Romantic or not, setting boundaries is a vital way to communicate your needs, values and expectations in a relationship.
Discussing and setting boundaries with a partner, friend or family member might sound like a recipe for friction and conflict. But boundaries are a vital way to communicate your needs, values and expectations in a relationship. Equally, you should respect and honour the boundaries set by others if you want a healthy relationship based on trust and empathy.
I’m Ruairí Stewart, a relationship and self-esteem therapist. Today, I’ll discuss why boundaries are so important and how to introduce them successfully into your relationship.
What are boundaries?
Like the outer lines on a sports field, relationship boundaries define the limits of what you want and expect from a relationship. Boundaries can be emotional, physical, sexual and even time-based. I’m sure we’ve all had that moment when a visitor to your home has outstayed their welcome! When your partner, friend, or family respects your boundaries, they avoid overstepping that ‘line’.
Boundaries are not just ‘rules of play’; they’re the core values that define what is important to you. Setting self-boundaries is an excellent way to develop your value system. Sara Kuburic has some great suggestions for self-boundaries, such as:
- I will ask for help when I need it
- I will limit spending time on people that drain my energy
- I will give myself time to rest
- I will not check my ex-partner’s social media
- I will be honest with myself
Once you have a good sense of how you want to live your life, you can incorporate these values into your relationships.
Why relationships need boundaries
Ironically, social media apps give us an easy set of tools to manage boundaries—we can mute, restrict, unfollow or even block other users. Sometimes we need to apply these same boundary-setting tools in the real world to manage our relationships and regain control.
Boundaries protect your well-being and demonstrate that your needs matter and deserve to be honoured. By setting boundaries in relationships, you separate the appropriate from the inappropriate. Some signs that your relationship may need some boundaries include:
- Feeling overwhelmed or burnt out
- Having no time for your own activities
- Feeling resentment toward your partner
Setting limits around the safety and trust element of a relationship is essential. Knowing who to share with and the level of disclosure is a vital part of your boundary setting, while also respecting their needs if they want to keep information private.
Emotional boundaries help you take care of your own emotions and your well-being. They set limits on what energy you allow into your space. Boundaries can help stop people blindly dumping their emotions and problems on you, expecting solutions to their problems or wanting you to take responsibility for how they feel.
Material boundaries are about the things you share with someone, including your possessions, living spaces and finances.
Everyday domestic chores are a common trigger point, where typically one person is not pulling their weight or is leeching off you financially. In these cases, you may need to send a clear message by no longer giving them access to you, your resources, your energy or your space.
Physical and Sexual Boundaries
Physical and sexual boundaries are about safety and respect, period. It’s about defining what is and isn’t ok, and communicating that freely without shame or judgment. You need to set limits on what is or isn’t appropriate.
We all need time to ourselves as well as spending time with our partners. This is a normal part of taking care of yourself—time alone is essential.
Spending time away from your partner with your friends and family is good for you and good for them. Your time boundaries essentially communicate the level of contact and time you are willing to spend with someone. This includes time with friends and family—some people will demand more than you are ready to give, so protect your time and energy by setting boundaries.
When to hold, when to fold.
As I mentioned at the top of this article, discussing and setting boundaries with a relationship partner can be tricky—they may feel hurt or get defensive. The key is to express the issue in terms of how you feel, rather than blaming them. Don’t issue ultimatums – give them time to understand your needs and adjust accordingly. If your relationship is based on trust and honesty, it can handle a little frank discussion, and you’ll probably learn a bit more about their needs and boundaries too.
Timing is important when you want to initiate a discussion about boundaries—make sure you choose a time when you’re both relaxed and open to chat. Avoid language that can quickly escalate a chat into an argument and stay on-topic.
When someone holds a different viewpoint or a judgement on how you feel, that’s their problem, not yours. If they can’t respect your lifestyle, opinions, or have respectful conversations around differences, don’t make space for them in your circle, or agree not to discuss these issues with them.
In some cases, despite your best efforts, the relationship may break down. Your partner, friend or family member refuses to accept there is an issue or is unwilling to change. In these situations, you may need to call on the services of a trained relationship therapist to help you resolve the impasse. Sometimes a friendship just wasn’t meant to be, and the best option is to walk away.
Invest in yourself
Have you noticed the relationship pattern playing out over and over again in your relationships? Setting boundaries is one way to ‘invest’ in yourself and help break this cycle. Dysfunctional patterns can also indicate unresolved past traumas that you need to work on. Building self-awareness of unhealed triggers and your personal history is an empowering way to make changes in your life and build better, more fulfilling relationships.
UNTIL YOU MAKE A COMMITMENT TO HEAL A PATTERN WITHIN YOURSELF, YOU WILL CONTINUE TO EXPERIENCE THE SAME KIND OF PATTERNS AND PARTNERS IN YOUR LIFE.
Join me next time, where we look at one-sided relationships and ask the question, “Are you a people pleaser?”