Whether you’ve been with your partner for six months or married for ten years, poor boundaries create dependency and unhappy couples. If you want to develop a healthy and happy relationship, you must each have healthy personal boundaries.
Often, we consider boundaries to be something that pushes people away, or we’re afraid that the other person will react negatively or feel hurt. However, healthy boundaries in relationships are a prerequisite to happiness. They define us and what is essential in our lives. Without them, there is too much room for drama. Boundaries help to create a drama-free relationship.
Without boundaries, your interactions as a couple can create friction, fighting, and blow-ups. In essence, the lack of boundaries creates fault lines that lead to emotional volcanoes in your relationship and marriage.
Science shows us that earthquakes are caused by a sudden slip of faults when pressure exceeds the force of friction. Relational conflict, unresolved emotions, and simmering resentment in relationships create this same unpredictable and dangerous pressure. When your conflicts aren’t transformed into greater understanding, not only does pressure build, but the disharmony also deteriorates your love connection.
Vouchsafe your love with healthy boundaries.
It’s true, creating healthy boundaries in relationships can be one of the most challenging skills to acquire. However, without them, individuals often struggle to feel respected and honored in a relationship. And more often than not, disagreements turn into fights, creating faults that blow up the unity possible through understanding.
What Are Personal Boundaries?
Each person is unique, and boundaries separate us from each other distinctly. A boundary is a container for our sense of self. It holds our view of ourselves and the world. Our personal boundaries define our identity—without boundaries, there would be no individuality.
Let’s say a crystal glass represents a healthy container for our sense of self. It is solid yet transparent; there is little to no distortion of the world. This container is beautiful with a purpose that is inviting and useful. The glass is strong and holds water without leakage. If we compare this glass to a person’s boundaries, they have a strong sense of self. Their container of self holds their emotions, regulating them resourcefully.
A person with healthy boundaries safeguards their values, principles, and preferences. This person knows their limits yet takes reasonable risks. Effective boundary-setters understand what they want in life and set goals to accomplish them with consistency. There is confidence; life unfolds with ease. And though challenges come and go, this person knows when to say “no” in order to care for themselves. They also know when to say “yes”—when they have extra energy and time to give lovingly and freely.
Now imagine a second container like an ordinary kitchen strainer with lots of holes, perhaps a little worn. This second container represents a person with unhealthy or poorly defined boundaries—their energy leaks from all sides. Urgent needs (not necessarily the most important) grab their attention. Needy or greedy people drain them because they are often magnanimous givers without limits. When we lack personal boundaries, we are at the mercy of the world and exhausted daily.
Healthy Boundaries Consider Others Without Giving Up Self
People without boundaries are often people pleasers. They frequently fulfill everyone else’s needs but their own, so they experience a growing dissatisfaction inside. Their basic needs compete with everyone around them because they don’t know how to take care of themselves or set boundaries. Fulfillment and peace elude people who lack boundaries, while irritation and resentment are their regular companions.
People can have too rigid of boundaries, also. Rather than a give and take, the edge is hard and unforgiving. Their demands can be unreasonable, and if someone doesn’t go along with their boundaries, they have emotional tantrums, erupting with anger or walking away in disgust. Harsh and unyielding boundaries that don’t consider others’ needs are more like walls or barriers of protection. Rather than a haven of self-compassion, these boundaries are iron-clad hideaways for unresolved pain.
Related reading: “The Difference Between Boundaries and Barriers.”
What Are Relationship Boundaries?
Relationship boundaries are the rules of engagement within a relationship. Our personal boundaries interact with our partner’s; this interaction between two people creates an outcome—for better or worse. In every relationship, though we may not see our connections, we are tied to each other in either unhealthy or healthy ways.
When personal boundaries are well-defined, they show where one person ends and another begins. Healthy boundaries help us to know what we are comfortable or uncomfortable with within our lives. They guide us to understand how we want to be treated in a relationship. Without this differentiation, enmeshment and codependency (or dysfunctional helping) develop, causing many problems because the borders of individuality are blurred.
If a person hasn’t developed healthy boundaries, they will be pulled and tugged in many directions and feel off balance. Many times, people without healthy boundaries feel used, even though it’s their responsibility to set limits and let others know where the line of respect resides.
When I was first married, I was a chronic pleaser with nonexistent boundaries. My whole life revolved around being a people pleaser and a dysfunctional helper. As a result, I was exhausted, angry, and resented almost every request made of me. Why? Because I was always last with no time or energy left to replenish myself. Frequently, I asked myself, “When is it going to be my turn?” My turn for self-care, my turn to fulfill my goals, my turn for exercise.
