Relationships are complicated. You might not feel like cleaning up after dinner or spending the weekend alone with your kids while your partner’s out of town, but healthy relationships typically involve a balance of giving and taking — even when the giving isn’t exactly what you want in the moment. That said, not all giving and taking is created equal. Some interactions violate needs that help support your well-being — which is why it’s so important to figure out how to set boundaries.
If you’ve never thought much about setting limits with other people, it may seem selfish or even a little controlling to do so. Cameron Murphey, an Oakland, CA-based marriage and family therapist, says the opposite is true. Rather than a method of controlling someone’s behavior, he says boundaries are more like “communicated guidelines about how to relate with you or treat you.”
According to Jennifer Chain, a licensed psychologist in Seattle, boundaries can involve your physical space, your time, your mind or emotions, or your money and resources. Boundaries can also be internal (something inside of you that you may not want to share with someone) or external (something outside of you that you may not want to disturb your emotional or mental landscape).
Whatever boundaries you want to enforce, the important thing is that you actually communicate them — otherwise, Murphey says, they’re nothing more than a hope or a wish. Of course, that’s easier said than done. If you’ve been punished in the past for setting boundaries, or no one modeled them to you, it might be tough to conceptualize how to implement them. Boundaries also require some degree of self-awareness and confidence in who you are and what you need. “It takes a lot of self-esteem to say, ‘Hey, this is how I want to be treated,” Murphey says.
It might seem easier to avoid these tough conversations, but a lack of boundaries can take a major toll on your relationships. Chain says failing to set boundaries can result in burnout and resentment, contributing to toxic dynamics in relationships. On the flip side, healthy boundaries can create a sense of safety, respect, and trust between people. “It’s like the fence outside your house helps you understand what belongs to you and what belongs to another person,” she says.
Here’s how to set — and keep — boundaries in your relationships, according to therapists.
How to Set Boundaries
There’s no one-size-fits-all method for boundary-setting, but it can help to keep a few principles in mind in the process.
- Create the boundary
In her book Set Boundaries, Find Peace, therapist Nedra Tawwab suggests first getting clear about what your boundary actually is. Chain describes this process as reflecting on your own needs. What do you need to feel safe and respected in a relationship? What are your limitations? Keep in mind that in different situations and with different people, what constitutes a healthy boundary may look different, says Saba Harouni Lurie, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist. For example, if someone has been abusive to you in a relationship where you can cut them off, you may decide to have a rigid boundary and not engage with them at all. Looser boundaries may work in some settings like if you have a friend who you feel so close to that it’s comfortable having them just stop by your house unannounced. If that works for both of you then that may be a healthy boundary (or non-boundary) to maintain. Flexible boundaries, Lurie says, allow you to renegotiate your needs and to consider how we want to engage in the present moment. For example, you may decide that you’re going to only spend time with friends on the weekend in order to focus on your family’s needs and on work during the week. But when an old friend comes to town you may elect to spend time with them on a Wednesday night, because it’s important for you to have additional time with them.
- Communicate the boundary
Next, you’ll need to express your boundary to the other person. Beating around the bush might feel like softening the blow, but that approach only adds confusion to the situation. “It’s really important to state it plainly,” says Murphey. “Firmly say what you’re asking the other person to do.” Now, that doesn’t mean your boundary should be absent of compassion. Communicating a boundary is a fine balance: Chain says the other person is more likely to respond well — and respect your boundary — if you temper your assertiveness with empathy. It may help to use “I” statements in the process: For example, you could tell your partner “I feel disrespected when you allow the kids to have screen time without talking to me. I’d like us to make parenting decisions together.”
- Maintain the boundary
This is the hardest, but arguably most important, step. “If you don’t maintain a boundary, it’s just a bunch of words you said one time to the person,” says Murphey. “Maintaining the boundary is what gives the boundary strength because it tells people you mean what you said when you said it.” The best way to do that is to stand by your boundary with your actions. If you tell your boss you can’t work after hours, then you need to make sure that you don’t respond when they reach out. If someone is attempting to violate a boundary, Chain says, it can help to create a consequence using an if/then statement. For example, you could say, “If you raise your voice again, I’m going to leave the room.”
What to Do When Boundaries Are Broken
Nobody’s perfect, and that means your boundaries may be broken from time to time. When this happens, Chain suggests looking inward before you broach the topic with the other person. Ask yourself if you made the boundaries clear, and did you enforce the consequences? Have you given the other person a fair chance to respect your boundaries, and have you been respectful of theirs? If not, it may be time to clarify your boundary.
If you’ve already expressed the boundary, you may need to restate it a few times. For instance, you could use language like “I’m not sure if it was clear before when I said I wanted us to make decisions together about the kids using screen time. I want to be clear I really mean it and it’s something I want you to respect. This is really important to me.”
There may also be times when you violate your own boundary — letting the kids have screen time without talking to your spouse or answering work emails after hours, for example. If that happens, it’s important to take responsibility.
“The last thing when you set a boundary is to shame the other person,” Murphey says. “Any chance to take ownership is helpful.” Tell the other person you realize you’ve been too lax, that your actions weren’t in line with what you said, and that you’re going to be more diligent with the boundary going forward.
If someone’s repeatedly crossing your boundaries in a way that interferes with your well-being or the health of the relationship, you may need to take additional steps.