How to Set Boundaries in Your Relationships

How to Set Boundaries in Your Relationships

Boundaries can help you retain a sense of identity and personal space, and they’re easier to create and maintain than you might think.

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?

“When it comes to your life as a couple, consider that there are actually 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 and chief relationships officer with the couples app Paired.

“Each of those three parties needs to be sustained, nourished, and feel respected,” Gabb says.

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.”

While it’s a good idea to set some boundaries, some don’t work and can ultimately have a negative effect on 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.”

There are a variety of different ways you can go about setting boundaries. Here are four approaches to get you started:

Begin early

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.”

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.”

How To Set Boundaries In Your Personal and Professional Relationships

The meaning and importance of social boundaries or limits are closely linked to a person’s physical and mental well-being and their ability to create and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

It is a skill that proves itself effective in all types of relationships. You can set boundaries in your personal life – your family, parents, partner, and friends, and in your professional life – at work, with business partners, with collaborators, etc.

Depending on our culture, social background, and life experiences, the way we relate to others and how we build those relationships may differ greatly. This is why it becomes important to make sure that those relational building blocks are indeed meaningful to us at a personal level, and not just inherited social artifacts.

Identifying, setting, and maintaining boundaries is a set of skills that once activated allows us to live a mode independent, satisfying life.

Depending on our primary mindset – passive, aggressive, or assertive – we may find boundary setting a rather easy, manageable, or an extremely difficult task.

If you are not used to voicing what you need or want or, on the contrary, if you rather make sure your needs are met before anyone else’s, this skill activation may be a challenge, even if for different reasons.

The information below will show you how to assertively approach boundary-setting, in a non-passive, non-aggressive way.

Learn how to set boundaries and master your social interactions.


There are different experiential levels at which boundaries work as relevant social modifiers. The type of social boundaries that we can set can be considered in the following contexts:

  • PHYSICAL BOUNDARIES may refer to:
    • Personal space.
      • The physical distance between yourself and others.
      • The right to solitude.
      • The right to decide for oneself what the different levels of intimacy are and in which conditions a relationship can move from one level to another.
      • The right to decide on the shared status of one’s belongings.
      • The right to decide on the shared status of one’s resources.
      • EMOTIONAL BOUNDARIES may refer to:
        • Freedom regarding emotional expression.
        • Freedom from emotional manipulation.
        • Freedom from emotional abuse.
        • MENTAL BOUNDARIES may refer to:
          • The right to hold any personal values.
          • The right to hold any personal beliefs.
          • May include cultural, religious, spiritual, moral elements.
          • Resources such as time.
          • Freedom to pursue your goals.


          If properly set, monitored, and maintained, social boundaries will allow you to live the better version of your life since they create a nurturing environment in which you can thrive as an individual while at the same time maintaining healthy relationships with others.

          Among the benefits of boundary setting, we find the following:

          • Increased self-esteem.
          • Increased self-confidence.
          • Increased assertiveness level.
          • Healthy, non-toxic relationships.
          • More resources to help you pursue your goals.
          • Increased focus on your significant goals.
          • Increased independence.
          • Increased clarity – you will focus on what is meaningful, instead of wasting your resources on elements that are not relevant for your life.


          You cannot set and maintain social boundaries unless you define and decide for yourself what they are. Here are a few suggestions about how you can identify the limits that may work for you in your personal and professional interactions.

          • Identify and list your values.
            • What life principles and moral traits do you consider important in your life?
            • Examples: Honesty, Integrity, Authenticity, Mastery, Security, Honor, Joy, Patience, Peace, etc.
            • What do you want to achieve in your personal and professional life?
            • Resource: Goal Setting: 3 PRO TIPS for 2020 Inspired by Assertive Principles and Critical Thinking
            • Considering the bigger picture, what do you want to achieve in your life? What would your global impact be?
            • Make sure your goals subscribe to your purpose.
            • Resource: Universal Declaration of Human Rights | United Nations
            • Resource: Assertive Rights and Principles Explained
            • The values your family holds may not be relevant for you.
            • The norms that are valued socially may not be things that you want to achieve in your life.
            • What is comfortable/uncomfortable for you in social interactions?
            • What is acceptable/unacceptable for you in social interactions?
            • What are the important activities that you like to perform, in general, with others, or in solitude?
            • What are the deal-breakers in any of those contexts?
              • This is very important. Consider at which point – if all other negotiations fail in a social interaction, you would rather renounce that social connection?
              • Obviously, there are some instances where a single instance of boundary infringement is enough to cause a connection to break. Abusive contexts usually trigger that.
              • Make a list with your most important limits – this will give you a better understanding of the bigger picture and will make things easier to monitor later on.
              • Please consider the fact that each of our “boundary collections” will be different. You can discuss with others and ask for feedback regarding the topics that interest you, but your opinions must be prioritized.
              • Be reasonable. Your limits should ensure that your rights are respected without infringing on the rights of others.


