How to set boundaries while keeping your relationships strong

Setting healthy boundaries is a topic you may hear a lot about these days. But what exactly are boundaries in relationships? Growing up, some people weren’t taught about boundaries, so it may be an area to learn about.

Simply put, boundaries are a set of guidelines for our relationships with other people — whether partner, friend, family or co-worker. It’s a way to tell people how we like to interact. And what doesn’t sit right with us. So when someone in your life says they want to set boundaries, that’s what it means.

While it can be tricky to set boundaries in a relationship that hasn’t had them before, it’s important to your wellbeing. And by improving communication, boundaries actually can deepen relationships. An expert shares how to effectively create boundaries and keep your relationships strong.

What are boundaries and why are they important?

“Setting boundaries is about defining your personal space, physical space, emotional space and time,” says Lori Beth Bisbey, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in relationships. Boundaries can apply to a friendship, romantic relationship or work relationship.

Without boundaries, it’s difficult for others to know how you navigate your relationship. And for you, boundaries can help you recognize and voice what you are willing to tolerate, explains Tara Lally, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at Hackensack School of Medicine in New Jersey.

“Boundaries serve to protect oneself,” says Lally. “They can really be part of self-care.”

Personal boundaries may include:1

  • How much physical touch you are open to
  • How much time you want to spend on something or with someone
  • How much information you are willing to share with someone
  • If you prefer a certain amount of physical space when you are with someone or at a certain place

Having boundaries is important for feeling safe. In a relationship that has boundaries, the goal is for people to be able to say no to something they don’t like. And being able to do that without fearing that it will jeopardize the relationship, notes Lally.

How does this play out in real life? Consider this home example: Perhaps you set a boundary with your spouse that you will not tolerate name-calling. This allows you to voice concerns without worrying that your spouse will respond with harsh or emotionally abusive language.

At work, having boundaries lets your co-workers know the way you work best. Voicing a limit up front also helps prevent negative reactions. For instance, say you’ve told your boss that you are unable to reply to emails after 6 p.m. because you’ll be caring for your children, but that you’ll get to it first thing the next morning. When a late-night email comes through, you don’t have to worry about responding right away because you’ve already set this boundary.

How to set boundaries

Whether this is the first time you’ve communicated clear boundaries or you’re updating older ones, it is never too late to put boundaries in place. Below are steps for establishing them.

  1. Communicate what you need. The first step is telling the person what the boundary is and why you are setting it, explains Lally. Try to be as specific as you can. For example, establishing a boundary with a friend can look like saying, “In order to feel safe in this friendship, I need to trust that what I tell you will stay between us.”

    If you are speaking with an employer, here's what you might say: “In order to give my full attention between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., I need to be completely unplugged from work at night and on the weekends.
  2. Use gentle language. When communicating your boundaries, it’s best to do so calmly, notes Bisbey. Telling someone what they are doing wrong can put them on the defensive. Instead, explain that you’ve discovered something about yourself that you need, she suggests. Then lay out the boundaries you want to put in place.
  3. Give it time. If you are establishing new boundaries in an existing relationship, it may take time to see change. This could be because the other person isn't used to the new boundary yet. Or because you’re still teaching yourself how to be firm about the boundary.

    This is an important lesson, Bisbey notes: If you want a boundary to stay, you have to reinforce it. “It may benefit you to explain, as a person may be more likely to adhere to the boundary you set if they understand why,” she says.

How to stick to boundaries

Now that you’ve set boundaries, next is figuring out what you will do when someone crosses a boundary. It’s your responsibility to speak up. You will need to repeat the boundary and why it’s important to you — but do so without blame, explains Bisbey.

Also remember that it’s all right for boundaries to change over time. “Relationships shift as we evolve and grow,” Lally says.

For instance, if you become distant with someone who was once a close friend, you may want to share less with them than you used to. Make sure you tell the person when you are narrowing your boundaries, notes Lally. And explain your reasoning to help them understand.

The bottom line: Having boundaries is positive for you and your relationships. “It’s really an opportunity to recognize what you value in yourself,” Lally says. When a relationship has boundaries, you can feel truly safe being yourself — and that will make your relationships stronger.

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