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love & friendship

Setting Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

Whether you’re dealing with romantic partners, family, friends, or coworkers, maintaining healthy boundaries can help you strengthen relationships, avoid unhealthy connections, and improve your self-esteem and overall well-being.

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What are healthy boundaries?

You might hear the word “boundaries” and imagine walls that separate you from other people. In a sense, that’s true. But boundaries aren’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, they’re an important ingredient in healthy, balanced relationships. They're also a crucial part of maintaining your identity, mental health, and physical well-being. 

Boundaries can include restrictions on physical actions, such as asking a roommate or partner not to look through your phone or not to interrupt when you’re working from home. They can also be psychological, such as asking your spouse to accept that your goals and dreams may not always be the same as theirs.

Healthy boundaries serve to:

  • Encourage autonomy and reduce codependent habits.
  • Set expectations when interacting with others.
  • Give you a sense of empowerment and self-respect.
  • Ensure your physical and emotional comfort.
  • Clarify individual responsibilities in a relationship.
  • Separate your wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings from those of others.

Without healthy boundaries, your relationships can become toxic and unsatisfying and your well-being can suffer. You might feel taken advantage of if a friend keeps asking for money, for example, or feel overwhelmed by stress if you feel the need to solve all of your partner’s emotional problems. Or if a parent continually invades your privacy, you’ll likely feel resentful. Similarly, if you continually ignore another person’s boundaries, you risk making them feel uncomfortable and damaging the relationship.

Boundaries aren’t just necessary in your personal relationships, though. They’re also needed in the workplace, where coworkers or managers might monopolize your time or disregard your needs. Unhealthy boundaries at work can also follow you home and reduce the quality of your personal life.

One study showed that when boundaries are blurred between personal life and work, people experience more emotional exhaustion and less happiness. On the other hand, setting boundaries, particularly when it comes to job duties, can lead to a greater sense of empowerment.

Learning how to set and maintain boundaries can change many aspects of your life, ranging from work to family relations to dating. It all starts with understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy boundaries.

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Types of healthy boundaries

Personal boundaries can come in many forms. However, not every relationship requires you to address every type of boundary. For example, you might need to set physical restrictions with a coworker but not financial ones.

Physical boundaries help keep you comfortable and safe, not just when you’re dealing with strangers, but also when you’re interacting with those closest to you. For example, you might tell someone that you’d prefer handshakes instead of hugs. Or you could tell a friend that you need to take a rest during a lengthy bike ride. If a physical space belongs to you, you can set limitations around that as well. Perhaps you don't want someone to intrude in your bedroom or clutter your office with their items.

Sexual boundaries could involve anything from asking for consent before being physically intimate to checking in with your partner’s comfort level during sex. Even if you’ve been with your partner for years, you should make an ongoing habit of communicating your preferences. You might want to reassess limitations and expectations surrounding things like frequency of sex and contraception use.

Emotional boundaries ensure that others are respectful of your emotional well- being and internal comfort level. When setting an emotional boundary, you might say something like, “I don't want to talk about this subject while I'm at work because I need to focus.” You might also use these barriers to prevent yourself from feeling overwhelmed by other people’s feelings. For example, you can acknowledge you’re not responsible for how another person reacts to your decision to turn them down for a second date.

Material/financial boundaries extend to your belongings, such as money, clothing, car, or home. If you’re a charitable person, you might have a hard time saying “no” to people who want to borrow items. However, people may intentionally or unintentionally take advantage of your goodwill, and then you may notice your own resentment building. When setting a material restriction, you might say something like, “You can borrow my phone charger, but please put it back when you’re done” or “No, I can’t loan you money for new shoes.”

[Read: Coping with Financial Stress]

Time boundaries allow you to focus on your priorities at work and in your personal life without feeling crowded by other people’s needs and wants. Imagine that you’ve had a stressful work week and want to spend the weekend recuperating. You might decline a party invite or set a limit on how long you’ll be there. Other time-related restrictions could include asking a friend to avoid calling you during work hours or asking a partner to delay an important conversation until a more convenient time.

Shifting boundaries

Boundaries aren’t etched in stone. You’ll need to adjust them as circumstances change and relationships grow. This can be especially true in long-term relationships. Communication is important as you reevaluate and revise your boundaries. You want the other person to be clear on the change and the reason behind it.

