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Setting healthy boundaries in relationships

Reviewed by Cathy Leeson

A relationship concept with a barrier between a couple.

What Are Boundaries?

Boundaries are personal limits and rules you have in your relationships. They exist for everyone, whether they are healthy or unhealthy, intended or unintended, recognized or unrecognized.

Boundaries can involve:

  • Your physical space and body
  • Your thoughts and feelings
  • Your money and material possessions
  • Your time
  • Your energy
  • Your sexuality

Types of relationships you have boundaries for include:

What Makes a Boundary Healthy?

Healthy boundaries protect both the mental, emotional, and physical health of both you and the other person involved. Whether you’ve set a boundary between yourself and a parent, friend, partner, or coworker, it should respectfully acknowledge your own humanity as well as the humanity of the other person. 

Some people think that boundaries are a way to punish or get back at someone else. This is not true. Healthy boundaries should be mutually helpful and prevent unnecessary or avoidable distress to either person. 

This doesn’t mean that all healthy boundaries are mutually agreed upon. In fact, people with unhealthy or harmful patterns of behavior may resent it when a healthy boundary is set by someone they are used to manipulating. However, even if a boundary is difficult or disliked, it can still be healthy if it helps both people treat one another with respect and kindness.

What Happens When Boundaries Are Crossed?

Once an individual oversteps your boundaries, their actions or behavior may result in ineffective or harmful consequences. Often, these consequences are unintended or not under your control. 

You might not realize that you had a boundary in place until someone crosses it. On the other hand, you might not see the need for a boundary until you are dealing with someone who asks too much of you or does not respect you.

Increasing your self-awareness can help you recognize where your boundaries are in the first place. Then, you can work on deciding if they are serving you in healthy or unhealthy ways.

Examples of Boundaries in a Relationship

In some situations, boundaries are simply understood without being communicated openly. For example, if you are in a committed romantic relationship, you probably didn’t have to sit down with each of your friends to let them know that they should not try to start a romantic relationship with you. Instead, you probably communicated this new boundary in less direct ways, such as by introducing them to your partner or posting photos of you and your partner on social media. 

Other times, boundaries can and should be openly communicated to ensure that they are respected. Workplaces, for example, often make boundaries very explicit through their Human Resources policies to prevent inappropriate conversations and harassment. 

Common examples of boundaries in relationships of all sorts include:

  • Asking permission: In romantic or sexual contexts, asking permission is known as asking for consent. Any romantic or sexual partner should respect any and all boundaries you may have regarding sexual activity and intimacy.
  • Giving an opinion: Many people have boundaries regarding when and how they receive feedback from others, as well as from whom. For example, you may be interested to know what your best friend thinks of your new partner during a private conversation over dinner. That doesn’t mean you want to hear your coworker’s opinion about your relationship during a departmental meeting.
  • Having autonomy: Being able to act on behalf of your own wishes and well-being is an essential part of adulthood. Boundaries often change in parent-child relationships as the child reaches adolescence and young adulthood. As children mature, their parents may decide to let them make more decisions on their own.
  • Discussing difficult topics: Some families may have differences of opinion regarding intense topics, such as politics or religion. In some cases, it may be helpful to have a boundary regarding if, when, and how such topics are discussed.
  • Coming to the rescue: It can feel great to help out a loved one in their time of need. However, it’s important not to completely drain yourself of your own resources, such as your time, money, or energy, in order to rescue someone else. A person may need to set a boundary to prevent themselves from being relied on too heavily by someone who prefers to live a more chaotic life or who routinely makes less healthy choices.

Benefits of Setting Healthy Boundaries in Your Relationships

Boundaries help us maintain healthy, mutual friendships. They protect and preserve relationships. With boundaries, partnerships can remain balanced while both people keep their individuality. Defining and maintaining healthy boundaries can be positive for yourself and your relationships in a variety of ways, including:

  • Meeting your needs: Setting boundaries means that you have the time, money, and energy to meet your own needs.
  • Building self-esteem: Setting a boundary means that you value yourself beyond what you can do for others. This belief in your own inner value can help build self-esteem.
  • Becoming more self-aware: Setting boundaries isn’t just about telling others what they can or can’t do. It can also help you learn more about yourself: what you like or dislike, what gives or drains your energy, how much time you need alone or with others, etc.
  • Reducing conflict: The better you know yourself, the better you’ll get at setting boundaries and communicating them effectively to others, cutting down on unnecessary conflict.
  • Lowering stress: With less conflict, your relationships will become less stressful.

