There are many reasons as to why it is so important to establish healthy boundaries in a relationship. But what exactly are healthy boundaries? How can you tell the difference between healthy boundaries and unhealthy boundaries? How will good boundary setting affect the average person? Let’s see boundaries manifest in the relationships, how to distinguish healthy and unhealthy boundaries, and what you can do to make them healthy.
A boundary is defined as a line at which one thing starts and another thing begins. You can think of it as a fence surrounding your property or as the lines on the map surrounding a country or state.
Your personal boundaries are essentially an invisible fence that you put around yourself. They are there to make you feel safe and to establish some form of autonomy over yourself. Personal boundaries are often set to create a sense of self-security, raise self-esteem, and avoid triggers being activated by outside sources.
A trigger is described as an event or stimulus that can cause memory or extreme feelings that can be both positive or negative.
A negative trigger is not something that simply annoys you or that you merely dislike. You want to avoid them altogether for they can cause lots of anxiety and/or fear. For example, if you were a victim of being dumped badly, it has left a scar on your psyche. And there may be places or situations that trigger that pain. You will want to avoid those with any new relationship.
Simply put, healthy boundaries are lines that contribute to your physical well-being, your mental health, and even your financial stability. You draw them so others don’t cross as they include restrictions, such as respecting your privacy on your computer, phone, and other devices, giving you your space when you are working from home or just need time alone, or not coming over without calling first. Healthy boundaries are needed to have a good and mutually beneficial relationship with others.
When you set boundaries, you gain these benefits in your life:
If you don’t set boundaries, you risk getting into toxic relationships and/or enabling others to continue their bad behaviors. But once you work on them, if you waver or allow someone to cross a line, you can end up with someone taking advantage of you, or, worse, in a toxic relationship.
Related reading: Toxic Love: Are You Feeling It?
Toxic relationships can exist anywhere in your life:
If you give in, you will become stressed, resentful, and even mentally exhausted. Even more, it will impact all aspects of your life.
If you find yourself hesitant or unable to set firm boundaries and stick to them, then it’s likely you are a “pleaser” who may suffer from low self-esteem too. In this event, you should get some professional help to develop your independence and autonomy.
Saying “no” is key to your mental health. And that’s what boundaries are all about. Depending on the relationships, you may need one or more of these five boundary types.
Also note that boundaries can change over time. You can set clear boundaries at the beginning of a relationship to change them when your romantic bond strengthens, for example. You may become open to new ideas about sexual activity, ready to have intimate conversations about your past relationships, or have altered your beliefs about marriage and family. If that’s the case, be flexible with your boundaries: it’s all good if it’s good for you.
“The brain computes a buffer zone around the body…like a “second skin” hardwired into our DNA.”
Dr. Michael Graziano, neuroscientist, and author of the book The Spaces Between Us
“Personal space” is a term we’ve all heard. It refers to an area around yourself that psychologically “protects” you from things and people – a type of buffer. You allow others into that buffer zone – family, friends, lovers.
Your personal space is how much physical space you need, both within the presence of others and when you want to be alone. Covid aside, sometimes you prefer to wave or shake hands instead of a hug. At work, you may not want your personal space violated – someone looking over your shoulder, standing too close during a conversation, etc.
You have a right to your personal privacy regarding your thoughts, feelings, and personal issues. And you have the right for other people to respect these emotional boundaries. Feel free to tell people that you’re not comfortable answering their questions or talking about something that triggers emotions in you.
If someone you are dating, for example, wants to know about your exes or your previous breakups, you absolutely don’t have to talk about them.
Your boundaries can also include not “taking on” the emotional issues of others. In short, it’s “not your circus” unless you want it to be. Be careful about being pulled into others’ emotional issues.
What are your requirements for safe sex? How frequently do you want sex? What sexual activities do you enjoy, and which will you not engage in? How soon after meeting someone is sex okay? Now, some of these boundaries may change over time – just be certain you have them.
