You lock the door when you leave your apartment, set a glorious out of office message when you go on vacation, and almost always say no to party invitations that start after 10 p.m. (JOMO Is the new FOMO, after all). But when it comes to your relationship, your boundaries are pretty nonexistent because, well, what’s romantic about that?
When the message is so often that true love means being around your partner all the time and being willing to do anything for them, saying "no" can feel like cause for a breakup. But, turns out, it *is* possible—and is actually a healthier approach to your relationship—to show you care for your S.O. while still showing that you care for your own time and values.
"Stating our boundaries is about showing respect to ourselves and our own needs," says Dr. Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, a licensed counselor and the chair of the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at Northern Illinois University. "Our first and most important relationship is with our own selves. If we do not tend to this relationship, we are not going to be able to manage optimal relationships with others."
No matter how much it feels like you and bae might be able to read each others' minds, it's always good to communicate directly about your boundaries. If a partner is left to guess at what they might be, they can repeatedly do something you aren't comfortable with, causing you to become more and more resentful—while they don't even register their behavior is bothering you. Let these feelings fester, and you're looking at potential negative effects on the quality, if not the success, of the relationship, says Dr. Carla M. Shuman, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist.
But like most things, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to start having these conversations. Here's everything you need to know about how to set boundaries in a relationship.
Why are boundaries important for a healthy relationship?
A lot of times, when people hear the word "boundaries," they have images of a wall—or another barrier—that you put up between yourself and your partner. They're assumed to be a negative aspect of a relationship, something that a partner uses to shut you out. But, experts say, nothing could be further from the truth.
"As soon as we talk about setting boundaries, it’s interpreted as being calculative and not fully 'in,'" says Sara Nasserzadeh, PhD, a social psychologist and sexuality counselor in Newport Beach, California. "This is the root of the problem."
Boundaries, Degges-White explains, are a way of ensuring both your and your partner's emotional well-being. You are able to tell your S.O. exactly what you need out of the relationship and what you're willing to do for them while also promising that you will respect what they want and what they are willing to do. Having this conversation early in a relationship helps to minimize conflict, resentment, and anxiety moving forward, Degges-White adds. It's all about meeting your partner's needs but also valuing your own.
"By setting boundaries, we are confirming that we believe that we are worthy of respect," she says.
Which boundaries don't work in a relationship?
It's much healthier to discuss your wants, needs, and expectations before it gets to the point when someone in the relationship hits a wall and just can't take a particular behavior anymore. "The worst way to try and set a boundary is when you are doing so in the moment and out of anger," says Degges-White.
An important thing to keep in mind: When you realize something is a boundary for you, you also get to reserve the right for that boundary not to be completely rigid. A good boundary is permeable, explains Shuman. "You want boundaries that, at times, a person can cross, whether they're physical or emotional, but you also don't want them to be nonexistent," she says. The key here is that you—not anyone else—get to decide when you want to bend a particular boundary.
Stating something is a boundary is also not an excuse for controlling behavior. A partner tracking your location, limiting what you can wear, or dictating who you can see are all actions that should give you pause.
How to set boundaries in your relationship:
1. Start with self-reflection.
It makes sense that if you don't know what your boundaries are, you won't be able to effectively communicate them to your partner. While this might seem obvious, Shuman says many people don't realize that something is a boundary until a particular behavior of their partner's starts to bother them. (But like, could you please not answer your friend's text when we're in the middle of dinner.)
"Before you can communicate boundaries with your partner, you have to really know what your boundaries are and sometimes people don’t," she explains. "You have to go through the self-awareness phase before you can really communicate with your partner."
Oprah understands the importance of setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. So, take it from her:
2. Don’t procrastinate.
If you don’t think about what your boundaries are, your partner will wind up defining them for you—likely, by crossing them (again and again). "This is one of the main reasons why, after a while, people get resentful toward their partners or feel bad about themselves when they see they were not as clear about setting their own boundaries," Nasserzadeh says.
3. Consider: touch, words, time, and distance.
It’s not always easy to know what your boundaries are, especially in a new relationship. Erika Lawrence, a clinical psychologist and director of translational science at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, recommends thinking about your boundaries in four categories: touch, words, time, and physical and emotional distance.