Examples of shifting boundaries
Initial boundaryNew boundary
You initially have loose financial boundaries with family members and help them pay bills when necessary.You lost your job, so you decide to set tighter boundaries to protect your financial well-being.
You often agree to work extra weekend hours to help a coworker.You cut back on hours so you can spend more time with your newborn.
You allow a friend to vent their emotions to you daily.The oversharing of information affects your mental health, so you set a limit
on how often you talk about the subject.
You and your partner have sex multiple times a week.Your sex drive changes, and you ask your partner if the two of you can focus on different forms of intimacy.
You allow your brother-in-law to temporarily use your garage for storage.You need the space for your own needs, so you talk to him about relocating his items.

Unhealthy boundaries

Unhealthy boundaries often tend to be either too rigid or too porous. Healthy ones fall somewhere between these two extremes.

  • Rigid boundaries keep other people at a distance, even loved ones. Maybe you refuse to talk about your emotions with your partner or rarely set aside time to meet with friends.
  • Porous or weak boundaries develop when you have a hard time saying “no” to others. For example, you might be too willing to take on all the responsibilities in a relationship. Or maybe you tend to overshare when talking with strangers.

There are many reasons why people may consistently struggle with unhealthy boundaries, such as:

Desire for control. Some people use boundaries to manipulate others. For example, a person might use rigid boundaries to stonewall conversations, refusing to engage with you until you do what they want.

Fear of rejection. If you’re afraid of a romantic partner walking out of your life because of your flaws, you might hesitate to be emotionally open with them.

Lack of experience with setting limitations. If you grew up surrounded by people who set poor personal boundaries, managing proper ones can be a challenge. You might think that invading other people’s personal space is normal because your parents and siblings regularly did it to you.

Overly agreeable personality. If you’re too eager to please other people, you might allow them to do things that make you uncomfortable. Maybe you regularly overcommit to activities or agree to help people because you simply want to be loved and accepted.

Low self-esteem. You might feel as if your needs and wants aren’t worth vocalizing, or that you don’t have an identity of your own. Instead, you prioritize what other people want. As a result, people fail to recognize your discomfort.

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Boundaries and enabling behavior

When someone you love is dealing with addiction, you may need to shift your boundaries to avoid enabling their behavior. Enabling is when you shield someone from the consequences of their actions. For example, you might want to offer to pay their legal bills for a DUI or lie to other people to cover up evidence of a gambling or drug addiction. These kinds of actions may seem helpful in the moment, but you’re actually preventing your loved one from learning from their mistakes.

[Read: Helping Someone with a Drug Addiction]

Enabling isn’t limited to situations that involve addiction. It can happen in other mental health issues. For example, if your loved has social anxiety disorder, you may try to shield them from uncomfortable interactions by speaking up for them in pubic. The result is that they continue to rely on you instead of addressing the issue on their own.

How to set and maintain boundaries

While it’s usually best to start setting boundaries early on in a relationship, establishing healthy rules and limitations can help strengthen a relationship at any stage.

In many cases, you may not even realize a certain restriction is needed until you get to know each other more. For example, it might take you some time to realize that a coworker is regularly distracting you while on the job or that a romantic interest seems too controlling.

The following tips can help you establish boundaries if you are experiencing trouble communicating or connecting with a person in your life.

Setting boundaries tip 1: Know what you want in a relationship

Whether the relationship is romantic or platonic, it’s hard to have your needs met if you don’t know what they are. Reflecting on your values and beliefs is a good place to start.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • What traits do I like to see in other relationships?
  • What behaviors bother me?
  • What qualities do I admire in others?
  • What material items matter the most to me and why?
  • How do I like to spend my time?
  • What makes me feel fulfilled?

By gaining a more thorough understanding of yourself, you can begin to imagine the types of boundaries you need. If you know that you value independence, you’ll likely want to set financial rules between you and a partner. If you value high productivity or privacy, you might set physical boundaries with coworkers who tend to wander into your workspace.

Assessing how you feel with someone

Thinking about how others make you feel can also help you identify necessary boundaries. After interacting with other people, reflect on your feelings by asking yourself questions.

  • Did the other person make jokes or comments that made you feel disrespected?
  • Did they do anything that made you physically uncomfortable or unsafe, such as raise their voice in anger?
  • Did you feel pressured to do things that didn’t match your values?
  • Did you feel overwhelmed by the person’s requests or expectations of
    you?
  • Did you feel as if they were infringing on your sense of control or
    infantilizing you?

A moment of reflection can help you decide whether you need to set limitations with the person in the future.

