A guide for setting healthy boundaries in relationships
Humans are social animals. Our very existence relies on our relationships with others and many aspects of our well-being hinges on the quality of those relationships. Whether you are the type to have many relationships or just a few, healthy relationships are critical to your survival.
Notice that “healthy relationships” are key. Could we survive with just unhealthy relationships? Most likely, yes… as long as they are not physically harmful to us. But to thrive, to truly be happy and operate from a place of well-being, we need healthy relationships.
Just how do we go about having healthy relationships? Well, if you’ve been following the blog or have ever attended one of my speaking events, you know healthy relationships rely on healthy boundaries in those relationships.
Often, we learn about setting boundaries in relationships as we are growing up. But for many of my clients and readers, somewhere along the way, their capacity to set healthy boundaries was distorted. For many others, they were never taught how to set healthy relationship boundaries. Whether either of these are true for you, or you’re just looking for ways to improve, here are 5 tips to help you set healthy boundaries in relationships.
How to set boundaries in relationships:
- Identify what you want/don’t want in relationships – before you can set boundaries, it’s important to know what you want and don’t want in relationships. Just like your desires, needs and wants, your boundaries will be different than those of your partner’s, friends’ and family’s. It’s important to know where you stand so you can determine the appropriate boundaries for
- Be aware of your feelings – some relationships are easier than others. Some of our relationships can feel easy in comparison to others. Maybe our needs/wants/boundaries align well with those of the other person, and the relationship just has an easy, effortless feel to it. But, we know this is not always true. With some people, it feels as though we are misunderstood, our toes seem get stepped on more often than we’d like, or we just can’t seem to get completely comfortable in our relationship. The first and most important step to setting boundaries in relationships is to recognize, identify and be aware of our feelings. How do we feel when relating to this other person? Do we feel that our privacy is often invaded? Are we asked to show up and participate in this relationship in ways that make us feel uncomfortable? Do we have a general feeling of unease in the relationship? If something just doesn’t “feel” right, this indicates a need to explore and honor our feelings. If the relationship feels more negative than positive, then it’s possible the boundaries need assessment.
- Identify what you’re willing to accept from a particular person – In every relationship, there is an element of give and take. Our boundaries will likely vary from person to person. While we should always have boundaries that protect us from harm, other boundaries may fall into a grey area, depending what role that person plays in our life (our mother versus a romantic partner, for example). Other people aren’t perfect, so we need to be clear about areas in which we’re willing to compromise and those in which we are not (for example, we should never compromise our boundaries that buffer us from any sort of abuse).
- Never assume the other person knows what your boundaries are – As mentioned earlier, personal boundaries are different from one person to the next, and our own boundaries will change depending on who we are dealing with. When we assume that the other person knows what our boundaries are, we set ourselves up for disappointment when our boundaries are crossed. This is not only unfair to the other person in the relationship, it’s unfair to us.
- Communicate your boundaries – be clear, specific and direct, using I statements. You can avoid many misunderstandings by being clear about your boundaries. Use clear, specific language, and be direct. It is also immensely helpful if you use “I” statements. For example, “Please don’t go through my phone; I feel like it’s an invasion of my privacy when you do. If you have a question about something, please ask me,” versus “You’re always going through my phone; you don’t trust me.” The first example is clear, direct and specific. It sets the boundary, tells the other person why you’re setting the boundary and clearly states how they can approach this in the future. The use of “I” statements minimizes the chance of your message coming across as an attack or an assumption.
- Enforce your boundaries – Determine how you will respond if someone crosses your boundaries. Sometimes, a gentle reminder (as in the case of setting boundaries with young children, or setting a new boundary with someone) is all that is needed until the person learns how to interact with you. Other times, the consequence (as in the case of abuse) may be to leave the relationship. It is helpful to determine the consequence when you are determining the boundary: My boundary is ________. If my boundary is crossed, I will _______. This will not only help you enforce your boundary, it will help you do so with a clear head, instead of trying to determine your next step in the midst of an emotional reaction.
- Be consistent – When you set a boundary with someone, you are teaching them how to interact with you. To maximize effectiveness, it’s important to be consistent. If you only enforce your boundaries sometimes, that can be confusing for the other person. Teach them that your boundary is not open to interpretation and the chances of them respecting your boundary will be greater.
Setting healthy boundaries in relationships takes practice, but with patience and a thorough understanding of what you need in order to feel safe in your interactions with others, it becomes easier over time. If you would like some guidance in setting boundaries, please contact me – I would love to help.