So maybe you’re only cool with handholding in public (touch), won’t accept name-calling (words), value alone time (time), and care about moving slowly, emotionally, in a relationship (distance). Then, trust your gut, Lawrence says. "If you’re not ready to move that boundary, anyone who is worth being with will respect that."
4. Recite your boundaries.
If you’re new to "boundary setting," it may help to meditate on them in the mornings— maybe in conjunction with an intention-setting practice—until they simply become part of the way you think and act. "When you 'are' a person with clear boundaries," Nasserzadeh says, "you don’t need to 'do' boundary-setting every day." Just like eating right and exercising, it becomes just another part of your lifestyle.
5. Start the boundary-setting discussion.
There’s no one way to talk about your boundaries. Maybe discussions about, say, how you both feel about canceling plans might come up organically, while others, like your need to give consent before your partner tries anything masochistic in the bedroom, may need to be stated more proactively.
One way into those kinds of conversations is to ask your partner first how they feel about certain lines, Lawrence says. Is texting during the workday cool or disruptive? Is canceling a date easily forgivable or totally offensive? Feelings on kissing in public? "It can feel artificial because it’s not a conversation we’re used to having, unless our boundaries have been violated," Lawrence notes. But it'll get easier. "Over time, it can feel more natural, and you kind of make it your own."
6. Lead by example.
It’s not enough to just talk about your boundaries. You also need to act like someone who deserves respect. "When you deeply respect yourself, it manifests in certain behaviors," Nasserzadeh says. For instance, is your partner always served first at dinner? Are you always the one to adjust your schedule when there’s a conflict? "Be aware if you are constantly sending signals that you come in second," she advises.
7. Use a scale from 1 to 10 to call out boundary crossing.
Sometimes, boundaries get crossed. It’s how you handle that violation that can make or break a relationship. First, avoid addressing the misstep in the heat of the moment, and instead, raise your concern when you’re both calm. "If the person you are dating is always a few minutes late and this bothers you, you need to speak about this kindly but firmly—not alluding to it, mentioning it in the passing, or [addressing it] jokingly," Nasserzadeh says.
She recommends using a scale of 1 to 10 to make it clear how important each point is to you. Saying, "Ugh, it’s so annoying that you’re always late" likely won’t result in any significant changes. Saying, "On a scale from 1 to 10, promptness is an 8—that’s how important it is to me" should do the trick.
8. Use "I" statements and other therapist-approved conversation techniques.
Begin the conversation by "setting the stage," Lawrence suggests, which means noting something that you value in the relationship. You might open with, "You’re very important to me, so I want to tell you the truth," for example. Then, name the behavior you’d like to change using "I" statements to explain how that action (or inaction)—not the person—makes you feel. Maybe you say, "I feel frustrated when you say you’ll pay the bills, and then you don’t send in the money." Finally, make a direct request for the behavior to change. For instance: "I want you to follow through when you say you’ll do X."
9. Recognize that discomfort is normal—and, in some ways, culturally enforced.
Being assertive can feel uncomfortable in part because women are typically socialized to be more passive, Lawrence says. "Sometimes, we have to get over the way we’re socialized not to speak up on our own behalf."
But once you do, it will pay off. "It can be really freeing—it’s showing that you respect yourself, and it’s showing how you expect to be treated," she says. "It can really create a wonderful structure of a healthy relationship."
10. Know your deal breakers.
Some boundary violations, like physical or emotional abuse, should be straight-up deal breakers across the board. Others, like infidelity, may be less clear-cut. Either way, if you’ve followed these steps and your partner continues to violate your boundaries, take that as a serious sign this relationship isn’t for you, Lawrence says. Your deal breakers are deal breakers for a reason, and if your S.O. doesn't respect them, that's as good a reason as any to end the relationship before it becomes unhealthy.
Anna Medaris Miller
Anna Lekas Miller is a writer and journalist who covers stories of the ways that conflict and migration shape the lives of people around the world. She has reported from Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, and her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The Intercept, New Lines Magazine, CNN, and many others. She lives in London with her partner, Syrian journalist Salem Rizk.