What does it mean to have healthy boundaries in a relationship?

As a child, I felt I had to provide value by doing what my loved ones wanted in order to feel safe, be seen, or receive love. Not surprisingly, this unhealthy habit spilled into my relationships as an adult. I’d trust new partners and friends easily without it being earned, overshare information, and drop everything—including work—to listen to a friend vent. I needed to set healthy boundaries ASAP.

However, my anxiety levels would shoot up whenever I’d try to declare my needs and desires because I was afraid that I was going to push away my loved ones. So I would stay quiet and be unhappy with the new love interest who didn’t text me consistently. And I would give emotional support to a friend instead of telling her I needed to meet a deadline at work all the while feeling stressed because I couldn’t be present with her. Ugh!

But here’s the thing: The problem wasn’t my loved ones. It was me. I didn’t have strong boundaries.

“Boundaries in a relationship are important because they help people know how to be successful with us,” Elizabeth Earnshaw, a Philadelphia-based licensed marriage and family therapist, tells HelloGiggles. “When we don’t have boundaries, people are left to guess what will or will not make us happy. We set boundaries when we are clear about what we are okay with and not okay within our relationships.”

According to Dr. Erika Evans, PhD, LMFT, those of us, like myself, who struggle with setting boundaries might have low self-esteem, feel too vulnerable, or lack self-confidence. “At the other end of the spectrum, some people have a tough time creating boundaries because of how they see their role in relationships,” she says. “They may be conditioned to say yes more frequently than they want to or they may believe that being amenable to everything and not asserting their own needs is helpful to the success of their relationship.”

If you’re struggling with defining boundaries within your relationships, don’t worry, we got you. We talked to the experts to help us get clarity about what exactly boundaries are and why they’re an integral part of healthy and functional relationships.

What are boundaries?

“Boundaries are what we use to create agency over our own space physically, spiritually and emotionally,” says Evans. “[They] help us to identify our limits, because the reality is that we all have them even if we don’t give them voice. [T]he point to having boundaries in a relationship is [to be] able to communicate to your partner(s) your demarcation lines.”

Boundaries not only help us create and use self-agency, but, as Earnshaw points out, they’re also crucial when someone has made us uncomfortable or when we cannot do certain things. “[It’s] essentially saying, ‘This is what I am okay with and this is what I am not okay with,’ or ‘This is what I can do for you and this is what I cannot do for you,’” says Earnshaw.

Examples of boundaries, according to Earnshaw, include:

“When you talk to me like that, it hurts my feelings. I can’t stay in a conversation with you if it continues.”

“I need you to help with housework and clean up after yourself. I won’t do that for you.”

“When we have sex, I want you to ask me before you try something new.”

Why are boundaries integral to a healthy functional relationship?

“Boundaries help in creating and communicating clear rules and expectations for how to navigate your relationship,” says Evans. They’re also key for your relationship because not only are they a means to show respect to yourself and to honor the limits of your partner, but, according to Evans, boundaries also help create a connection. “When an individual has agency over communicating their needs, they can also identify what makes them feel unsafe or disconnected.”

According to Earnshaw, people are left to guess what you want when you don’t express what your boundaries are: “When they ask for something or behave in a way we don’t like, they might not ever know that if we don’t have good and clear boundaries.” When you don’t express your needs, you may begin to feel resentment, which can bottle up over time and create even more stress in your relationship.

How do you figure out your boundaries?

If boundaries help create self-agency and connection with yourself and to others, how do you know what yours might be? Getting to know your boundaries means doing a deep dive within yourself to get to the bottom of what you truly desire. “The process to figuring out which boundaries are important is doing a self-assessment and exploring what is most important to oneself,” says Evan.

She suggests identifying your personal value system and learning what you most need and desire in your life. Do you desire alone time within a relationship? Do you value consistent communication? How do you feel when you over-give, and how can you pull back? And what makes you feel safe? Basically, you want to come up with non-negotiables that’ll help you feel fulfilled and satisfied both within a relationship and on your own. “As this gets figured out, don’t hesitate to take whatever time is needed to figure out what boundaries you’d like to establish,” she says. “Remember, the thought is ‘Where do ‘I’ end and ‘you’ begin.’”

What to do when you receive pushback?

As you begin to set boundaries in your life, it’s normal for people—even loved ones—to give you some pushback. “Boundaries can be difficult [for loved ones] to hear because they’re difficult to set. When people struggle to accept boundaries, it’s often because they themselves don’t feel comfortable setting them,” says Earnshaw. “They feel boundaries are personal or rejecting, and this can be very painful [for them to hear]. Therefore, they push the boundaries in an attempt to feel accepted.”

Which is why the better you become at setting boundaries, the better you become at accepting them. “The most common challenge I’ve witnessed to people respecting boundaries is that the relationship is functioning off of assumptions instead of clear communication,” adds Evans. “People enter into relationships sometimes with very different expectations in relation to touch, sexuality, money, all the things, and assume that their partner is on the same page.” While you and your partner might be on the same page about a lot of things, it’s best to communicate your needs within the relationship as soon as possible to avoid any potential rift or to weed out those relationships that don’t align with your values.

Your template for communicating your boundaries:

Need help with getting started on expressing your boundaries? Earnshaw provides a simple-to-use template below:

1. State the request.

2. State your response.

3. State your flexibility (if you have any).

Example: “I know you asked me to come by and help on Saturday. I am unable to do it that day but how about next week?”

If you do not have flexibility, it might sound like this: “I hear you when you say you need another loan. I can’t give you any money.”

However, if someone doesn’t respect your boundaries, then you set a limit with them. The limit should be a clear explanation of what will happen to the relationship if the boundaries are not respected.

The template for this is:

1. Restate your boundary.

2. State your limit.

3. State why this is important to you (if it is a relationship that is important to you).

“I told you, I cannot loan you any more money. I will have to stop responding to you if you continue to ask. I love you very much and want a continued relationship with you, so I hope you can respect this.”

While setting boundaries might seem like a lot of work at first, especially to those of us who grew up in households where boundaries were non-existent, they’re an important foundation on which functional relationships are able to grow and flourish.

“Boundaries simply bring people closer,” says Evans. “When boundaries are clearly defined and executed, people engage in a mutual understanding of one another. This includes knowing the line and asking permission if there’s a possibility that crossing it will happen. Having them demonstrates a person’s ability to take their partner(s) into consideration, respect differences in opinion, and be respectful of other perspectives and feelings.”

Bottom line: Boundaries create a more connected and authentic relationship in which people are being open and honest with each other, according to Earnshaw. While it might feel uncomfortable to communicate your boundaries in the beginning, the more you practice, the more your life and relationships will flourish.

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