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How to Set Boundaries in Relationships

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

There has been a lot of talk about boundaries in the wellness world lately- and with good reason! Especially during the holidays, boundaries can become even more important with so much time being spent giving to others, seeing friends and family, sometimes having to attend multiple events in a single day. Boundaries can sometimes get confusing- what are healthy boundaries within a relationship? What are healthy boundaries in a family? How do I set boundaries? How do I deal with someone who doesn’t respect my boundaries?

Fear not, love. I am here to help and provide you tips on setting boundaries within your relationships.

Setting strong boundaries
Photo by Michael Dziedzic

What are boundaries? What are some examples of boundaries?

So what exactly are boundaries anyway? I like to say that boundaries are behaviors that you will or will not accept in your relationships. In other words, boundaries are a guide for those that you are in relationship with to be able to treat you the way you would like to be treated. This applies to family relationships, work relationships, romantic, platonic and even with strangers. Of course, your boundaries will not be the same across each type of relationship, and that’s ok. It’s even encouraged. You might feel totally comfortable holding your partner’s hand in public, but not so much your boss- That's a boundary.

Not all boundaries need to be said out loud to another person. Using the above example, I would also imagine that your boss would not be comfortable holding your hand in public either, so there is a mutual understanding around the boundary due to the nature of your professional relationship. Some boundaries, especially within close, personal relationships, do need to be said out loud. That’s where it can get tricky. This can be difficult for a lot of us because it feels awkward. That’s ok. Life is awkward sometimes.

An example of a boundary that might need to be said out loud is how you prefer to be spoken to. For example, I have a friend who refers to people as “bitch” a lot. Many people don’t take offense to it, but I do. I don’t like to be called bitch, even in a friendly way, so I had to tell my friend that. It was a little awkward, but she respected my request and stopped. I should mention that she eventually stopped- she was trying to break a habit out of respect for me and our friendship. She slipped up. Sometimes that's ok, and sometimes it isn't. It's up to you, as the person setting boundaries, to decide how many chances you are willing to give. This is especially important when setting boundaries with family, friends, and partners.

This also applies to ways in which you want to be treated by others, or if you have children, how you want them to be treated by others. An example of this type of boundary that can apply to family time is giving the child a choice of whether or not they want to hug a family member. As a parent, you can tell your family that they should ask your child for a hug before just going in for it. If a child does not feel comfortable with a person and does not want a hug, that should be respected. It teaches the child autonomy and that they don’t have to let anyone touch them if they aren’t comfortable (which is a great lesson in consent as well)!

You may need to set some boundaries in your romantic relationship. An example of a boundary in a relationship is how often you want to see one another and spend time together. This can be decided early on in the relationship, and will likely change and evolve as your relationship grows. In the beginning, maybe you only have time to spend one night a week with them, but they are hitting you up trying to see you everyday- that’s a boundary that you need to set. Especially if you are interested in this person and want to continue seeing them- tell them that. This might sound something like “I enjoy seeing you and spending time together, but right now I only have enough time in my schedule to see you once a week.” Awkward? Maybe. Important and simple? Totally.

5 Types of Boundaries

So, what are some specific types of boundaries?

Physical Boundaries

Physical boundaries are what you will allow or accept on your physical body, or through the sense of touch. This can include sexual boundaries as well. What do you enjoy or not enjoy? This includes any kind of touch- in the age of COVID, do you shake hands? Do you bump elbows? Do you hug, kiss on the cheek? Sometimes you may have to verbalize this, but oftentimes you don’t.

Emotional and Energetic Boundaries

Emotional and energetic boundaries are based on your own self care needs. These boundaries are for when you need to take care of yourself and maybe put someone else’s needs second. If you had a really difficult day and just feel like you need a good cry and a bath, maybe you don’t opt to go out with your friend who just lost her father to an illness. You wouldn’t have the emotional capacity to take care of both her needs and your own, and you have permission to admit that. It does not make you a bad friend to show up at a time when you are more emotionally available.

Time Boundaries

Time boundaries are how you choose to spend your time. This is difficult sometimes, especially with family around the holidays. Maybe you need to set a limit to be around family for a few hours before leaving. You don’t owe anyone an explanation on how you choose to spend your time. You might say “Auntie, I’m happy to come to your house to celebrate but I can only stay an hour. I have other plans.” EVEN IF YOUR OTHER PLANS ARE HAVING A BOTTLE OF WINE WHILE WATCHING HALLMARK MOVIES.

Setting a boundary with family members
Photo by Samira Rahi

Space Boundaries

Space boundaries are what you allow into your space. For example, my partner and I prefer not to have people come over to our house, for the most part. It is our sacred space for retreat and we like to keep it that way. Yours might be different.

Financial Boundaries

Financial boundaries are all about how you choose to spend your money. This can be a tricky one, especially with romantic and family relationships. Maybe you have a brother who wants to borrow money, but you know he has a history of not paying people back. Will that affect your relationship if you loan him the money? Will you hold a grudge or resent him if he doesn’t pay you back? Consider your own financial goals here and what fits within your values.

How do you set boundaries? 4 Parts of setting a Healthy Boundary

There are a few ways to set boundaries, and sometimes when boundaries are crossed in a relationship, you may have to set them multiple times. That’s ok. It is your job to maintain the boundaries, it is the other person’s choice if they want to respect the boundaries you set. No matter how you choose to have the conversation, keep the following 4 tips on setting boundaries in mind.

"It is the other person’s choice if they want to respect the boundaries you set"

Be clear, be specific

When setting boundaries with family, friends, or romantic partners, you want to be very clear and specific. Use short sentences. Give relevant examples if you have some. Speak directly.

Ask for understanding, and have a conversation

After you have set your boundary, ask the person two questions: 1. What do you think that might look like? 2. Does that seem doable to you?

Having them repeat back to you what they heard or what they think you are saying will give you the opportunity to rephrase if needed, or to know that they recognize what you are asking for. Asking them if it seems like something they can do is a way to subtly get a commitment that they acknowledge that they can change the behavior as requested.

Explain why it’s important to you

Maybe your loved one won’t understand your boundary, and that’s ok. Explaining why it's important to you will (hopefully) evoke some empathy from them, even if they don’t understand it. Avoid using language that blames them here, such as “you stress me out too much.” Use “I statements” and say something like “I prefer to have my weekends planned out in advance, because it stresses me out to try and make last minute plans.”

Expect to have to repeat yourself

This might be the hardest part. You are asking someone to change the way they interact with you, and it might take some practice. Expect them to forget or to fail a couple of times. What’s important here is for you to look for the effort. Of course, if they continue to mess up or don’t appear to be making an effort to respect your boundaries, it might be time to reevaluate the relationship. Maybe you need to make a stronger boundary, or something more drastic to show them that you are serious. This balance will be unique to you and your comfort level, but remember that no one is perfect and change is hard.

Ultimately, a boundary is you telling people what works for you to be your best self in relationship with them, and I would hope that would be appealing to anyone that loves you and wants to be around you.

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If you are having difficulty setting boundaries in your relationships, I would be honored to help you work through any blocks or resistance that is stopping you from being your best self in your relationships. Schedule a free consultation today!

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