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healthy boundaries in relationships

How to Establish Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

Setting and communicating healthy boundaries in relationships can help couples maintain their sense of self, as well as their sense of personal space. This combined effort is likely to result in a stress-free and healthy dynamic.

Above all, boundaries are one of the purest forms of self-love and self-respect.

If you’re new to the concept of boundaries, they may be initially hard to set and maintain. That’s why you should be familiar with what they stand for, and exactly how they can keep a relationship thriving.

What Are Healthy Boundaries?

A boundary is, essentially, a limit. And this limit is all about you.

What will you accept in a relationship? What won’t you accept? Anything you deem unacceptable is beyond your limits, and people shouldn’t tread on that territory.

Once you understand your boundaries, you can politely communicate them to your partner whenever necessary.

healthy boundaries in relationships
Understanding your boundaries makes communicating about them easier.

Doctor of Psychology, LMFT, and Certified Gottman Therapist Dr. Dana McNeil shares a great example of boundary setting. It involves wanting to stay home when your partner wants to go out.

You could either make an effort to please your partner, or you could abide by your boundary and decline their request.

“For example, if you feel your health would suffer going out, then you’d stick to your boundary,” suggests Dr. McNeil.

Additional examples of healthy boundaries include:

  • Respecting your partner’s personal space
  • Finding a balance for the amount of time you spend alone and together
  • Avoiding unsolicited criticism
  • Getting to know their boundaries and respecting them, too!

A huge part of setting boundaries is acknowledging why they’re important for you and your partner. Here are just a few benefits boundaries can bring into your relationship.

What Are the Benefits of Establishing Boundaries in Relationships?

Boundaries are anchored in trust and honest communication. When you trust your partner enough to share your breaking points, that means you can confide in them. Similarly, they can confide in you.

For this reason, each of you setting and respecting boundaries is a fundamental part of a healthy relationship. Knowing what both of you expect from each other in different situations can bring you even closer together.

Note that boundaries may vary from monogamous relationships to polyamorous relationships. In fact, polyamorous relationships specifically need solid boundaries. Boundaries. Not rules.

According to Polyamory Today, “if someone feels their partner is really flirtatious, and that causes them to feel threatened, that boundary needs renegotiating.” If both parties are committed to an open relationship, their boundaries can easily be adjusted and respected.

How Can You Set Healthy Boundaries in Your Relationship or Marriage?

If you’re new to personal boundaries, it’s not always easy to get started. Fortunately, as with any skill, you get better the more you practice.

Setting healthy boundaries starts with learning:

1) How to identify when your boundaries have been crossed

2) What to do about it

1. Know What Overstepping Boundaries Looks Like

If you’re used to accommodating your partner’s needs, you may not realize when they’ve stepped over your boundaries.

A typical indicator of boundary-crossing is feeling uncomfortable, frustrated, or even intimidated when your partner does/says something. It can range anywhere from saying hurtful things to forcing you to do something you don’t want to do.

The spectrum is broad, and the corresponding actions are many.

There are also many reasons why people overstep boundaries. Selfishness, for instance. A lack of empathy. Or – and this is an important one – they’re oblivious to their behavior because you haven’t communicated your boundaries clearly enough.

We’ll get to how you can communicate clear boundaries in a minute. But first, what does overstepping boundaries look like on a normal day?

  • Your boyfriend/girlfriend asks you to provide access to your social media. And, if you don’t accept it, they might find a way to guilt-trip you into doing it.
  • Your husband won’t let you go out with your friends. He tells you he’s just “being protective.”
  • Your wife keeps criticizing your appearance, even though you’ve already told her it makes you feel insecure

2. Identify Boundaries You Don’t Want Crossed

This can be a simple list where you’ll write down all of your non-negotiable boundaries.

What will you accept that your partner does or tells you? Which words or actions will be considered too far off your limits?

Here are a few examples:

  • I won’t allow my partner to raise their voice at me
  • I will allow my partner to check my phone, as long as they ask me first
  • I won’t allow my partner to criticize my appearance
  • I won’t have sex with my partner when I’m not in the mood
healthy boundaries in relationships
Write down all boundaries you don’t want crossed, but make sure they are realistic

It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly which boundaries you don’t want crossed, and that’s normal. You don’t have to write it all down in one sitting.

If you’re having trouble defining those boundaries, ask yourself:

Would accepting this behavior go against my personal values? 

Or, to put it more simply:

Is it like me to accept this behavior?

As you can see, setting boundaries is also a brilliant exercise in self-awareness. If you feel like you deserve any kind of toxic or manipulative behavior, the toxic person in your life is doing a great job at making you feel worthless. Which you aren’t. Strong boundaries will help you convey that.

As for polyamorous relationships, Polyamory Today recommends starting with your gut feelings.

“What are the things that feel good to you about an open relationship, and what things make you feel gun-shy or afraid? Is there a specific topic that makes you feel so weird, you want to run in the other direction when you think about discussing it?”

Write those down. You’ll need them when it’s time to communicate your boundaries.

3. Learn to Communicate Your Boundaries Clearly

Communicating boundaries is simply being assertive and clear about what you’re comfortable/uncomfortable with.

We can’t stress how important it is to be crystal clear in your communication. Clarity is the only way to ensure that there’s no room for misunderstandings.

