You’ll find boundaries in every kind of relationship — from friends and family to colleagues and brief acquaintances. You can’t see them, but these lines help you stay “you” and provide a sense of mutual respect, protection, expectations, and support.
While they’re important in all areas, boundaries come up a lot when it comes to romantic partnerships.
Spending so much time with — and investing significant amounts of emotional energy in — one person can sometimes cause those lines to blur, especially in those heady early days where excitement and aiming-to-please levels are high.
So what do boundaries in this type of relationship involve, and are there organic ways to re-seed them?
All healthy relationships have boundaries
“When it comes to your life as a couple, consider that there are three entities involved: yourself, your partner, and the relationship itself — and boundaries need to be defined for each,” says Dr. Jacqui Gabb, professor of sociology and intimacy at The Open University.
“Each of those three parties needs to be sustained, nourished, and feel respected,” Gabb says.
Examples of healthy boundaries in relationships
The following examples apply to romantic partnerships, but also any frequently communicative relationships where there’s responsibility and expectation on both sides, like business partners, co-parents, or in-laws. In healthy relationships, both people:
- ask permission
- take one another’s feelings into account
- show gratitude
- are honest
- give space for autonomy and avoid codependence
- show respect for differences in opinion, perspective, and feelings
- sit with the other person’s communication of emotion
- take responsibility for their actions
Good relationship boundaries
While there are some basic rules to consider when building and maintaining healthy boundaries (as noted above), what works for one person might not be so ideal for someone else.
“Everyone’s got their own space and comfort levels when it comes to boundaries,” explains James Preece, dating coach and author of “The Five Rules Of Dating In The New Normal.” “It’s [about] respect, and showing them ‘I love you for who you are, and I’m going to give you the space you need.’”
It’s important to remember, he adds, that “before you find a partner, you’ve got your own patterns of behaviors that you become used to. Respecting people’s personal space is a very important boundary in itself.”
Boundaries come into play in all aspects of intimate relationships, though you may find they’re more important or require a bit more attention in some circumstances than in others.
Texting is a very common one, notes Preece, when one partner constantly checks in “because they’re worried the other person is going to lose interest in them.” Yet research from 2017 shows frequent texting can lead to lower perceived relationship quality, so this is an important area in which to set some boundaries.
The amount of time you spend together is another key one to consider, and this is likely to change throughout the relationship. Whereas you might set a boundary early on in the relationship around how many days you see each other, later on, you have to ask: “When do you become the priority? Are they always seeing their friends over seeing you?” says Preece.
Money is another notable relationship boundary, as are sex and relationship agreements. Gabb states, “Do you believe in monogamy? If so, what constitutes a breach of trust? If someone feels their partner is really flirtatious, and that causes them to feel threatened, that [boundary] needs renegotiating.”
Boundaries that don’t work
While it’s a good idea to set some boundaries, some don’t work and can ultimately hurt one or both partners. These tend to be founded in control when one person tries to restrict or command the actions of the other — and there are some definite red flags to look out for.
“Anything that limits a person’s options” is an unhealthy boundary, Preece explains. “It could be around time, the way they act, even the way they dress.” Crossing these lines, he adds, “can be dangerous.”
This is something Gabb agrees with.
“We shouldn’t confuse boundaries and control —– they’re not the same thing,” she says. “If someone feels a partner is putting up boundaries in a controlling way — ‘These are my boundaries, and this is what you must do’ — then there’s a problem with communication around boundaries being established.”
Boundaries also shouldn’t be implemented to try and change a partner.
“It’s not about trying to manipulate the negative stuff,” Preece states. “Accept them for who they are. If they’re not right and you’re not compatible, set them free to meet someone else.”
How to set boundaries in a relationship
There are a variety of different ways you can go about setting boundaries. Here are four approaches to get you started:
It’s much easier to introduce boundaries at the start of or earlier on in a relationship, rather than years down the road — especially once habits and routines have been established and both partners are more emotionally invested.
But if it’s a little late for that tip, don’t worry. Installing boundaries at any point is still better than imposing upon each other until it frays your bond completely.
Conversation is key
No matter how awkward you might feel talking about your emotions or bringing up trickier subjects, a two-way discussion is vital in boundary setting.
“Communication is key to relationships,” Gabb says, and “you do need to have [conversations], even if they’re really difficult things to talk about, like sex.”
Not only do these discussions help both partners understand the extent and rules of the boundary, but they provide an opportunity to explain why you value a particular boundary.
Plus, 2016 research suggests that couples who check in regularly and open up experience greater relationship satisfaction overall.
These conversations can also help nip concerns in the bud before they boil over into a full-blown argument.
They don’t need to happen every week, either, notes Gabb: “The important thing is that you’re communicating with each other and recognizing when you need to have that conversation.”
Use ‘I’ statements
As the old saying goes, it’s not what you say but how you say it — and this definitely applies to boundaries.
“I think all communication should start with ‘I feel,’” Gabb states. If you lead with superlative or accusatory statements (like “you always” or “you never”), then “you’re going to be hit with a brick wall of ‘That’s not what I think.’”
“Nobody wants to be criticized or rejected,” adds Preece.
And once those defensive barriers come up, it can be hard to get the conversation back on track. Treat others how you like to be treated, so aim to set boundaries with kindness.
Giving more specific examples can also help support your point and make it seem less of an overarching attack.
It’s OK to ask for space
Whether you’re just starting out with a partner or have been with them for a while, it’s totally acceptable to desire —and ask for — some me-time.
“It might be that you have a really demanding job, and you need half an hour of debrief time when you come home where you don’t talk,” Gabb says. “It’s about ‘This is what I need, how can we make it happen?’”
There’s a chance your partner might see this request as a form of rejection, so it’s important to take their feelings into account and explain this isn’t the case.
“Talk about why you need it and why it’s meaningful to you,” suggests Gabb. “Recognize how the other person may feel, and work with them [through] that.”
The bottom line
Having boundaries is an expected and healthy aspect of good relationships — so don’t be afraid to determine where they lie for yourself, for your partner, and as a couple.
Think of them as a framework rather than rigid guidelines.
“Nothing is set in stone. Everything is flexible, and every relationship is different,” Preece says — although it’s always important to remember you should “never do anything just to please someone else. Only do things you want to when you’re ready.”
Events can occur throughout your relationship that’ll cause boundaries to shift, notes Gabb, including:
- having children
- moving home
- starting a new job
- experiencing a loss
Ultimately, says Preece, it all comes down to how you handle these changes together: “You deal with it because you’re a team, and you respect each other’s side.”