Why It's So Important To Set Boundaries In Your Relationship & Stick To Them

Otherwise, you'll end up with a whole lot of bottled-up resentment.

by Natalia Lusinski
Originally Published: 
Setting relationship boundaries is crucial for having a happy and healthy partnership.
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Boundaries are part of every relationship — romantic and otherwise — whether you formally establish them or not. Sometimes, they're laid out step-by-step, while other times, they’re born of habits that stick and become the norm between you and the other person. Setting boundaries in dating is key to healthy communication and feeling mutually supported, and the absence or negligence of them can lead to serious stress in a relationship. But to set boundaries, you have to first talk through them with your partner. If you're ready to create relationship boundaries, starting the conversation is the first step, but the real work lies in seeing them through.

"All personal relationships require boundaries," Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., 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."

Even if you and your partner already have relationship boundaries in place, there's nothing wrong with refreshing them or checking in to make sure your expectations are aligned. Below, relationship experts give ideas on how to create and maintain boundaries.


Use Knowledge From Your Past When Creating Relationship 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 [prevent] 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.”


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 when you’re setting boundaries in dating. “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 about relationship boundaries 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.”


Create Relationship Boundaries *Together*

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If communication is key in a relationship, then compromise is a close second. “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.” 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.”


Set Specific Boundaries

Relationship 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. “People grow up in different family environments: Some are very close, with few boundaries, while others are more distant.” Most couples will need to discuss their boundaries in dating to get on the same page, that includes everything from how you two go about sharing a bathroom, to reading each others’ texts or emails, to what’s OK when friends and family are involved.


Express Your Feelings Clearly And Confidently

When you initiate the boundary conversation, it’s important to be clear and specific. “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 anything else on the 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.”


Set Boundaries In The Moment Instead Of Bottling Up Your Feelings

It's always better to talk to your partner about something bothering you sooner rather than later. If you bottle up the emotions instead of confronting them, you “probably have a big fight ahead of you,” 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. If you wait, you may develop other emotions [in the time between] that [distract] from the original boundary. 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 [outsized] reaction.”


Be Prepared For An Emotional Reaction

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“One of the biggest issues people have around setting relationship boundaries is they feel guilty, or that they’re being mean or causing their partner pain,” says Rachel A. Sussman, LCSW. “You have to give yourself permission to set that boundary and accept that it might bring up complicated emotions.”

Don’t be afraid of the difficult emotions brought on by setting boundaries in dating. Accept that feelings might come up, and prepare yourself to deal with them, Sussman suggests. Some strategies that might help you get ready to have the conversation are journaling, talking to a friend after, or coming up with mantras like “It’s okay that I’m doing this” or “I’m advocating for myself.”


Agree To Discuss Matters As They Come Up

While you can commit yourself to bringing up boundary issues as they arise, it’s also a good idea to get your partner on board with the same strategy. “The most common relationship boundaries are about communication and honesty,” dating coach and relationship expert 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 in dating, you’ll both know when something has gone wrong. That way, it will be easier to fix the issues, as you’ve been clear from the start about what these are.”


Speak Up When Your Relationship Boundaries Are Being Violated

You and your partner can talk about relationship boundaries to your hearts’ content, 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. “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. It’s up to you to maintain consistency.”


Get A Boundary Buddy

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You might feel anxious before initiating a boundary-setting convo with your partner, especially if it’s the first time, and that’s totally normal. One way to alleviate the nerves while sticking to your guns: Get a “boundary buddy”, suggests Sussman: someone you can check in with after you set a boundary, kind of like an accountability buddy who can also support you emotionally. This could be a good friend, a parent, a therapist — anyone who you feel comfortable confiding in and who can encourage you to stay firm in your convictions.


Know That Practice Makes Perfect

Even though you want you and your partner to immediately follow all the new relationship 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 relationship 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. Don’t 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’re holding anything back, but because you are showing respect and support to your partner. All you’re doing is setting some ground rules that will help you grow stronger together.” And who doesn't want that?


Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist, and author of How To Be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together

Stef Safran, matchmaking and dating expert

Dr. Suzana E. Flores, clinical psychologist and author of Facehooked: How Facebook Affects Our Emotions, Relationships, And Our Lives

Kali Rogers, life coach at Blush Online Life Coaching

Rachel A. Sussman, LCSW

James Preece, dating coach & relationship expert, speaker, and author

Thomas Edwards, founder of The Professional Wingman

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