How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Your Relationships

The earlier you set boundaries in your relationships, the easier they are to maintain. If you’re struggling with boundaries in a relationship, you can always set new ones or change existing ones. The way you communicate your boundaries to your partner can help make sure that they will respect them. Try these strategies to discuss boundaries with your loved ones:

  • Use I-statements: Communicate your boundaries in terms of yourself. Rather than saying, “You never appreciate me,” try starting with “I”: “I feel like making dinner every night is an unrealistic expectation. I want to scale back to only four nights a week.” Your boundary may be needed because of your partner’s behavior, but it is ultimately about how you feel and what you want. 
  • Say no: “No” is a complete sentence. You do not need to elaborate, explain, or justify why you do not want to do something. It can be difficult to say no when you feel pressured into certain actions or behaviors. Learning how to say no can help you  keep not just this boundary, but other boundaries as well.
  • Be direct: Once you’ve established a boundary, communicate it clearly and directly with your loved ones. They can’t respect your boundaries if they don’t know what they are. After you have successfully communicated your boundary, don’t hesitate to protect and enforce it. Remember, communicating and enforcing a boundary is not a way to punish or get back at someone; it is a sign of respect for yourself and others.

Boundaries in Marriage & Romantic Relationships

Boundaries in marriage and romantic relationships are essential for a healthy and happy partnership. It establishes what each person can or cannot do without the other’s consent. It can also help define roles.

Discussing boundaries with your partner can be difficult, especially if you’re afraid they will get upset. However, it can lead to a healthier and more fulfilling relationship. Some boundaries you might set with your romantic partner include:

  • When and how you engage in sexual activity
  • Whether or not your relationship is open or closed to others
  • How you express yourselves during arguments
  • Whether or not you would like to have children together
  • The extent to which you share expenses and make joint decisions about finances
  • How you make big life decisions, such as taking a new job or moving to a new city

Friendship Boundaries

It’s a misconception that friendships are less meaningful than romantic or family relationships. In fact, the commitment people feel toward friends can be just as deep or even deeper than what is experienced in other kinds of relationships. That is why it’s important to set and communicate boundaries with your friends, such as:

  • Promising to keep one another’s secrets
  • Offering support in difficult times
  • Treating one another with respect

Sometimes, boundaries in friendships change depending on the level or stage of friendship. For example, if your best friend calls you crying at three o’clock in the morning, you may appreciate their call and drive over to their house to comfort them, knowing it’s a once-in-a-lifetime emergency. However, if someone you’ve only met a couple of times calls you at three in the morning in crisis, you may resent them for crossing what seems like an obvious boundary.

Family Boundaries

Establishing boundaries with your family may be the most intimidating of all. It’s especially difficult to do with your parents and other family members who helped raise you. Your natural tendency might be to please these important people in your life, but that doesn’t always honor your needs and what you’re comfortable with. 

It’s perfectly healthy and appropriate to set boundaries with family members at any age. You may need more privacy, personal space, or control over your life and choices. Expressing these needs and creating boundaries to meet them can improve your relationships with your family in the long run. 

Getting Help with Setting Boundaries

If you have trouble with defining or establishing boundaries, a therapist may be able to help. There may be mental health factors that make it difficult to set boundaries, such as:

  • Loving someone with an addiction
  • Recovering from conditions that encourage people-pleasing, such as codependency, abuse, or religious trauma
  • Having a relationship with someone living with a personality disorder, such as narcissism or borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • Caring for a loved one with a severe mood disorder, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia
  • Living with someone struggling with an anxiety disorder, such as an eating disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Browse our directory to find a therapist near you who can help you set healthy boundaries.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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