Setting Boundaries in Your Relationship

Health Writer

In every relationship we develop we set boundaries, usually without even realizing it. For example:

  • Your relationship with your co-workers may be "strictly professional." You may choose to be friendly and work cooperatively during work hours but choose not to get together socially with the people at work.
  • You may be friendly with your neighbors, feeling at ease making small talk and chatting about your children while standing outside but you don't reveal much about your personal life.
  • You share different details of your life with different people, not divulging much personal information with acquaintances but talking about more personal aspects with close friends.
  • You draw the line between being a parent and being a friend, understanding that no matter how well you get along with your child, you still need to set and enforce rules.

All of these are examples of setting boundaries. We all do this naturally in many relationships in our life, but sometimes, the lines become blurry when it comes to the most important relationship in our life. Sometimes, we allow our partner to step over the lines we have drawn because we are afraid of losing him or her.

Knowing Your Boundaries

Boundaries explain to your partner how you expect to be treated; they protect you from emotional hurt. While there is a certain set of boundaries that should be in place in every relationship, for example, physical abuse should never be tolerated, each person may have their own unique set of behaviors they can and cannot accept within their relationship.

Look back at previous relationships. What worked? What didn't? What types of behaviors made you feel loved and respected? What types of behaviors made you feel disrespected, used or uncomfortable? Write down what behaviors make you feel good about yourself. Make a list of those behaviors you find undesirable and those that you don't want to accept within a relationship. This is the beginning of your list of boundaries. The following are some examples:

  • I expect privacy. I do not want anyone going through my personal belongings without my permission.
  • I expect my partner to help around the house.
  • I do not like when my partner yells or screams at me.
  • I have the right to go out with my friends, alone, and without an interrogation about my time away from the relationship.
  • I want someone who is understanding and will listen, without judgment, when I have a problem.
  • I feel uncomfortable when someone tells jokes that make fun of a certain set of people or are insulting or degrading of other people.
  • I expect honesty and openness in a relationship.

Remember, you have a right to demand respect within a relationship. You are important, your needs are important. You deserve to be treated in a way that makes you feel good.  This may be different for each person, so it is important to make a list of what you feel is respectful.

Talking to Your Partner

Usually, we choose to be with people that naturally respect us. We choose to be with those who have shown us respect. However, there are times when even the best partner crosses the line and ignores our boundaries. The following are some tips on talking with your partner:

  • Address the behavior rather than criticizing your partner. Use statements such as "I feel bad when"" or "I feel uncomfortable when"" instead of "You make me feel bad when"" Starting out a conversation by criticizing your partner only increases the chances of the conversation ending in an argument.
  • Talk when you are both calm. If you feel a boundary has been crossed, you probably feel angry. This isn't the best time to address the situation. Take some time and wait until your emotions have calmed down.
  • Be confident, firm and direct. Wavering in what you say or using body language that shows you are unsure of yourself sends the message that you are willing to accept less than you are saying. Explain what your boundary is and what you will do if it is crossed. For example, instead of saying, "I don't like it when you yell at me," state, "It makes me uncomfortable when you yell at me. I am asking you to talk to me without yelling. I will leave the room if you yell."

When thinking about your boundaries and what you will accept, decide on consequences you are willing to enforce. If you are not ready to carry out a consequence, don't state it, your partner will not take you seriously. For example, in the scenario in the previous point, the consequence was "I will leave the room if you yell." If you had instead said "I will leave you if you yell," but you are not ready to leave, your partner will see this as an empty threat and feel he can continue to yell.

Adapted from:

The Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, 2011, Monique Belton and Eileen Bailey, Penguin Books, New York