If you don’t establish sexual boundaries, you will fall prey to being pressured into sex you regret. Be in total control of your own sex life.
Related reading: How to Be a Better Lover – Inside and Out
You never have much time. And if you are not aggressive to protect it, you will lose it to others who demand it. It’s called “putting your foot down.”
You have a right not to be interrupted while you are at study or work. You have a right to go off by yourself, uninterrupted by anyone, including your partner, and not to engage in time-consuming discussions when they usurp your time.
Spend time with yourself first and then with others when you have time.
If you are a giver, it’s hard to say “no” when someone comes to you in need. That need can be anything – from borrowing an expensive tool to needing a cash loan until payday. So, are you the tool rental store or someone’s ATM?
If you don’t stand firm with your boundaries, you will continue to be taken advantage of, especially if your partner is a “taker” who:
Yes, emergencies come up. But that’s not what this is about. If some things keep happening to you constantly, you may need to re-evaluate your relationship boundaries.
Related reading: Setting Healthy And Fair Expectations in a Relationship
If you set boundaries that are too rigid, it’s usually a sign that you have some emotional issues – you fear intimacy or being taken advantage of. This can manifest in many ways. You may hesitate to become emotionally or romantically involved with someone you have been dating far too long. And they may lose interest because you are not responding to their overtures in a “normal” way.
If you set boundaries that are too loose, you set yourself up to be taken advantage of. People you date may talk you into doing things that are not comfortable, but you don’t want to say anything, because you want to please them.
Healthy boundaries in relationships begin with a healthy sense of self. And when you have a strong sense of who you are, you can set healthy boundaries in relationships with others.
If you haven’t thought about your personal needs and expectations for your behavior and that of others, use these tactics to begin.
“When entering a challenging situation or discussion, try to know what boundaries you want to set or enforce. When we plan ahead, it may help us feel more confident and at ease.”
Dr. Carolina Raeburn, PsyD and licensed clinical psychologist
Boundary setting begins with your idea of ideal relationships at home, at work, with family, and with a partner. It’s a good idea to make a list of what you want with examples including:
You can set healthy boundaries at any relationship stage – just remember to do this. Draw on current and past relationships to know what details contributed to your overall well-being and what relationship details made you uncomfortable. These will give you clues for setting boundaries in relationships, current and future.
Related reading: How To Maintain Your Individuality While In a Relationship
As you enter into dating relationships, weigh what goes on against your list. Are you seeing any red flags? Are your relationship boundaries being honored? Here are some questions to ask yourself about your new date:
Suppose you are experiencing any discomfort or difficulty trying to maintain boundaries in relationships. In that case, it’s time to step back, re-group, and look at why maintaining healthy boundaries doesn’t seem to be working for you:
Now that you are ready to start, your first step in practice will be to clarify your boundaries in each area – physical, emotional, financial, sexual, and time. Put them into writing to clarify them for yourself. Then, you can start setting boundaries and expectations with your partner.
Here is how you can initiate that conversation on the ground rules:
Important note: If your relationship partner gets upset or angry about your boundary, then you cannot be responsible for their reaction – do not give in to them. If they cannot honor you need for setting healthy boundaries for your relationship, then you need to walk away. And there is no need to feel guilty when you establish boundaries that others cannot honor.
When your boundaries are not honored, either unintentionally or intentionally, you must respond. It’s time to get tough and firm in reinforcing your boundaries in relationships.
Maybe your partner didn’t really understand the original boundary or forgot about it? These possibilities are not likely, but it’s important to double-check.
Be firm and clear and get commitment from your partner moving forward. Say something like, “I feel pressured when you violate my boundary, and it has to stop now. Are you sure you understand what this boundary means?”
Depending on the types of boundaries being violated, you will need to establish reasonable and appropriate consequences for those violations.
Suppose your partner has crossed the financial boundaries that you have set. Then, it’s worth saying, “You cannot make major purchases from our joint account without talking to me first. If you do this again, I’ll set up my account and give you half of the joint expenses we agreed on.”
