In this article we will talk about healthy relationship boundaries, what they are and how to set them in relationships.
The happiest, healthiest relationships share similar characteristics.
These couples appear to enjoy each other’s company. When they disagree, they seem to work it out.
They seem to trust each other and feel secure within the relationship without going so far as to take it for granted.
Healthy relationships also share one other commonality: they have strong boundaries.
In the interest of full disclosure, I often struggle with healthy boundaries.
Too often, I lost myself within relationships with no idea how it even happened in the first place.
It’s been a growth journey, but I’ve learned what healthy boundaries are, how to set them, and how to maintain them over time.
What are Boundaries?
When we think of boundaries in a relationship, we might think of a carefully guarded wall that keeps other people out.
The reality is that healthy relationship boundaries are more like a fence that separates our individual identity from that of others.
It’s not a prison that keeps us locked in or a wall that keeps other people out but a reminder of property lines — and shouldn’t we all really belong to ourselves?
Boundaries are the limits between us and other people. In relationships, they are an outline of the behaviors we find acceptable and the ones that are unacceptable.
In short, healthy boundaries teach others the right way to treat us.
Healthy personal boundaries can help us have good working relationships, satisfying romantic relationships, and even thriving friendships.
Yet, if we didn’t have a model of healthy relationships growing up, we might find it difficult to know how to implement strong boundaries within our relationships.
Recommended read: Healthy Relationships: 5 Powerful Habits of Truly Happy Couples
How to Set Relationship Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries is necessary for relationships to thrive. It’s best to talk about boundaries when we’re calm and have the time for a conversation.
We need to allow enough time to speak and to allow our partners to communicate also.
1. Insist on Respectful Communication
Perhaps the most important boundary for relationships is to insist upon respectful communication.
This particular boundary should be non-negotiable. It’s important that partners speak to each other with respect and kindness — even during heated exchanges.
Yelling, name-calling, condescension, and other disrespectful forms of communication should not be tolerated within healthy relationships.
A big part of learning to communicate respectfully is talking about any unhealthy communication patterns we may have learned.
If we can talk openly about the areas where we struggle, we’ll be more likely to gain our partner’s support in working on these challenges.
Being able to gently remind each other can be a way to transform communication styles.
Respectfully communicating isn’t the same thing as avoiding conflict. Avoiding disagreements isn’t honest or respectful.
Instead of trying to eliminate all arguments, it’s important that we learn how to argue effectively.
An effective argument has nothing to do with persuading the other person that we’re right or that they’re wrong.
It has everything to do with expressing how we feel in a way that doesn’t blame, shame, or judge the other person.
It’s equally important that we allow the other person time to share how they feel once we’ve expressed ourselves.
If tempers are running hot, it could be important to suggest a time-out for both parties to take space and calm down before returning to discuss the issue.
This is a respectful way to handle escalating emotions.
2. Keep an Individual Identity
Another way to set boundaries in relationships is to maintain an individual identity. It’s important that we protect our time and our interests even when we’re in relationships.
For instance, if we prefer an early bedtime because we know we’ll feel better the next day, we should set a boundary even if our partner is a night-owl who likes to stay up late.
We don’t have to give up our interests in healthy relationships.
We should be able to have time away from the relationship to indulge our hobbies or spend time with friends.
While it can be enjoyable to include our partners at times, we shouldn’t feel obligated to do so — particularly if our interests and theirs don’t align.
3. Maintain Individual Privacy
We all have the right to individual privacy. In a healthy relationship with strong boundaries, partners don’t go through each other’s phones, emails, or social media accounts.
They don’t open each other’s mail or read their partner’s diary. There’s a sense of “yours” and “mine” that allows for some things to be private.
This also includes our thoughts and experiences.
We get to choose just how much we share with the people we partner.
In a healthy relationship, we won’t be pressured to share the number of sexual partners we had or any other intimate details that we may not feel comfortable sharing.
Past traumas, past relationships, and even our private thoughts or feelings aren’t fair game.
We have the right to keep some things to ourselves and to choose, at our own discretion, how much of our internal world we share with others.
Recommended read: 17 Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse
4. Communicate and Respect Sexual Boundaries
An important conversation around relationship boundaries should involve sexual preferences and limitations. “No” only ever means “no”.
It’s not open to interpretation.
Beyond that, it’s important to respect a partner’s need for contraceptives, to discuss sexual fantasies as well as limits in a way that doesn’t criticize or shame another person, and to be able to decline sex without requiring an explanation.
People often find it easier to have sex than to talk about it.
Yet, consent is important in all areas of our relationships. We need to feel free to say no or to communicate what we want and need without feeling a sense of shame around it.
Healthy relationships with strong boundaries include an ability to open up about intimacy.
