How To Set Boundaries Within Your Relationship, According To Experts
Boundaries are part of every relationship, romantic and otherwise, whether you formally set them up or not. Sometimes, they're laid out step-by-step, while, other times, they are born of habits that then stick and become the boundary norm between you and your partner. Yet other times, they are followed for a while, so to speak, and then the boundaries become blurred, which can cause stress in a relationship. Of course, one obvious solution is to talk about them with your partner. If you're ready to create boundaries within your relationship, it's not too difficult — starting will probably be the most challenging part of all, as well as following through with them.
"All personal relationships require boundaries," Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. (aka "Dr. Romance"), psychotherapist, and author of How to be Happy Partners: Working it out Together, tells Bustle. "Boundaries are the limits you place on how much others can ask of you, verbally or otherwise. If you don't discuss boundaries in advance, resentment builds up, and that can cause arguments and fighting."
Like Dr. Tessina says, I'm sure you can think of some examples where resentment has built up — I know I can. And even if you and your partner already have relationship boundaries in place, there's nothing wrong with refreshing them and making sure both of your expectations are aligned. Below, relationship experts give ideas on how to create and maintain boundaries.
1. Use Knowledge From Your Past When Creating Boundaries In The Present
Everyone learns from past relationships, and you can use that knowledge when forming boundaries in your new one. Of course, every relationship is different, but you can think back to certain situations and feelings you had and use them as a template in your current relationship. "Use the knowledge from your past relationships to learn how to create boundaries in your current one," Stef Safran, matchmaking and dating expert, tells Bustle. "Maybe you found out that your ex was possessive and it made you uncomfortable. Discuss things that you want to make NOT happen in this relationship, and let your partner know what's important to you. You want someone not to post certain pictures on social media? Talk about it. You want to feel that you can hang out with your friends once a month? Talk about it. Romantic relationships still require connections and activities with other people. Don't assume that one person can do it all."
2. Don't Assume Your Partner Knows Your Boundaries
In general, it's best not to make assumptions about how other people feel. The same holds true in relationships. "Do not assume that your partner knows about your boundaries," Dr. Suzana E. Flores, clinical psychologist and author of Facehooked: How Facebook Affects Our Emotions, Relationships, and Our Lives, tells Bustle. "We may experience anger or frustration when assuming our partner 'should know' our boundaries. Conversely, we may assume we know what our partner's boundaries are and, therefore, do not need to ask them about their needs. However, assumptions can lead to misunderstandings and arguments. It's a good practice to occasionally check in with your partner on how they feel about your relationship and if there is anything you can both work on to improve communication."
3. Create Boundaries *Together*
Just like communication is everything in a relationship, compromising is, too. "Discuss things that matter and decide on solutions together," Safran says. "If you feel that your mother is overbearing and might say things that bother you and your significant other, tell them and let them know how you want to deal with it as a couple." Regarding compromising, Dr. Flores agrees. "Choose your battles, but know the dealbreakers," she says. "Relationships are all about compromise. You and your partner will not agree on everything, and compromising is often necessary; however, you must also respect your own needs. Do not minimize your beliefs and values for your partner."
Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors, CBS TV, and co-star on Sex Box, WE tv, agrees that boundaries are necessary, but warns that both partners may not agree on some of them. "You can't set boundaries and expect everyone to be happy," she says. "Someone is likely to not be happy. Also, when you sign up for boundary-setting, you must agree to tolerate increased anxiety. You are apt to get flack from your partner when you say 'no' to something they want. But do not lose your cool — always treat your partner with kindness and respect. This will add a double dose of self-respect to you."
4. Set Specific Boundaries
Boundaries come in all shapes and sizes, literally and figuratively. "Setting boundaries in a relationship is a healthy practice, but it can be difficult to know when and how to set them," Flores says. "Whether your boundary needs are emotional ('I need time apart'), physical ('I don't want to have sex'), or digital ('I'm not ready to post our relationship status'), setting boundaries may be uncomfortable. However, it's necessary." Dr. Tessina, too, believes in creating different types of boundaries for different situations. "Privacy is your personal power to determine your own internal boundaries, and how much of yourself you are willing to share with others," she says. "People grow up in different family environments: some are very close, with few boundaries, while others are more distant. Most couples need to discuss boundaries: How much closeness do you want in the bathroom, for example. Another is when you want to be sexual and when you don't. Also, there can be boundaries about touching, listening in on phone calls, reading each other's texts or emails, or what is OK when friends and family are involved." So, in essence, there seem to be a boundless number of boundaries you and your partner can make.