Tip 2: Talk to the person about your needs

Knowing how to effectively communicate your needs to others is important. Rushed conversations, poor wording, and vague requests can make it harder for loved ones to understand and respect your ground rules.

Consider timing. The best time to set a boundary with your partner is when you both feel relaxed and can focus on the conversation. If you’re mid-argument, try cooling down and circling back to the conversation once you’re both calm.

Be prepared. Nervous about discussing your needs? Write your points down before the discussion so that you can speak clearly about your needs.

Consider the delivery. Try to use “I” statements to convey how you feel. Avoid “you” statements, which can seem accusatory. For example, say, “I felt overwhelmed with the amount of work I had to take care of while you were away.” Expressing your emotions is a great way to start laying the groundwork for a relationship boundary.

Be clear. A vague request, such as, “I’d like more personal space” may get the message across, but it’s better to be as clear as possible to avoid confusing the other person. Try, “I feel disrespected and uncomfortable when you come into my room unannounced. Please knock before entering.” A calm but firm tone lets the other person know you’re being serious but not disrespectful.

[Read: Effective Communication]

Address feedback. Depending on the boundary, your partner may have questions for you. Know that you don’t need to justify your needs or explain yourself, but doing so may help the other person understand where you’re coming from. You might even ask follow-up questions to ensure the right message was conveyed.

Feedback in romantic relationships

In romantic relationships, it’s especially important to ask your partner how they feel about a request, rather than guessing. Ask if it seems unfair or unusual to them. Or ask whether it conflicts with something they need or want.

Each of you has your own thoughts and feelings, and each person is responsible for putting these sentiments into words in order to be understood.

Let others take responsibility for their emotions. We often feel naturally inclined to care about how other people feel and react to our words and actions. However, you shouldn’t feel responsible for how the other person reacts to the boundary. For example, they might be upset that you’re asking for more “me time.” This could lead you to feel guilty or selfish. Remind yourself why you’re setting the restriction in the first place: You want some time alone to pursue your separate hobbies and avoid feeling emotionally crowded. Don’t feel you have to disregard your own needs.

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Tip 3: Enforce boundaries

Not everyone in your life is going to respect your boundaries all of the time. A partner might accidentally cross one or difficult family members might do so intentionally.

Restate your needs. It’s possible that the other person didn’t understand your original request or simply forgot it. Be calm, firm, and clear about what you need.

Have clear and reasonable consequences for crossing a boundary. If someone has a habit of talking over you, for example, you could say, “I feel disrespected when you talk over me. If you do that again, I'll have to end the conversation.”

Only state consequences that you’re willing to enforce. If you aren’t willing to follow through on a consequence, the other person will feel empowered to overstep your boundaries in the future. For example, if you tell your partner that you’ll take a break from the relationship if they keep lying to you, it’s important to actually follow through on that.

How to respond when someone else sets a boundary

You’re not the only one who can set boundaries. When someone voices a restriction, you might feel a sense of shame or frustration. Perhaps you feel like you’re being reprimanded or “put in your place.”

You may notice some negative emotions rushing to the surface as you try to immediately defend your actions. Keep in mind that you are not losing anything but gaining knowledge of what makes the person in your life feel safe and happy.

Take time to breathe and listen. If you’re feeling upset, deep, slow breathing can calm your nervous system’s “fight or flight” response. This makes it easier for you to receive information rather than prepare for an argument.

[Read:Quick Stress Relief]

Accept that the person setting the boundary knows what is best for them. If something truly doesn’t work for you, communicate your needs so that you can both reach a compromise.

Remember that you both have your own way of processing and feeling emotions. Try not to assume what your partner needs before they say it out loud. Allow them space to voice their needs and wants.

Apologize when necessary. You’re only human, and we all make mistakes. Maybe you accidentally overstepped a boundary by making an offensive joke or oversharing when you’ve been asked not to. When someone reiterates the boundary, be humble enough to apologize for your mistake. Ask for clarity if you feel you need it.

By learning to accept and acknowledge other people’s boundaries, you can start to think about how you can improve your own connections with others. Ultimately, effective boundaries can leave you both feeling empowered and result in a healthier, more satisfying relationship.

Author: Sheldon Reid.

Get more help

Boundary Setting Worksheet – Practice crafting “I” statements and other elements of boundary setting. (University of Arkansas)

Boundary Worksheet – Worksheet to practice setting boundaries in different situations. (Pittsburgh Essential Speakers)

Four steps to setting healthy boundaries in your relationship – Tips for setting and maintaining boundaries. (Relate)

Last updated: November 29, 2022