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Setting healthy boundaries in relationships

Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW

A man and a woman sit on a bench having a gentle but serious conversation

Boundaries are the personal limits and rules we have in our relationships. They exist for everyone, whether they’re healthy or unhealthy, intended or unintended, recognized or unrecognized.

Boundaries can involve:

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

You have boundaries in your relationships with:

What makes a boundary healthy?

In any kind of relationship, healthy boundaries protect each person’s mental, emotional, and physical health. Whether you’re setting a boundary with a parent, friend, partner, neighbor, or coworker, that boundary should respectfully acknowledge your own humanity as well as the other person’s.

Some people believe setting boundaries means punishing or getting back at someone else. That isn’t true. Healthy boundaries should be mutually helpful and prevent unnecessary or avoidable distress for everyone involved.

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

What happens when boundaries get crossed?

When someone oversteps your boundaries, it can have harmful results.

You may not realize you have a boundary in place until someone crosses it—or you might not see the need for a boundary until you’re dealing with someone who asks too much of you or doesn’t 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’re serving you in healthy or unhealthy ways.

Examples of boundaries

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

Other times, boundaries can and should be openly communicated to ensure they’re respected. Workplaces, for example, often set very clear boundaries in the form of policies against inappropriate conversations or harassment.

We can set relationship boundaries around issues such as:

  • Asking permission: This is vital in all kinds of relationships. In a romantic or sexual relationship, permission is often talked about in terms of consent, or an “enthusiastic yes.” A partner should always respect your boundaries around sexual activity and intimacy, and you should respect theirs.
  • Giving an opinion: Many of us have boundaries regarding when and how we receive feedback from others, as well as from whom. For example, you may be interested in finding out what your best friend thinks of your new partner during a private conversation over dinner—but that doesn’t mean you want to hear a coworker’s opinion about your relationship during a meeting.
  • Having autonomy: Being able to pursue your own wishes and well-being is an essential part of adulthood. In parent-child relationships, boundaries often shift as children grow older, with parents letting them make more decisions on their own.
  • Discussing difficult topics: Some families have intensely different opinions on topics like politics or religion. Sometimes it can help to have a boundary around whether, when, and how those topics are discussed.
  • Coming to the rescue: It can feel great to help out a loved one in their time of need, but it’s important not to drain yourself of your own time, money, or energy in order to rescue someone else. People may need to set boundaries to prevent themselves from being relied on too heavily by loved ones who are living more chaotic lives or making less healthy choices.

Benefits of setting boundaries

Boundaries help us maintain healthy relationships. With good boundaries, partnerships can remain balanced while each person protects and preserves their individuality. Defining and maintaining healthy boundaries can help you:

  • Meet your needs: Setting healthy boundaries gives you the time, money, and energy to make sure your own needs are met.
  • Build self-esteem: Setting healthy boundaries helps you value yourself beyond what you can do for others.
  • Become more self-aware: Setting healthy boundaries isn’t just about telling others what they can or can’t do. It can also help you learn more about yourself: For example, what you like or dislike, what increases or drains your energy, or how much time you need alone or with others.
  • Reduce conflict and stress: Getting better at setting healthy boundaries and communicating them effectively can help you reduce unnecessary stress and conflict.

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 this, you can always set new boundaries or change existing ones.

Communicating your boundaries in a clear, constructive way can help make sure others 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 for us every night is too much. I want to scale back to four nights a week.” Your boundary may be needed because of your partner’s behavior, but ultimately it’s about how you feel and what you want.
  • Say no: “No” is a complete sentence. You don’t have to elaborate, explain, or justify why you don’t want to do something. It can be hard to say no when you feel pressured to say yes, but learning to do it can help you develop good habits around your own boundaries.
  • 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’ve successfully communicated your boundary, don’t hesitate to protect it. Remember that communicating and enforcing a boundary isn’t an act of punishment, but a sign of respect for yourself and others.

Boundaries in romantic relationships

Discussing boundaries with your partner can be difficult, especially if you’re worried they’ll get upset. But setting boundaries in romantic relationships is essential for a healthy, fulfilling partnership.

You can set boundaries with your romantic partner around:

  • 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’d like to have children together
  • Defining roles
  • What each person can or can’t do without the other’s consent
  • The extent to which you share expenses and make joint decisions about finances
  • How you make big 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. Commitment between friends can be as deep as—or even deeper than—what we experience in other relationships. That’s why it’s important to set and communicate boundaries with your friends around issues like:

  • Treating each other with respect
  • How much time you spend connecting
  • What experiences you share with them
  • Being able to say no

Sometimes boundaries in friendships change depending on the level of friendship and your stage in life (such as becoming a parent). For example, if your best friend calls you crying at three in the morning, you may be glad they reached out and drive over to their house to comfort them. If someone you’ve only met a few times calls you at three in the morning in crisis, though, you may resent them for crossing what seems like an obvious boundary.

Family boundaries

It can be tough and even scary to establish boundaries with your family. 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 in the long run.

Getting help with boundaries

Many mental health factors can make it challenging to set boundaries, including:

If you’re having trouble defining or establishing healthy boundaries in your relationships, a therapist can help you get started. Browse our directory to find a licensed mental health professional near you.

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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