What’s more, you should prioritize assertiveness over aggressiveness and passive-aggressiveness. Being assertive not only shows openness in communication, but it also shows high consideration for whoever you’re speaking to.

Let’s use the example from the beginning of this article.

Imagine that your partner says “we’re going out tonight,” but you feel tired. You’ve told them you want to stay home, but they insist that you go out with them. You could respond in four ways:

Passive: Okay, whatever you say.

Passive-aggressive: If that’s what you want, then fine.

Aggressive: Why do we always have to do what you want?

Assertive: I understand that you’re excited to go, but I’m tired. I’ll stay home tonight.

In two sentences, you’ve shown empathy, explained why that situation crosses your boundaries, and reinforced what you’ll do instead. That’s all. You don’t need to over-explain yourself or apologize.

Another tip is to focus on the way their behavior makes you feel, rather than pointing fingers at them. For example:

“Please don’t make such jokes. I find them offensive.”

“Please, ask me if you can use my phone before you do it. I feel uncomfortable when you just grab it without my permission.”

4. Avoid “Letting This One Slide By”

For the people-pleasers in the room, standing up for yourself can be challenging. So much so that you might continuously dismiss crossed boundaries for the sake of politeness.

Every time you do that, you’re stepping over your own needs. You’re disrespecting your own boundaries. And therefore, you shouldn’t expect your partner to respect them or take them seriously.

So, if you really want your partner to respect you, start by respecting yourself, first. Remember: boundaries are all about you. Not them.

5. Don’t Feel Sorry About It

“I’m sorry, I can’t clean the house today because I’m tired.”

“I can’t go to the party this weekend, I’m sorry.”

For a lot of people, apologizing means showing empathy to their partner. While that might be true, saying “I’m sorry” can also mean you feel bad of doing something for yourself.

Showing you’re sorry might also need you to go beyond your boundaries.

For example, you might catch yourself trying to justify or make up for a boundary, like “I’m drowning in work this weekend, but I’ll find a way to make our date work.”

You might say that even though your situation simply can’t make it work. This can only lead to you having to come up with another excuse.

Apologizing means you regret what you’re about to say or have said. When you’re choosing your boundaries, most of the time, you don’t– and you shouldn’t. So it’s best to just be honest about it with your partner. Make him or her feel that having that kind of boundary is good for you.

do not apologize for it healthy boundaries in relationships
It’s best to be honest about your boundaries with your partner

6. Know That It’s Okay to Feel Guilty

Setting a boundary feels good the moment you do it. But a few moments later, you might feel guilty. Sometimes, you might even feel selfish.

With that in mind, here’s your new mantra:

It’s not selfish to put my own needs above my partner’s needs.

Setting boundaries doesn’t make you love your partner any less; on the contrary, you care about them enough to communicate without any omissions.

The guilt you feel likely stems from an ex-partner or a family member having said you’re “too sensitive” or “can’t take a joke,” when all you wanted was for your limits to be respected.

What’s more, someone who loves you won’t make you feel guilty for setting boundaries. They might have an initial reaction to it, but they’ll understand and respect you nonetheless.

Feeling guilty doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong, by the way. Constantly remind yourself that you’re doing this for your own mental health, and there’s no shame in that.

What Are the Boundaries That Won’t Work in a Relationship?

Boundaries Disguised as Controlling Behavior

Setting healthy boundaries doesn’t mean you should limit everything in your relationship. Boundaries and control are not the same thing.

Control is meant to change a partner, restrict their actions, or force them to do what they aren’t comfortable with. Controlling behavior is a sign of manipulation and thus a raging red flag.

When a partner disguises boundaries as controlling behavior, they might…

  • Isolate you from friends and family
  • Try to control how you act around them or other people
  • Constantly criticize you for small things
  • Invade your personal space
  • Try to control the way you dress

Anyone who tries to impose the above on you as their “boundaries” doesn’t respect you as a person. Not to mention, they’re probably gaslighting you into thinking their behavior is acceptable.

Creating Unhealthy, Unrealistic Expectations

While boundaries do involve expectations, those should be tangible and reasonable. Someone who isn’t used to healthy boundaries could blur that line with unrealistic expectations by:

  • Expecting their partner to be with them 24/7
  • Wanting their partner to “guess” why they’re silent or mad
  • Needing to be their partner’s top priority at all times

Again, those are the types of expectations that limit another person’s freedom. They’re another way of saying “I expect you to do what I want, otherwise I won’t feel loved.” See how that has nothing to do with you?

Boundaries You’re Unable to Respect Yourself

Lastly, even healthy boundaries can become unhealthy if you don’t stick to them. Only by standing your ground will you ensure your limits are safe.

So don’t dilute perfectly strong boundaries with apologies or concessions. Be inflexible, and your partner will realize that their only choice is to respect you.

What If My Partner Constantly Crosses My Boundaries?

Some people will make a habit of overstepping boundaries. The bad news is, you won’t be able to fix them no matter how much you reinforce your limits. So don’t waste your time.

The good news is: this is no longer your problem. You’ve done your part: you were consistent in clearly communicating your personal boundaries. Way to go!

Now, it’s on your partner to either change their behavior or risk the relationship.

If they love you, they’ll stick to your boundaries as strongly as you do. If they don’t…they won’t.


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