How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Your Relationships

articles lifestyle Feb 12, 2020

At the beginning of a romantic relationship, you may not be able to get enough of your lover. New romances are often characterized by an intense desire to be together. The thrill of creating love relationships is in closing space between the self and the other person. The desire to explore the mysterious unknown of another being is one of the greatest joys in life. As human beings, the desire for intimacy is a magnetic pull.


Once a relationship begins, the need to form and maintain clear boundaries becomes more pronounced. Many people struggle with the distinction between themself and the other person because they may be confused about the value of appropriate boundaries. The feeling of love and closeness for the other person may hinder the ability to create clear and cohesive boundaries.  


Dr. Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist from California, describes boundaries as "the line where I end and, someone else begins...Without any line, the distinction becomes confusing: Who owns and maintains this ambiguous space? Which rules apply?"


Though it may seem counterintuitive, a line of distinction between two people supports and nurtures intimacy. When two people have established practices of respect and communication, there is no need to create rigid protective mechanisms or to avoid intimacy for fear of being hurt.  


When we know our partner will routinely respect our needs, limitations, and opinions, we can be at ease rather than building protective walls around ourselves. A sense of safety in a relationship leads to a more profound ability to love and support one another.  


What are Unhealthy Boundaries?


In a less healthy relationship, a partner may not bother to discover his or her partner's feelings or viewpoint, assuming it to be the same as theirs. Assuming how a loved one feels, rather than asking, shows a lack of respect for that person's autonomy. Furthermore, a partner in such a relationship may knowingly overstep their partner's boundary and expect that person will 'get over it,' again showing a lack of respect. 


Ineffective boundaries will often use superlatives like 'always' or 'never.' With relationships of any kind, communication is at the very heart of the connection. We must be aware that 'words are things'- the words that we use matter and will shape the quality of our relationship. When we say things like, 'you always forget to take out the trash,' or 'you never take me anywhere,' we are condemning the other person. We must also ask ourselves, is it true? Do they never take out the trash? Do they always fail to take us out? Probably not. Likewise, making demands about what a lover must always or never do is not only unfair; it is unrealistic. For relationships to flourish, we must allow for flexibility within healthy and respectful parameters.  


Using manipulation tactics or attempting to enforce double standards are also boundary violations. These are ways of trying to control another person while failing to take into account their abilities, needs, or desires in a given situation. For instance, "If you don't wash the dishes, I'm not going with you to your company Christmas party," or "I can keep a password lock on my phone, but you can't because I don't trust you."


Communicating with manipulation or double standards comes from fear and the lack of trust. Fear-based communication indicates a desire to control the partner rather than work together to find a solution.  


Being vague or completely silent about boundaries and expectations will also come with many pitfalls. Saying things like, "I want you to act as though you care," doesn't tell your partner what exact behavior or words you need to receive from them. Partners may also altogether fail to communicate what they need to say. As an example, you may want your partner to take out the trash, but instead of saying this, you allow the bin to get fuller and fuller. All the while, you become angrier and angrier. The risk here is not only that your need is not being met but also that your resentment will leak out into other parts of the relationship. Failing to communicate or responding with passive-aggression may confuse your partner and may deteriorate the quality of your relationship. 



Forming Healthy Boundaries


Proper boundaries are more than just guidelines for what is too far. We can also say that healthy boundaries entail parameters and expectations for what is not far enough. In other words, if you open and read through my private phone messages, you have violated my boundaries by overstepping my space. A boundary violation can also be something more passive like your partner not calling to tell you they will be 2 hours late getting home tonight.  


These areas of focus can get you started with boundary setting:


Self-Awareness: Before you can even think about telling your partner what you need, want, and expect, you have to know yourself. Becoming aware of where you stand in important or everyday issues is as simple as listening to the innate responses of your own body and emotions. When you find yourself feeling nervous, angry, or drained when your partner does a behavior, ask yourself why and find out what you need in that situation. 


Communicate with Clarity:  Once you are aware of what behavior your partner is doing to bother, hurt, or overstep you, you are responsible for communicating that to them. Your partner loves you, but that doesn't mean he or she is a mind reader. They may not know that what they are doing is a problem for you. In relationships, we are allowed to have preferences and expectations. Communicate those. An example would be, "I need for you to tell me when you will be home late so that I won't worry."


Be Specific, Get Right to the Point:  Though you may feel it harsh to be blunt about your wishes, in actuality, you are doing your partner a favor. Being direct and specific cuts out the game-playing, manipulation, and passive-aggressiveness that so often poisons relationships. Here are some examples:

  • "I love you, but I am unwilling to gossip about her with you; it makes me uncomfortable."
  • "You may not open my mail. You are overstepping my boundaries if you read my correspondences."
  • "I will be happy to help you with that project at 3 pm. Right now, I need to finish an assignment.  


Set Loving Boundaries: Setting boundaries can feel a little bit scary when you worry it will push your partner away. You have permission to form and maintain boundaries while communicating them to your partner with love. Be lucid and loving simultaneously.  

As an example, "I want you to know that I love you, and our relationship is essential to me. I am willing to discuss and work out our problems, but I expect you to treat me with respect always. Calling me names is not ok. I want to discuss whose responsibility childcare is, but I will not allow you to accuse me of being a bad parent."


Opt for "I" Rathe than "You" Statements: When we begin our statement with 'you,' the other person is automatically primed to go into defensive mode. 'You' phrases are inherently laced with blame. When a person feels accused, it is tough for an objective and fair discussion to ensue. It may be tempting to blurt a 'you' statement in the heat of anger or hurt feelings, but choosing to use "I" expressions instead cultivates peace and understanding. 

Try, "I feel hurt when you ignore my calls all day because..." Expressing your position allows you to take responsibility for your feelings and needs and to demonstrate them. It also allows your partner to respond or correct their behavior with a better understanding of what you need. "I" statements are vulnerable and can open up more intimacy and honesty in a conversation.

Keep a Positive Focus:  Most of us have heard of a compliment sandwich. When you need to give constructive criticism to your partner, it can be a little touchy knowing how to do so without causing hurt feelings. The compliment sandwich method is a wise way to go. In this strategy, you begin the discussion by expressing your appreciation or admiration for some aspect of your partner then after finding a respectful way of expressing your criticism, finish it up with another positive acknowledgment.


For example, "You've always been so reliable with maintaining our home; right now, I need you to follow through with the roof repair you started. I love that you are such a handy person." This type of statement lets your partner know that you appreciate them and communicates your need or preference without attacking or accusing.


In navigating relationship boundaries, the keywords are clarity, honesty, and respect. We all have different perspectives, preferences, and requirements. It is impossible to read another person's mind to know their boundaries without opening honest dialogue. By being clear and direct, you can eliminate most misunderstandings and avoid hurt feelings.


Communicate what you need and expect with respect, love, and appreciation. Healthy boundaries can lead to a lasting healthy relationship.  


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