5. Find a Balance of Togetherness and Space
In a coupled healthy relationship, there should be a balance of togetherness and space — one couple identity and two separate individual identities.
To set a boundary for space, we need to speak up when we need time to ourselves. It’s equally important to speak up when we feel like we need more time with a partner.
If one person needs more space and one needs more togetherness, then it’s important to talk about how each person can get their needs met within the relationship.
Finding that balance is essential to the overall health of the romantic bond.
It’s essential that we recognize that having healthy time together also involves giving our partners are undivided attention.
That could look like putting our phones away over dinner or eliminating other distractions to have an important conversation.
We need to make sure that we’re not giving one aspect of our life the best of us and letting our partners have the worn-out, stressed-out rest of us.
Relationships that lack this balance are often codependent and have no space, or they have too much space and not enough true intimacy.
In either case, the relationship suffers as we either lose our individual identities or fail to form a coupled one.
It’s possible to have both — to have the time you spend together and the things you enjoy doing and to have time you happily spend apart, too.
Recommended read: 6 Signs of a Good Life Partner
6. Be Each Other’s Number One Fan
Healthy boundaries also include supporting each other’s separate interests. It’s not just about insisting on having our own time or encouraging them to have theirs.
It’s equally important that we fully support their separate individual identity and that they support ours.
We shouldn’t be afraid of our partner’s growing and succeeding. In fact, we should celebrate their accomplishments.
Oftentimes, partners with low self-esteem struggle with this aspect of healthy boundaries.
It can be difficult to support others if that support increases the fear of losing the relationship or highlights, by contrast, any personal failings.
7. Love Yourself to Love Your Partner
Self-love is such an important component of establishing healthy boundaries. If we don’t realize we’re worthy of love and respect, we won’t insist upon it in our relationships.
We’ll take what we can get and tuck away any dissatisfaction.
The better we love ourselves, the more we’ll be able to love our partners. As we establish and grow our individual identity, we’ll be more open to allowing them theirs.
As we learn to speak more respectfully, we may find that our disagreements are able to be resolved more peacefully. By taking good care of ourselves, we can show up more fully within our relationships.
8. Allow Boundaries to Evolve
Major life changes could necessitate new boundaries.
Healthy relationship boundaries aren’t a one-and-done conversation. They’ll need to be discussed regularly, particularly when they need to change.
Part of having healthy relationships is allowing room to adapt to changes in the other person and/or the relationship dynamic.
Boundaries don’t, however, look like restricting the other person from doing something they like or enjoy. It’s not a way to control our partners.
Rather, it’s a way to advocate for our needs while respecting the other person’s need to advocate for theirs. It should flow in both directions and not restrict one another.
9. Be Clear When Setting Healthy Relationship Boundaries
When setting boundaries, don’t be vague. It’s important to set clear parameters on what exactly it is we need.
If we need our partners to help out more around the house so that we don’t feel like we’re alone doing it, we might need to discuss the division of housework in specifics so that everyone is aware of the expectation.
If we want our partners not to interrupt us during the workday unless it’s for an emergency, then we may need to specify what qualifies as an emergency.
Part of being clear also means outlining the consequences of violating our boundaries. We can clearly communicate that we won’t tolerate being yelled at and will walk away if it continues.
We can share that we’re going to take some space until they can speak to us respectfully. This isn’t meant to be a threat but a way of enforcing the boundaries that we set.
10. Apologize When You Mess Up
A big part of learning to set and maintain healthy relationship boundaries is being able to admit when we’ve messed up.
Learning to effectively apologize is just as important as any other communication skill.
It shows we can be accountable for our actions, make amends, and show that we’re learning to do better.
We will mess up when we first start setting boundaries with one another.
Maybe we get jealous when our partner spends time with friends and not us before we remember that we agreed to take some separate space to nurture our friendships.
Maybe we lose our tempers and raise our voices when angry.
There are so many ways to screw it up, but it’s important that we admit that we did, apologize, ask how we can fix it, and then — most importantly — do better.
Setting Boundaries in a Relationship: Final Thoughts
Healthy relationships don’t just work without putting in a little work.
We need to be able to talk out what relationship boundaries look like, what we need, and what we want for ourselves and our relationships.
It’s important that we’re kind, honest, clear, and able to address any differences with respect.
As we develop healthy boundaries, we might notice that some of our relationships don’t survive this boundary-setting process.
That’s a natural, if painful, element of change.
Anyone who refuses to respect our boundaries isn’t capable of a healthy relationship.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set them. It could mean that we need to take a closer look at the relationships in our lives to see if they align with our current values and lifestyle.
Other relationships will only grow stronger from talking openly about boundaries. In fact, it may introduce an opportunity for partners and friends to share what they want and need more openly.
If we want to have relationship goals, we need to put away our fear of conflict and embrace the vulnerability and courage that true intimacy requires.
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