How to Create and Maintain Healthy Boundaries in Relationships
Meet Russell. He’s in a relationship with Mandy, and they’ve dated for about a year now. They got engaged last week, and plans are underway for their wedding to take place in about six months. The two are very excited about the changes that are about to come into their lives, but there’s an argument that seems to keep cropping up.Throughout their relationship, Russell has made it clear that he intends to only have sex with someone when he’s married to them, but Mandy believes that if you’re committed to someone enough, having sex with them is okay. As the wedding day draws nearer, the conversation keeps coming up again and again, with Mandy arguing that they need to make sure they are sexually compatible before they make the life-altering commitment of marriage.
Eventually, Russell very reluctantly gives in, and they have sex a month before they get married. Now, Russell feels as if something is off, and that perhaps he lost something important to him in agreeing to do as Mandy suggested.
And then there’s Jen. She’s what everyone calls an “amazing friend.” She’s generous, full of life, adventurous, loyal to a fault, and kind. There is one thing, however, that she insists on with her friends – she will not lend them money, nor is she willing to go into debt on their behalf.
She’s had a few bad experiences in the past where money squabbles ended relationships that were important to her, and so she decided that while she’s more than willing to give generously to her friends when she can, she will not lend with the expectation of getting her money back.
These two stories, different though they are, illustrate one key thing that is important to maintain healthy relationships – boundaries. All healthy relationships need boundaries, and far from making relationships cold and distant, boundaries help the people in a relationship, whether romantic or platonic, to know how best to relate to one another in a loving way that honors the differences between them.
Are boundaries important?
When God knit us in our mother’s womb, he created us as unique individuals made in his image. Each of us has a unique personality, goals, history, and values. Your life story has shaped you in specific ways that make you the person that you are. Boundaries are important because they are a recognition of each person’s uniqueness and differing needs, hurts, and hopes.
If the basic differences between us aren’t valued, unhealthy patterns of relating to others can arise. This includes the loss of a sense of self, codependency, being emotionally stunted, and the frustration of being treated in a way that feels either stifling or oppressive.
A person’s individuality should be respected and valued, and one way to do that is to respect their boundaries. In the example above, Russell lost something when he yielded to his fiancée. He gave up his values and his sense of self was violated when he allowed himself to cross the sexual boundary he had established for himself.
How to create healthy boundaries in relationships
Knowing how to create healthy boundaries in relationships is an important skill to help maintain your sense of self and assist others in knowing how best to love and relate to you. Below are a few tips you can use to create healthy boundaries in relationships.
It’s important to recognize that boundaries aren’t static. As you change over time, some of your boundaries may shift, while other boundaries may remain fixed. Also, you can set boundaries in a variety of areas, including your finances, emotional and physical space, your time, privacy, how people relate to you in everyday communication, and so on.
If you haven’t set boundaries in one area and you decide to do so, you may find that people who knew you before you set the boundary will have difficulty accepting the boundary and may fight against it. This is to be expected, and you should be prepared to stand your ground.
To set good boundaries in relationships, you need to know yourself and what’s important to you. It’s no good setting a boundary about something you honestly have no interest or stake in. If you have no feelings either way about whether someone drinks alcohol in your home, setting a boundary about that may simply be obnoxious and unnecessary because you’re not invested in the outcome.
However, if you are a recovering alcoholic and being in the presence of alcohol is a struggle for you, making a boundary concerning that makes sense as it helps protect you from a relapse. Boundaries are meant to protect you and honor your values and sense of self.
If you know yourself and your values, and you know what you need to protect or preserve by setting a boundary, you need to clearly communicate that boundary.
“I don’t appreciate being shouted at or called names.” “Please don’t go beyond the speed limit when I’m in your vehicle.” “Don’t look at my phone or open my computer without me being present and without my explicit permission.” “I’d like to have about half an hour of alone time when I get home from work.” “I don’t want to be grabbed like that, even if you’re just being playful.”
All of these are examples of boundaries that span a variety of circumstances, and they let the other person know what’s okay and what isn’t. Boundaries don’t have to be set in a stiff, formalized manner. You don’t have to call a meeting to communicate your boundaries – it can come up in casual conversation over time as you get to know people and they get to know you.
The point of a boundary is that it communicates what you value and helps to protect it. If someone doesn’t respect that boundary, there should be consequences to encourage them to respect your wishes. Set the consequences for violating your boundary – if a person shouts at you or calls you a name, the consequence could be that you walk away from the conversation and take a breather. Setting consequences helps you protect the boundary.
Prepare for follow-through
When you set boundaries and communicate the consequences for violating them, you should be willing to follow through. Not everyone will happily abide by your boundaries, and it’s up to you to ensure that you keep your word and follow through on the promised consequences.
It may not be easy, and sometimes a relationship may have to change because your boundaries aren’t being respected. If you are just learning to set boundaries after many years of not having them, know that it is not “mean” or “selfish” to enforce boundaries, but rather, you are honoring yourself and the relationship by doing so.
What to do when your boundaries are violated
When someone violates our established boundaries, we can react in several ways, but they are not all equally helpful. If you’ve set certain consequences for violating your boundaries, you should follow through. It’s important to let the person know that they’ve violated a boundary and that you’re implementing the necessary consequence.
Sometimes, a person violates your boundaries without malice, and a reminder that they’ve crossed a line is sufficient. Consistency matters, especially so that people know how to relate to you, but ultimately, it’s up to you to make the call when and how to enforce your boundaries and the consequences attached.
When a boundary is violated, you can also take the opportunity to review the boundary and whether you should maintain it in its current form. Sometimes, as we grow older and priorities and values shift, our boundaries need to shift with us, and the point when a boundary is violated is often a good opportunity to do this kind of work.
If you find that you struggle to set or maintain your boundaries in relationships, you could use the help of a therapist. Because our boundaries are attached to our sense of self, emotional health, and relational well-being, having healthy boundaries in relationships is a priority worth pursuing. Contact our reception team today to schedule an appointment.
“Fence in the Mist”, Courtesy of Jan Canty, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Grand Fence”, Courtesy of Tapio Haaja, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Fence on a Hill”, Courtesy of Sylwia Bartyzel, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Directions”, Courtesy of Jamie Templeton, Unsplash.com, CC0 License