Updated: Feb 18, 2020
Pop culture, from music to TV shows to rom-coms, teaches us that we should do anything for love—to find it, win it, and keep it.
But that stereotype ignores one of the secret ingredients to any healthy and long-lasting relationship: boundaries.
Simply put, boundaries are limits we set. We can either set them for ourselves (“I am only going to watch TV two nights a week”) or we can set them for others (“Do not read my text messages over my shoulder”).
Some boundaries might look like:
→ At work, asking your colleagues to not put you down, even if they’re “just joking”
→ At a social gathering, asking the host to accommodate dietary needs
→ At home, asking your partner to stop and check in before becoming intimate
Think of boundaries like a shimmering bubble around you. They help prevent us from feeling overwhelmed, allow us to maintain your identities, and are a sign of self-respect. They are also a key way to communicate to other people how we want to be treated, and are vitally important to healthy romantic relationships because they allow us to form close bonds while maintaining our independence.
But how can you discover what your boundaries are and begin to set them?
1. Explore Your Feelings
Start by listening to your internal monologue, and paying attention to your emotions body language. When difficult emotions arise, it can often signal that your boundaries—even if you didn’t know they were there—have been crossed.
2. Examine Your Values
Spend time listing out your values. If trust is a value, you might feel violated when a partner asks “who was that?” every time your phone rings or constantly “checks in” by text when you’re out with friends. If honesty is a value, you might feel hurt by lies, no matter how big or small.
3. Identify Your Needs
Next, make a list of your needs. Maybe you need time alone to de-stress, or need to eat a certain way to feel healthy, or have to have private space to work on creative projects. Knowing your needs will help you understand what to say yes and no to.
4. Evaluate Your Relationships
Then, consider your relationships with your colleagues, friends, family, partner, and yourself. Where are your values not being upheld in those relationships? In what ways are your needs not met or disrespected?
5. Create Your Boundaries
Write down some boundaries that relate to the values and needs you identified that are not being respected. Be clear about how you feel and what you want from the other person, and try to communicate using “I statements.” For instance, if your partner expects you to respond to texts quickly, you might try saying, “I feel overwhelmed when you send repeated texts if I don’t answer the first one right away. What I need is you to trust that I value communicating with you and will reply when I am able.”
6. Communicate Your Boundaries
No one is a mindreader. Therefore, it is important that once you have created boundaries you have a conversation with the other person about them. Ideally, you’d set aside time to discuss them in a non-conflictual setting, and you should be prepared to listen to their boundaries, too. Showing them that you want to understand and respect their boundaries is equally important.
7. Defend Your Boundaries
Communicating boundaries is essential, but it’s not always possible to do in advance. If someone has crossed a line, tell them as soon as it feels safe to do so. Use language that makes it clear that your boundaries are non-negotiable, but try to avoid being aggressive or placing blame.
Setting boundaries can feel scary. It may take the other person time to understand and fully support your desire to change and set healthy expectations. Being consistent with your new boundaries will help the other person understand that you take this seriously. It is also a way to evaluate whether or not a relationship is healthy; in a healthy relationship, boundaries are respected.
Setting boundaries may also require defeating negative thoughts and beliefs you have internalized. Perhaps a friend invites you to dinner and you just want to stay home, but your inner monologue says that you should feel “guilty” for saying no. Perhaps your mother asks you to help run some errands when you don’t have any spare time, but you feel like a “bad daughter” if you don’t help. Perhaps your partner wants to be intimate and you are not in the mood but you feel you “owe it” to him or her.
Remember, creating and maintaining boundaries is never selfish; it is a sign of self-respect and an important element of healthy relationships. Saying no is not something to feel guilty about; you have the right to make your needs as important as someone else’s.
Asking for time alone or personal space does not mean you don’t love the other person; having time to connect with our inner selves is essential.
While setting boundaries is important, keep in mind that they may change. If your partner has set a boundary, feel free to check in periodically about it, and to also be vocal about when yours have evolved.
What is one boundary you’d like to set today?