“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupery
This quote encapsulates what most healthy relationships really look like — two individuals who support each other on their distinct journeys, rather than two people who become lost in one another. Much of this comes down to having and maintaining clear boundaries, even within a romantic relationship.
It may seem obvious, but what are boundaries, really?
The Importance of Boundaries
“Personal boundaries are the limits we set for ourselves as individuals in relationships,” psychotherapist Deborah Hecker writes. “They protect our sense of personal identity and help guard against being overwhelmed by the demands of others.”
Boundaries are crucial because they prevent partners from becoming enmeshed. Contrary to the long-held notion that being in an intimate relationship is about two people “completing” each other, relationships are healthier and more sustainable when each person maintains their own identity while the partnership is built on mutual respect, trust, and growth.
“I see that most relationships are successful when each person is still very much an independent entity,” confirms Margery Boucher, a Texas-based psychologist. “Couples can come alongside each other and support each other in who they are.”
Beyond maintaining a sense of self, boundaries also help signal to others how we want to be treated, and prevent us from feeling used, spread too thin, or in desperate need of defending ourselves. “Boundaries not only prevent us from getting resentful and eventually throwing up a barrier,” writes Christine Hassler on ThoughtCatalog.com, “they also save us from being a doormat.”
Finally, when boundaries are repeatedly crossed or disrespected, we are able to be more realistic about whether the situation we are in is healthy or not.
Knowing the importance of boundaries in a romantic context, here are four tips for setting and maintaining healthier boundaries with a partner:
1. 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 will likely include sexual boundaries, emotional boundaries, and boundaries around external relationships. A couple’s counselor can help in discussing these boundaries.
It’s beneficial to discuss our sexual boundaries and needs regardless of whether it’s a new or well-established relationship. These boundaries enable us to feel feels safe in a very intimate, vulnerable position. Boucher explains that couples will want to revisit the discussion even after tie has passed, as they may “want to explore different things sexually” at different points in the relationship or check in to “make sure that each person is still on that same page.”
Emotional boundaries may feel a bit more abstract. Setting these may include creating limits for how a couple behaves 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 expectations should be set in advance so that when difficult and painful emotions come out, there are ground rules on how to proceed.
A partnership also needs boundaries around external relationships, such as with friends, at work, or with family. 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? Boucher advises these boundaries need to be “made clear so the people in the relationship continue to feel safe and understood.”
2. 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 to where boundary lines need to be drawn, therapist Julie de Azevedo Hanks tells Psych Central. She adds that emotional discomfort may indicate an area where a boundary is needed, while pleasurable emotions let us know we are on the right track.
We also need to tap into what we value, non-negotiably, 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, Hecker recommends asking yourself questions such as, “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?”
3. Communicate your boundaries.
Once you’ve had the time to reflect on your boundaries, the next step is communication. Your partner probably isn’t a mind reader and shouldn’t have to guess your boundaries, though many of us fall prey to this behavior. State them clearly both in advance and when your partner crosses a boundary in the moment. Of course, this is easier said than done.
“Saying ‘no’ or speaking our truth when someone upsets us might feel scary at first,” coach and mentor Jennifer Kass shares on Greatist.com. “When we face our fears and express our thoughts and feelings openly to the person who upsets us or pushes our boundaries, internal healing occurs…when we show up for ourselves, we provide an opportunity for those around us to show up as well.”
If possible, it’s best to have “boundary conversations” when things are going well — that is, before there is a problem. Sure, there will be times when we have to remind our partner about our boundaries as issues inevitably arise. In the heat of the moment, communicate boundary violations without blaming your partner.
For example, counselor Gary Gilles recommends,“It’s much better to say, ‘I feel hurt and misunderstood in this conversation’ than to say, ‘You made me feel hurt because of the way you talked to me.’ The former is simply expressing an emotion; the latter is blaming your partner for the hurt feelings.”
4. Take responsibility for your needs.
Similar to holding a non-blaming stance when enforcing your boundaries, it’s important to take responsibility for what’s yours in the relationship. Part of the reason we have boundaries is so we take care of our own “stuff” and don’t wait for another person to solve all our problems.
This means owning the choices you made, even when they are unintentional, that may have contributed to a painful situation. In addition, don’t make your partner guess how you’re feeling or why you might be feeling violated. “Each of you has your own thoughts and feelings, and each person is responsible for putting them into words in order to be understood,” advises Gilles.
If a boundary has been violated, say so at the first appropriate opportunity in a way that communicates your feelings in a non-blaming way and addresses what you hope will be different in subsequent situations.
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 are going to keep you both happy, healthy, and together for a long time.