to have your “boundary conversations” when things are going well — that is, before there’s a problem. Sure, there will be times when you have to remind your partner about the boundaries you’ve agreed to occasionally as issues inevitably arise. In the heat of the moment, try to be cognizant of communicating boundary violations without blaming your partner. (We’ll cover this more in tip 6 — using “I feel” statements).
Also, make sure to set a clear boundary as opposed to a vague one, whether that’s an emotional boundary or a physical boundary. That way, your partner knows your limits. Being specific will set them up for success. For example, let’s say you have anxiety, and there are certain things that trigger it. Make sure to let your partner know exactly what those triggers are so they are.
5. Take responsibility for your needs.
Just like using non-blaming statements is important when enforcing your boundaries, it’s also key that you both take responsibility for what’s yours in the relationship. Part of the reason boundaries are so essential is that they can allow us to take care of our own “stuff” rather than wait for someone else to solve all our problems.
This means owning the choices you made — even when they’re unintentional — that might have contributed to a painful situation. Don’t make your partner guess how you’re feeling or why you might be feeling violated. You both have your own thoughts and feelings, so you’re both responsible for putting those into words so you can be understood.
If a boundary has been violated, say so at the first appropriate opportunity in a way that communicates your feelings — remember, in a non-blaming way — and addresses what you hope will be different in the future.
6. Use “I” statements
Try to frame all communication with “I feel” statements rather than “you never” or “you always” claims. Doing this helps keep conversations productive and in a positive tone while reducing the likelihood of either of you becoming defensive.
“When I work with clients on identifying and communicating their boundaries in relationships, I’ve found that using more ‘I feel’ statements, instead of ‘you’ statements, can be quite impactful in communicating our wants and needs. For example, saying something like: “I feel ____ (emotion) when you ___ (action that crosses your boundary), so going forward, it would feel best to _____ (propose a solution).”
Using “I feel” statements expresses your emotions. Using “you” statements puts blame on your partner for how you feel.
Give specific examples about your needs when you’re expressing them, and be careful not to exaggerate. Don’t reject or criticize your partner when they’re expressing their needs.
7. Ask for space when you need it…and then take it!
As much as you love your partner, it’s natural to have personal limits as to how much time you spend together. Taking time for yourself is one of the best things you can do for your relationship. It may sound counterintuitive, but the reality is when you practice self-care and give yourself things that only you need, you’ll become a better partner. Asking for me time, and then taking it for what you need, might just be the best thing you’ll ever do for your relationship.
If you have a partner who’s sensitive to your need for a bit of independence, it’s important to kindly, but firmly, respect their feelings. Reassure them that your need for some space isn’t a form of rejection.
Healthy relationship boundaries can make or break a romantic relationship. Set yourself up for success by taking the time to investigate what your values are, clearly communicate your boundaries, and hold both you and your partner accountable for maintaining the boundaries that will keep you both happy, healthy, and together for a long time. Learning how to set healthy boundaries in a relationship can be hard work, but it will be worth every ounce of effort you put into it. With the right boundaries, you and your partner can reach relationship goals you might have set for yourself.
If you need further help and guidance in establishing boundaries, it may be a good idea to seek help in the form of couples counseling. Talkspace offers online therapy for couples, famililles, and individuals alike.
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- Lavner J, Karney B, Bradbury T. Does Couples’ Communication Predict Marital Satisfaction, or Does Marital Satisfaction Predict Communication?. Journal of Marriage and Family. 2016;78(3):680-694. doi:10.1111/jomf.12301. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4852543/. Accessed October 25, 2021.