5. Express Your Feelings Clearly And Confidently
Another key point in creating boundaries with your partner is by being clear and confident when you speak to them. "Don't apologize, justify, or explain away your feelings to your partner," Kali Rogers of Blush Online Life Coaching, tells Bustle. "You are allowed to feel angry, sad, surprised, dismissed, or any other emotional spectrum! First, take ownership of said emotion by acknowledging it and communicating it. From there, use an 'I' statement: 'I feel _____ when you _____, and I would like _____ as a result.' So something to the tune of 'I feel embarrassed when you talk about my mother that way, so I would like to not discuss that subject in front of others again.' The more clearly and confidently you state your emotions, the stronger a new boundary can be formed."
6. Set Boundaries In The Moment Instead Of Bottling Up Your Feelings
As you can imagine, it's better to talk to your partner sooner rather than later. "Sitting on residual feelings can end up under the category of 'bottled up emotions,' and you probably have a big fight ahead of you if that happens," Rogers says. "So instead, if possible, state your 'I' statement as soon as possible. If you can set a boundary in the moment — 'Please do not talk about my mother right now' — this quick consequence will create a stronger connection between the moment and the boundary. Whereas if you wait, you could develop lots of other emotions between then and later, resulting in a large, messy fight that gets away from the original boundary. Or, you might 'let it go' and then have it build up over time later. Obviously, this can lead to an escalated reaction whenever the boundary is crossed in the future, and then you risk losing a conversation about the boundary — and, instead, it will be all about your silly reaction. Do not deprive yourself of setting boundaries or it will lead to bad behavior by all."
I know, it's not always easy to talk to a romantic partner about something, but it IS necessary in order to maintain a healthy relationship. Safran, too, agrees with Rogers about the importance of communicating with your partner regularly. "Communicate about things on a regular basis before they become issues," Safran says. "Also, be sure to talk in a non-defensive way. It doesn't mean it's bad to ask for what you want, but expect that your significant other will also ask for things that they want."
7. Agree To Discuss Matters As They Come Up
Similar to expressing your feelings quickly is promising to do so. "The most common boundaries are about communication and honesty," Dating Coach & Relationship Expert, Keynote Speaker, and Author James Preece, tells Bustle. "If you have a problem or something on your mind, then promise each other you'll discuss it without fear of an argument. For instance, you might agree to give each other a little space to do your own thing from time-to-time without getting jealous. It's also a good idea to specify that you'll work hard to keep your word and improve the relationship. When you have set these boundaries, you'll both know when something has gone wrong, and then cross them. That way, it will be easier to fix the issues, as you've been clear from the start about what these are."
8. Speak Up When They're Being Violated
You and your partner can talk your hearts out about all kinds of boundaries, but they're useless if you don't put them into action. "The way to create boundaries is to do so early, enforce them often, and always maintain them," Thomas Edwards, Founder of The Professional Wingman, tells Bustle. "If there are specific things you need to happen in your relationship, it's important to communicate them to your partner early and explain why it's important. As you enforce them, you have to call out the 'breach' of boundaries — including the consequences — so your partner knows it's happening, or else they won't be aware. And lastly, it's up to you to maintain consistency. No one will truly care about your boundaries more than you, so the moment you create 'slack' and allow people to cross them, you immediately begin to lose your power within those boundaries, creating the possibility of that boundary (and others) to be breached."
Dr. Flores agrees. "Stand firm with your boundaries once you set them," she says. "When you set boundaries without enforcing them, it sends a message to your partner that you were not serious about your feelings. Do not waiver from boundaries, and reinforce them the second you believe your partner has overstepped them."
9. Know That Practice Makes Perfect
Even though you want you and your partner to immediately follow all the new boundaries you made, it may take some time for both of you to get used to them. "The boundaries that need to be set the most will be the ones that have to be set repeatedly," Rogers says. "Have patience and understanding when setting a boundary — your partner might violate it, not because they don't respect or love you, but because it's habit. It will take everyone a bit to get used to the new boundary, and it's OK if there are mess-ups along the way. Just do not be fooled into thinking you will only have to set the boundary once. It will need to happen multiple times before it is a new 'rule' in the relationship."
But it's also important to be cognizant of when enough is enough. "Know when it's time to move on," Dr. Flores says. "If you've repeatedly tried to establish and set boundaries which are important to you, and your partner continuously disrespects them, it may be time to move on."
As you can see, creating boundaries in your romantic relationship may not always be easy, but it's essential. "If you want a happy relationship, then you will need to have some boundaries," Preece says. "That's not because you are holding anything back, but because you are showing respect and support to your partner. All you are doing is setting some ground rules that will help you grow stronger together." And who doesn't want that?