How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

When we talk about healthy relationships, we tend to talk about aspects like love, respect, communication, and working together. None of these things are possible without setting boundaries in a relationship.

boundaries in relationships


What Are Boundaries in a Relationship?

When we hear “boundaries” and “relationship” being said together, it sounds like a set of controlling rules which will turn the relationship into a prison. Really, boundaries are not about controlling the other person. They aren’t even about the other person. Relationship boundaries are about you.

Relationship boundaries are about knowing what your limits are. These limits are set to protect yourself. As Life Esteem says of boundaries, “they make it possible for us to separate our own thoughts and feelings from those of others and to take responsibility for what we think, feel and do.”

When you have healthy boundaries in your relationship, you will take responsibility for YOUR actions (and reactions), and not the actions and emotions of your partner.

Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend describe it well in their book Boundaries in Marriage:

“To have good boundaries is to be separate enough from the other person that you can allow her to have her own experience without reacting with your own. Such a clear stance of separateness allows you not to react, but to care and empathize.”

People with high self-esteem and a strong sense of self will have clear boundaries. For example, a self-confident woman will have a clearly defined boundary in the relationship: cheat on me, and the relationship is over.   By contrast, a woman who lacks self-confidence may let her boyfriend repeatedly cheat on her, even though it is destroying her emotionally.

relationship boundaries


Signs You Have a Boundary Problem in Your Relationship

There are two sides of boundary problems in a relationship:

  1. Problem setting boundaries
  2. Problem with impeding on the other person’s boundaries

If you have a problem setting boundaries, then you will take responsibility for the actions/emotions of your partner.  For example: I can’t hang out with you anymore because my boyfriend is too jealous.

If you have problems with impeding on your partner’s boundaries, then you will expect your partner to take responsibility for your actions/emotions. For example: If you really loved me, you wouldn’t go out to bars anymore.

Not surprisingly, people with these sort of boundary problems are drawn to each other. Boundary issues in a relationship are similar to codependent relationships or narcissism relationships in that, in both scenarios, one or both partners are taking responsibility for actions and emotions which aren’t their own.


Here are some of the common signs that you have a problem setting boundaries in your relationship:

  • You feel incomplete without your partner
  • You feel like you can’t express what you want
  • You feel like you are being taken advantage of
  • You feel like you constantly have to “save” your partner or fix his/her problems
  • You are constantly being sucked into bickering and fighting
  • You feel like your relationship is always either great or terrible, but never in-between
  • You break repeatedly up only to get back together
  • You find yourself deeply involved in the relationship, even after knowing the person just a short time


Where do Boundary Problems Come From?

Psychology says that boundary issues in relationships come from childhood and are learned from dysfunctional or abusive family situations (though you can certainly have boundary issues even if you weren’t raised in an abusive family).

As children, we seek out love and affection from our family. Without a sense of love, we feel worthless. To get this love and affection, we try to please everyone. The underlying idea is that we can make other people happy, then we will get the sense of love and worth that we desire. But you cannot make anyone happy but yourself. As adults, we need to learn to get past our ingrained fears of worthlessness. We have to make decisions based on what is good for us, and not out of fear that we will be rejected, end up alone, or feel unwanted.

Mark Manson describes it very well:

“People who take the blame for other people’s emotions and actions are always looking to save someone. They believe that if they can “fix” their partner, then they will receive the love and appreciation they’ve always wanted.

People who blame others for their own emotions and actions do so because they believe that if they put the responsibility on those around them, they’ll receive the love they’ve always wanted and needed. If they constantly paint themselves as a victim, eventually someone will come save them.”

When you put two people with boundary issues together in a relationship (one with problems setting boundaries and the other with problems impeding on boundaries), you have a recipe for disaster. Neither partner can succeed in meeting the other’s needs, and they only perpetuate the neediness.


How to Set Boundaries in a Relationship

At Psych Central, Dr. Gionta says that having healthy boundaries in a relationship means “knowing and understanding what your limits are.”  She suggests naming your limits – such as saying them directly to your partner or writing them down for yourself.

The problem is that we often don’t know what our limits are until we are in the situation. For example, you might not realize that you have limits about your spouse come late for dinner until it happens the 10th time. By this time, feelings of resentment may have already set in and you have to backtrack in order to establish boundaries which have already been crossed.


Using Language to Set Boundaries in Your Relationship

One of the best ways to set boundaries in a relationship is to use language. Some examples of using language to set relationship boundaries include saying:

  • I don’t like it when you do that.
  • I want to do this.
  • I like this.

When using language to set boundaries in your relationship, it is important that you focus on your feelings and not the actions of the other person. Otherwise, the other person can feel attacked or like you are “nagging”.

For example:

I feel like you don’t respect me and how much work I put into making dinner when you forget to call and say you won’t be home for dinner.


How could you do that to me after all I have done for you!

In the first example, you are taking responsibility for your emotions and actions. In the second example, you are blaming the other person for how you feel.


Boundaries must be backed up with consequences

For boundaries to work, they must be backed up by clear consequences. Otherwise, the boundaries will have no meaning.


Examples of clear boundaries and consequences in a relationship are:

  • When your husband is late for dinner, you eat without him instead of waiting.
  • When your partner starts yelling on the phone, you hang up.
  • When your partner cheats on you, you end the relationship.

Remember that consequences shouldn’t be mere threats. At IPFW, the counselors say that,


“If you are setting boundaries in a relationship, and you are not yet at a point where you are ready to leave the relationship then don't say that you will leave. Never state something that you are not willing to follow through with.

Setting boundaries is not about making threats. It is about giving them choices and then consequences for the poor decisions they make, much like we do with our parenting skills.



Boundaries and Consequences vs. Sacrifice

In healthy relationships, compromise and some degree of sacrifice is always needed – like if you decide to forgo your career to move with your boyfriend to a new state for his job. However, there is a big difference between making self sacrifices for the sake of your relationship and allowing your partner to trample on your boundaries.


Boundaries should not be flexible and are not a choice. By contrast, sacrifices in a relationship are a choice. When you make a sacrifice for the sake of your relationship, you do it because you want to and not out of fear of consequences. Your decision whether to make the sacrifice should not affect the status of your relationship or your feeling of being loved. When you understand this, you are on your way to setting healthy relationship boundaries while still being able to compromise. .

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