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Knowing how you want to be treated and learning to communicate it to others is essential for healthy relationships. Healthy boundaries help you feel more confident and prevent you from being treated in ways you are not comfortable with.


What Do We Mean By Boundaries In Relationships?


When you hear the word “boundary,” you may think of a line drawn on a map or a fence separating two properties. However, when talking about boundaries in relationships, we are discussing the behaviours we do and do not accept from others. For example, you may find it acceptable when your friend helps herself to your tea supply but not when she starts going through your fridge.

To assert such a boundary, you’ll need to somehow let your friend know the fridge is where you draw the line. Your friend can then choose whether to respect your boundary or not.

We’ll get back to how to communicate boundaries, but essentially, you could tell her that you’d prefer if she asks before helping herself to anything in the fridge. Asserting such boundaries has more impact than one might think, and I will give some key points on this below.

If your friend does not know where your boundaries are, she is less likely to treat you the way you wish to be treated. She may, for instance, notice that when she grabs a chocolate bar from your fridge, you act as if this is fine with you. The next time she visits, she might take two chocolate bars to see if this is fine too, and so on. Before you know it, the absence of boundaries leads to people walking all over you.




Examples Of Types Of Relationship Boundaries


Boundaries are necessary in all aspects of human interaction. Here are some examples of areas where people often work on their boundaries:

Material The above example with the chocolate bar illustrated a material boundary. A material boundary lets the other know to what extent they can expect you to be willing to give or share material things with them. That is, you may be willing to lend someone a book with the condition that they bring it back to you when they have finished with it.
Emotional An emotional boundary asserts your expectations of others to be considerate of your emotional wellbeing. For example, you may be open to your partner sharing constructive criticism with you about your cooking, while not accepting them actively undermining your ability to cook to make you feel bad.
Spatial This is about how you expect different people to treat your personal space. While you may be fine with a handshake from someone you just met, you may be uncomfortable if they lean in to kiss you on the cheek.
Sexual In romantic relationships or on the dating scene, sexual boundaries are essential to think about. You need to know how far you are willing to go sexually with someone, regardless of how long you have known them. For example, your partner may want to try something that you are not comfortable with, or someone you have been on a date with tries to go home with you while you feel this is too soon.


How Do I Know What My Boundaries Are?


Know what you want things to be like. For some people, this can be a challenge in itself. To learn about what you want and what you are comfortable with, you need to pay attention to your own feelings and needs.

You need to take a step back and think, “Right, what do I actually feel about the way this person is behaving? What would I rather things be like?”

The answers to such questions give you information about where your boundaries are. For example, pay attention to how you feel when your friend is helping herself to a third chocolate bar in the fridge. You notice that you feel resentful and that you wish she had behaved differently. But how would you rather she behaved? The answer might be that you wish she just asked your permission before helping herself.

Then you have identified a boundary: that your friends ask you before eating your food. But how do you get her to do that? This is the difficult bit, and many of us avoid this like the plague. For various reasons, it can be hard to communicate boundaries. We may, for example, think that doing so will lead a person not to like us, or they may ridicule us for saying something.

Such fears may hold truth sometimes, but if you make a habit of asserting boundaries, it is likely that you will see the opposite effect in the long run. We generally look up to and respect people who have clear boundaries.

Just think about a few people that you really respect. What are their boundaries? What would happen if your friend helped herself to that person’s chocolate supply without asking? Would you like or respect them less if you saw them asserting a boundary?


What If My Boundaries Are Unreasonable?


Boundaries are generally there to protect your wellbeing and fairness in relationships. However, sometimes people can form patterns of having either too vague or too strict boundaries, which can become unhelpful to the person holding them and those around them.


Too Vague

Vague boundaries are often a sign that we struggle with confidence and assertiveness. When boundaries are too vague, it can be hard for people around you to know what to do.

For example, your boss asks you if you can work on the weekend, and you know perfectly well that you have plans with family and should answer with ‘no.’ However, if you struggle to say no, you may start giving a vague response such as, “Well, I could, but I would have to rearrange a few things, and I’m not really sure.” This will make it hard for your boss to know whether she should take it as a yes or a no, and you may thus end up working on weekends during which you were originally going to see friends and family more often than necessary.


Too Rigid

When boundaries are overly rigid, this is often a sign that we struggle with vulnerability. If we feel vulnerable, boundaries can work as a shield that protects us from people getting too close.

This may work in some settings, but it can also lead us to end up quite lonely. If we don’t share vulnerability, keep people at a distance, or push people away too readily, it can be hard to enjoy close relationships with others. Thus, too much self-protection through boundaries can become counter-productive.


Rule of Thumb

If you are wondering if a boundary is too vague or too rigid, ask yourself this question: Does the boundary ensure that people treat me well while also being flexible enough to allow me to be close to people? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then you are probably on the right path.


How Do I Communicate My Boundaries?


Again, this is the tricky part. However, there are a few pieces of general advice that can be helpful to consider when you need to communicate a boundary.


1. Be Clear with Yourself

Understand where your boundaries are. If you are uncertain about what you want the relationship to be like or how you want to be treated, you may benefit from spending some time clarifying this for yourself.

This can be done by reflecting on past experiences with people and how they have made you feel. Figure out what you want and don’t want from the other in the relationship. If it is hard to remember, try writing some key points down to remind you.


2. Talk About Boundaries

Whether it is with a romantic partner or a friend, communication is key. Try to be as clear as you can when letting the other know what you need from them and why. For example, “I am fine with you having chocolate from my fridge when you come over, but I need you to ask me before helping yourself to it, because I feel disrespected if you don’t.”


3. Make It About Yourself

People can be more willing to listen if you make it about yourself rather than criticising them. For example, if you say something like, “I feel upset when you say this. I wish you’d say it in a nicer way,” there is not much to argue with because you know best how you feel. However, if you say, “You always make me feel upset. You keep saying this and that to upset me,” it may feel like an attack, which can lead to defensiveness and arguments erupting.


4. Listen

It can be helpful to show that you listen before and after you communicate your boundary. For instance, you may say something like, “I hear what you’re saying. You don’t see the problem with kissing people on the cheek the first time you meet them.”

Now that you have shown that you have heard their point, they are more likely to listen to your opinion, so you might say, “However, I feel that is a bit too much and prefer to keep it to a handshake until I know them better.” From there, the other may be curious and ask you questions, or they may continue to share their own opinions. Either way, listen to them and work with them on clarifying any disagreements as well as agreements between you.




What Are the Advantages of Creating Healthy Boundaries?


Once you have an idea of what your boundaries are, have made sure that they serve you in a healthy way, and communicated them to the other in the relationship, you will start noticing benefits such as:

  • Increased sense of independence
  • Empowerment, confidence, and self-respect
  • Increased wellbeing
  • Clarity about one’s role in relationships
  • Having your own needs met in a fair way


Final Thoughts


Setting healthy boundaries in relationships is essential for maintaining your emotional wellbeing and ensuring fair treatment from others. By understanding your boundaries, clearly communicating them, and being mindful of others’ boundaries, you can foster more respectful and fulfilling interactions.

Boundaries are not about keeping people out; they are about defining how you want to be treated and allowing for healthy, close relationships. Remember, having clear boundaries is a sign of self-respect and strength, and it often leads to mutual respect and deeper connections with one another.

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Dr Erlend Slettevold

Dr Erlend Slettevold is a Clinical Psychologist at The Oak Tree Practice. His qualifications include Psychology BSc, Psychology MSd and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology.