Have you ever felt like you needed some space? Have you ever felt crowded in a relationship, or like you don’t know who you are anymore? Have you ever felt walked over, or given up important parts or your life because they didn’t fit into someone else’s plan? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you probably will benefit from understanding and setting healthy boundaries. (You may also want to learn How To Recognize The Signs of Codependency)
Although it can sound counterintuitive, setting healthy boundaries is a powerful way to strengthen your relationship as well as improve your own sense of self. Boundaries in a relationship can:
- Help prevent hidden tensions from building
- Clarify needs that may not be being met
- Bring partners into a deeper, more trusting intimacy by increasing understanding of one another
Boundaries aren’t just for romantic relationships either—understanding your boundaries will make relationships with friends and family easier as well.
In this blog we will explore what healthy boundaries are, how it feels to have your boundaries tested or crossed, how it feels to have strong boundaries, and how to set them in a constructive way with your partner no so that no one’s feelings get hurt in the process.
What Are Healthy Boundaries?
You can think of boundaries in your life as the edges of your mental territory. Boundaries are an important part of self-care. Your boundaries protect the parts of you that make you unique—your personality, your values, your habits and hobbies, your interests and viewpoints. Boundaries are an interplay of trust, self-esteem and vulnerability, and they’re how we maintain our personal integrity. It may help to think of boundaries as “protecting your energy”.
Let’s imagine for a moment that your best friend asks you to borrow $1. Would you say yes or no? How about $20? How about $100? $1000? At some point you probably reach the point of saying no. That’s basically a boundary. You can replace borrow $1 from this example with venting about their ex for 15 minutes, and replace borrow $1000 with dragging you into a dramatic confrontation with their ex. Most people would be OK with the first, but the second crosses a boundary.
Boundaries don’t have to be centered around harmful emotional requests. They can also help you manage demands on your time. Maybe your friends are going out for drinks and want you to come but you have a lot of work to get done so you stay home. Boundaries can dictate what is appropriate in a relationship, say between coworkers. You may, for example, just not feel comfortable sharing your personal life with those you work with, and that’s OK. You decide where the boundaries are in your life.
How much of your resources—whether time, money, emotional energy, physical space or something else—feels safe to share with someone? When boundaries are healthy they help maintain good mental health and individuation, avoid burnout, and direct our energies in safe or productive directions.
How Can I Tell If My Partner Doesn’t Respect My Boundaries?
Let’s look at another example of boundaries in action. Imagine your romantic partner calls you on Friday evening, asking if you want to go see a movie. However you already made plans with your best friend, so you tell them no, you’re busy tonight. They don’t take no for an answer, and insist you cancel your plans. They might say something like “you could do that anytime.” Or maybe they create a false comparison—”who do you like more, your friend or me?”
This is likely a person that does not respect your boundaries, and that can be a big red flag in any relationship. Oftentimes behavior like this starts small, and ends up with one partner trying to control the other completely. Small decisions are questioned and second-guessed until you feel like you can’t tell what’s right anymore, and you feel reliant on your partner to have all the answers. You may give up things that you loved to do just because your partner doesn’t care for them. Your boundaries are weak and your sense of self begins to disappear.
However, just because you see some of this behavior does not mean your partner is a bad person, or your relationship is unhealthy (yet). You may just need a clarifying conversation around what is OK and what is not OK in your relationship. Couples Counseling may help you safely discuss boundaries and how important they are. It can give you powerful tools to communicate your needs and work through compromises when necessary.
How Can I Set Healthy Boundaries Without Hurting Someone’s Feelings?
In many instances where an individual has difficulty setting boundaries it is because they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or make someone feel uncared for. Unfortunately this often has the opposite effect of what is intended—the lack of strong boundaries causes bigger problems in the relationship, and an honest conversation could have avoided this.
The first step to setting healthy boundaries is examining where healthy boundaries already exist, and where they are lacking. What do you want for yourself in a relationship and how can a boundary help?
Keep the focus on yourself when communicating around these boundaries, and keep communication simple and direct. You might set up a boundary by saying, “I have a hard time focusing on my work when I’m being talked to. Can this wait?”, instead of “Please stop bothering me. You’re making it hard to concentrate.”
Don’t be afraid to say no. Remember you don’t have to explain yourself, or justify your boundaries. Also remember that boundaries must naturally come with consequences if they are disregarded. Many times these consequences may just be an implied loss of respect for an individual, but sometimes consequences need to be spelled out and enforced.
Learning how to set healthy boundaries can do wonders for your self-esteem, productivity, and satisfaction with your relationships. If you find yourself struggling with creating and maintaining boundaries, consider reaching out to our team of trained therapists.