One day while driving down a gravel road, another driver waved me down. I remember thinking to myself with irritation and disdain, “What do they want?” It was as if every person was a taker, wanting something from me. The driver did want something: he pointed out that I was about to lose my muffler! How could I distort this act of kindness?
I realized that the quality of my life wasn’t going to improve unless I did something different. It was up to me. Yet, I felt unnerved because I had built a life based on sacrifice, and my boundaries were as defenseless as Cheetos devoured by a hungry teenager.
If this describes you, begin with small steps toward choosing you and your happiness. If you'd like, refer to our step-by-step formula for setting better boundaries in Heartmanity’s blog: “Create a Healthy and Happy Life with Effective Boundaries.”
Why Healthy Relationships Always Have Boundaries—and How to Set Boundaries in Yours
Healthy boundaries in relationships pave the way for long-lasting love. You will be amazed at how quickly healthy boundaries enhance the quality of your relationship. The many benefits are too numerous to list, but here are a few that I have noticed in my marriage and my clients’ relationships:
- Mutual respect increases.
- Greater love blossoms as each person’s needs are considered and met.
- Each person brings their better self to the relationship, strengthening the connection.
- Understanding and closeness replace resentment and repetitive arguments.
- Energy and vitality increase in each person and the relationship.
- Inner peace is enhanced individually.
- Ease and light-heartedness increase in the relationship.
- Autonomy creates a more robust and healthier bond.
Boundaries really get a bad rap. For pleasers, healthy boundaries feel unattainable, difficult, and scary. For the altruistic, healthy boundaries may seem selfish. And for the pollyannaish, setting boundaries appear to be big, heavy conversations that can result in hurt feelings and unhappy endings.
However, setting healthy boundaries is more of a way of life. When we practice taking care of ourselves, it determines how we interact with our partner, children, extended family, friends—and life itself! Taking care of ourselves isn’t about inflexibility; it’s about creating win-win and honoring one another, with our first responsibility being self-care. No one knows what we need but us!
There are many uses for boundaries. Putting dirty socks in the hamper so your dog doesn’t chew them is a boundary. Asking your child to use their inside voice is a boundary. Speed limits and driving laws are boundaries (or rules) for our safety.
In a romantic relationship, a limit can be as simple as asking your partner to:
- Speak kinder to you.
- Honor a financial budget.
- Be on time for dinner or joint appointments.
- Help with the chores or rotate cooking meals.
- Refrain from interrupting your quiet time or meditation in the morning.
- Support your exercise time by taking care of your kids.
When we realize just how foundational boundaries are to life and living, it becomes easier to commit to them and care for ourselves.
No matter how simple or small a request, once boundary-setting becomes a habit and is respected in relationships, there are fewer and fewer volcano-like eruptions. The relationship’s fault lines don’t build up pressure. With this calming, safety and security become a strong foundation for the joyful dance of love.
Related reading: “Using Boundaries and Empathy to Deal with People’s Anger Effectively.”
3 Keys to Setting Healthy Boundaries in Relationships
Many times, simple adjustments in the way we interact or respond make the biggest difference. Below are three keys for setting yourself up for success when creating a boundary in your relationship.
KEY #1: Lead with an opening that helps your partner feel loved and heard.
Examples of openings that create safety and respect:
- “I love you and…”
- “Your passion for this topic is remarkable. Please listen to my perspective.”
- “I want to hear you and value your perspective. Check your tone; it feels condescending.”
- “I appreciate your effort to understand.”
KEY #2: Set your boundary respectfully and lovingly.
Examples of healthy boundaries:
- “Please allow me to have my own thoughts. Don’t tell me what I think.”
- “Allow me the space to self-calm without pestering me to talk. I will discuss this later when it’s right for me.”
- “You view this situation differently than I do. Please listen without interrupting.”
KEY #3: Whatever you want from your partner, give it!
Examples of turning complaints into action that get results:
- Complaint: I want my partner to listen without interrupting.
Action: Make sure you do the same.
- Complaint: I want to feel heard.
Action: Make sure your partner feels heard.
For example, let's say your partner is upset with you for working too much. You could respond by saying: “You have every right to be upset with me for working so much lately. I miss you, too. Let’s get away together this weekend and go skiing!”
- Complaint: I want to have downtime.
Action: Invite your partner to relax while you clean up after dinner.
What unfolds for couples when they truly listen to one another is understanding and connection. When we value our partner’s needs and perspectives as much as our own, we create a meaningful dialogue that leads to closeness.
Being honest takes courage. Setting boundaries requires honesty and courage. Lean into the discomfort of the unknown by opening to your partner’s perspective while also setting boundaries to take care of yourself.
Create healthy boundaries and you’ll create a healthy and happy relationship!
For a deep dive into setting boundaries, try our Boundaries Mini-Course. And if you’d like customized support in your relationship, check out our relationship resources.