The key thing here? Be with your own thoughts for a minute and make sure you can actually follow up on what you say. Otherwise, your partner will not take you seriously and violate that boundary again.
Related reading: Master the Art of Talking to Girls
“Boundaries are something that is never too late to learn. You can start any time. You can let something slide for years and one day decide you want to put up a new boundary.”
Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS, psychotherapist and author
Creating healthy boundaries takes thought, time, and effort. That’s why it is so important to distinguish unhealthy and healthy boundaries so you don’t waste effort in the wrong direction. Here are some practical examples to help you navigate setting and maintaining boundaries in your relationship.
Healthy boundary: We will not spend money in our joint account without discussing it.
One of the healthy boundaries that is a must if two people are living together and want to keep a healthy relationship. When one partner is not consulted as the other spends joint money, it quickly dissolves trust and, of course, breaks a financial boundary. This behavior can be a dealbreaker if one partner has suffered from this bad behavior from partners or family members.
Healthy boundary: We will always practice safe sex
If people who are dating are not monogamous, this is one of those healthy relationship boundaries that almost goes without saying. Even if one partner balks at this, they must honor the other’s request. If not, it’s time to move on. Safe sex is non-negotiable between sexual partners who are not exclusive.
Related reading: ENM Relationship: What is Ethical Non-Monogamy?
Healthy boundary: We won’t visit without calling first
These are personal limits created out of mutual respect, even between romantic partners. It’s a healthy boundary because one of you may need alone time after a bad day, simply want to binge-watch a series on their own, or just have their own physical needs to tend to.
Healthy boundary: We will not criticize or mock each other’s beliefs
Religious and spiritual beliefs are intensely personal. Each has his own way of thought and practice and should feel safe and secure in those beliefs and practices. This is one of those examples of healthy boundaries that speaks to full respect for one another.
Healthy boundary: We won’t try any new sex activities until we discuss them first
This should go without saying, but if one partner feels pressured to cross a boundary in the bedroom, sometimes in the heat of the moment, it’s just not fair play.
Unhealthy boundary: I can verbally take out my anger on you
Really? This totally violates the physical and emotional boundaries. While hearing this, you or your partner have every right to enforce a boundary that is rigid and strict. If they say they will leave in this situation, they must leave.
Unhealthy boundary: I can “approve” of how you dress
Uh…no. Being who you are is one of those examples of healthy boundaries that everyone should have, including what you wear and how you groom yourself. You don’t need to dress to please anyone else. That’s part of your happiness. People need their own identities even in the most intimate relationships.
Healthy emotional boundaries should not include “approval” of how you physically present yourself, to your partner, or even to a family member.
Unhealthy boundary: I need to control the money
Couples enter into exclusive partnerships because they have expectations of a future together. When one partner sets a boundary of financial control, it is really a type of abuse. There may be all sorts of justifications, such as “We need to save, and you spend too much,” but these are just excuses for a type of control.
The other partner may begin by thinking this is perfectly fine and not really feel anxious about it at first and even feel obligated to agree to subjugate their own needs for some financial independence for the good of the relationship.
Over time, though, they may develop a greater sense of self and feel overwhelmed that they have no say in the financial accounts and must rely on their partner for money for their own needs and wants. Their own feelings are now respected. This is one of those types of boundaries that will ultimately bring conflict. It’s an emotional boundary that ultimately cannot be tolerated. Your emotional health requires that you have some control over your own behavior with spending.
A healthy boundary is the basis of a happy life, helping you to maintain focus on your own identity in all the spheres of your life. Be that financial boundaries or protecting your private physical environment, setting boundaries is important for you and your partner alike if you are interested in healthy relationships. Make commitment, listen, ask questions, and make sure you understand your partner’s boundaries to avoid negative emotions and ensure mutual commitment.
Setting boundaries is the art you can learn your whole life. If it’s hard for you to change your love situation, try to create healthy boundaries in other spheres of your life first. With practice, it’ll be easier to enforce boundaries in your relationship too.