How to Set Healthy Boundaries in a Relationship

A young couple sitting across from one another on a picnic bench while holding hands

Relationships can be tough. Real life doesn’t look like the movies, parents often split up, and friends may not provide the best example. What is okay in a relationship? What isn’t? How do you set healthy boundaries?

What is a Boundary?

First, realize that a boundary is something that you control. A good example of a boundary is, “if you choose to yell I will choose to leave.” You can’t control whether someone else is yelling, but you can control whether you stay there and listen to it. Another good boundary may be, “I will not give you money for drugs or alcohol.” You’re not saying you won’t help a family member or friend in need, but you are limiting how they may spend the money you give them.

Boundaries are healthy, both in our relationships and in our lives. Boundaries in the backyard provide a nice line between us and our neighbors. A fence on a playground keeps children from running into traffic. Guardrails on the roads keep cars from going over cliffs. In the same way, boundaries in your relationships can keep both you and others safe and healthy.

Read on to find out more about how to set healthy boundaries, when boundaries are unhealthy, how to maintain boundaries, and what to do when those boundaries are crossed.

How to Set Healthy Boundaries

Often, when someone talks about boundaries, we imagine them sitting down with their family member or friend and writing out a huge list of rules. How awkward! Unless there is a crisis, that is probably not the best method to set healthy boundaries. Instead, boundaries come up as you and those around you live your life together. 

Setting a boundary can be very gentle and respectful. Perhaps you don’t like to have alcohol in your home. A friend comes over and asks if they can bring a case of beer. Very gently, you can say, “Thank you for your offer, but I don’t like to have alcoholic beverages in my home. Would you like to bring lemonade instead?” Your friend probably won’t mind at all, and you’re able to maintain the environment you want in your home.

A young couple arguing

Another boundary may involve your significant other. Perhaps a partner in your past was verbally abusive to you. Your current partner may become loud when they’re passionate or excited. It is very reasonable to say, “I understand that you’re not yelling at me. However, loud voices remind me of abuse in my past and they make me very anxious. If we’re going to have a conversation please lower your voice.” Communicating why you’re setting a boundary, and what you need, can be very helpful. You don’t always need to give a reason for your boundary, but when someone is close to you and you trust them it can help them understand why something upsets or bothers you.

Some boundaries are personal choices. Others should be universal. At no time should someone in your life hit you, kick you, slap you, shove you, or threaten to do any of those things. Neither should someone control your money or refuse to provide you with basic necessities because you did or said something that upset them. If something feels wrong, or you suspect you’re being mistreated, reach out for help. Talk to someone you trust and get their opinion. If everyone you know is saying your relationship is unhealthy it is time to listen!

When Boundaries are Unhealthy

Sometimes boundaries are unhealthy. Consider the example above of having alcohol in your home. This can become unhealthy when you force this expectation on others around you. While it is your choice to refuse to have alcohol in your home, it may be inappropriate to extend that boundary to someone else’s home or even a public setting. Your friends and family may be willing to accommodate you, but they may also want the freedom to enjoy a social drink with others. 

In this case, it is very appropriate to say, “I know you all want to enjoy a beer together and that is completely fine. However, it makes me uncomfortable so I will choose to stay home.” Or, “If you all would like to have a beer it doesn’t bother me too much, but if people start getting drunk I will choose to leave.” This way you’re maintaining your own boundaries but you’re not expecting everyone around you to do the same, you’re instead politely removing yourself from the situation.

Another example of an unhealthy boundary would be a boundary that constantly shifts. Perhaps you told your significant other that you don’t appreciate yelling, but you don’t leave when yelling starts. Or, you stay in the home when your partner shoves you or throws things at you, and you make excuses that they “didn’t mean it” or “will never do it again.” If someone shows they have no respect for your clearly defined boundaries it may be time to reconsider whether this is a healthy relationship for you. If you are constantly compromising, especially if your safety is at risk, it may be time to move on.

How to Maintain Boundaries

Sometimes you end up in an awkward situation where a boundary is being crossed and you don’t know what to do about it. Continuing with our example above, perhaps someone comes to your home with alcohol even after you clearly instructed them not to do so. This is when you must speak up and firmly refuse them, or at least their alcoholic beverages, entrance. You can insist that the alcohol is returned to their car. If they walked or took the bus, you can offer to put it somewhere in your home (that they can’t get to) until you return it to them when they leave. You can even tell them they are not welcome to stay. It can feel very uncomfortable to speak up in this way, but it is vital that you respect yourself enough to enforce the boundaries you have set.

A woman is leaving her home with a bag on her shoulder

Maintaining boundaries can be hard when your partner, friend, or family member continuously pushes them. In these cases, it may be necessary to take a break from the relationship. Or, make it clear that if a boundary is disrespected you will immediately leave (or, if they’re in your home, they need to leave). This can be more challenging when the individual in question is a partner or someone you live with. You may be afraid to leave, where will you go? How will you support yourself? What about the kids? What about pets? Perhaps your partner or family member tells you that you will never find anyone else,  that nobody would want you, and that you’re lucky to have them.

If someone is hurting you, threatening you, or disrespecting your boundaries you need to consider whether this is the right place for you, and perhaps make an exit plan. It can be scary to strike out on your own, but freedom from abuse (whether that abuse is physical, emotional, or financial) is worth it.

Maintaining boundaries can feel stressful, but if you hold firm and are respectful in your words most people will respect your boundaries and follow the rules you have set for yourself.

When Boundaries are Crossed

When someone steps over a boundary you have set for yourself you can often reestablish them with a verbal reminder. Perhaps you don’t enjoy hugging and your great aunt swoops in with arms outstretched. You can step back and say, “no thank you!” Maybe you don’t loan your car out because you need it to be full of gas and operational for work. If someone asks you for the keys you can offer to drive them or simply say “Sorry, I don’t loan out my vehicle.” 

While most people will respond well to this kind of reminder, others may become upset with you. Remind yourself that you do not need to allow others to control you through their emotions. Your boundary is yours! It isn’t up to them whether or not they get to follow it. If someone insists that you violate your boundaries, or tries to force you to do so, often the best thing to do is to remove yourself from the situation. You can say, “Sorry great Aunt Ida, I’m going to go check out the buffet, see you later!” Then, just walk away. People can’t argue with you if you’re not there to participate.

You Deserve Respect

Some boundaries are serious, such as not putting up with abuse. Others may feel silly, such as not eating certain snacks you have set aside for yourself. While it’s ok to forgive and forget (even if you really wanted that sandwich!) sometimes, if someone continuously ignores your boundaries it’s a sign that they don’t respect you or the relationship. Nobody is perfect, and everyone forgets things or slips up, but if you aren’t getting the respect you deserve in a relationship it may be time to reevaluate.

If you are in danger, or if you are afraid of someone in your life, don’t hesitate to reach out. Contact https://www.thehotline.org/ and talk to someone who can help.

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