              Don’t expect others to simply understand what your limits are and respect them from the get-go.

              • Be direct.
                • Talk openly about your limits with those with whom you share contexts in which those boundaries would have to be activated.
                • Be assertive and stand your ground if others try to dismiss your message or your feelings.
                • Name the boundaries.
                • Name the deal-breakers and other elements that regard the consequences of boundary infringement. This is not about dominance or a “my way or the highway” attitude. This is about conveying how important a certain aspect is for you and how it would modify your interest and engagement in the specific social interaction if that element would disappear.
                • You should feel no guilt when asking for your rights to be respected. Do not allow others to make you see yourself as the bad guy simply because you are protecting yourself and creating an environment that works for you and your goals.
                • Don’t fear rejection. People who care about you will try to understand your perspective and will do their best to respect your boundaries, as well as communicate about their own.
                • Don’t fear the other person’s reactions. If you convey your message in a direct, non-aggressive manner, then you are entitled to openly express that message. The reactions of other people are not your responsibility. It is up to them to come to terms with what you’ve told them.
                • Beware of auto-injuctions. Some people may try to convince you to renounce your limits and your rights by making you think that you are being unreasonable or a bad person. Example: “Good sisters share their passwords with their siblings.” It is important that you identify these cognitive distortions and address them soon in the interaction.
                  • Resource: 10 Cognitive Distortions and Why You Should Deal With Them.
                  • Resource: Why You Shouldn’t Share Passwords With Your Partner.
                  • Your limits may trigger a variety of results. Make sure that you are OK with the possible, reasonable outcome linked to each of your them.

                  3. MONITOR YOUR BOUNDARIES

                  • Simply setting boundaries is not enough. Make sure that you constantly observe your interactions and verify whether they are respected.

                  4. MAINTAIN YOUR BOUNDARIES

                  • Be consistent. If you want to benefit from this amazing skill, you need to make sure that you do not send mixed messages to your social contacts.
                  • If you allow them to break a limit today but fully react in a negative way at the same infringement tomorrow, you are telling them indirectly that you yourself are not sure about the validity of that limit.
                  • In the same fashion, if you state a certain consequence for a limit, but then fail to activate it in the specific context of infringement, you’re sending out the message that you are not serious about your rights.
                  • The membrane should not be permeable. Should be flexible, I will address this later, but not permeable or breakable.


                  • What works for others, may not work for you.
                  • What works for you in a context may not work for you in another environment.
                  • What works for you today may not work for you tomorrow.
                  • Boundaries are tools, not rigid laws.
                  • Keep an open mind and be flexible about the way you build your relationships.
                  • Reassess your boundaries and make the needed modifications, when needed.

                  6. ADD NEW RULES WHEN NEEDED

                  • We continually learn and experience new things. Based on these new understandings, we may find ourselves in a position where we need to add new rules to shape our connections.
                  • Don’t forget to communicate your new boundaries to those who may be affected by the context.


                  • Don’t drag elements that are inefficient, or even hurt your social interactions, from one relationship to the other.
                  • Identify the boundaries that no longer work and eliminate them from your social connections.
                  • Don’t forget to update your beliefs about those elements. Your verbal messages and your inner beliefs and expectations should be in sync.


                  • For harmonious interactions to take place, there needs to be a balance between your rights and the right of others.
                  • If you respect the rights of others but never demand that your own boundaries be respected, then you are displaying a predominantly passive mindset and behavior.
                  • If you want others to respect your rights, but refuse to respect their boundaries, then you are predominantly aggressive.
                  • Primarily assertive individuals make sure that both their rights and the rights of others are equally considered and respected.
                  • If you are not sure what the boundaries of the other person are, ask them directly. It helps to pay attention, listen, and consider cues, but direct communication is the best method to ensure the proper understanding of their needs and message.


                  • Keep some information to yourself. You are entitled to private thoughts and experiences. It is OK to not share everything about you with others.
                  • Lock your meaningful belongings. Whether it is for privacy reasons or safekeeping, you can keep some things literally under lock to protect them.
                  • Have passwords that you do not share with anyone, on your most important online accounts.
                  • Ask people to verify time availability with you before assuming that you have the time or are willing to engage in a certain activity with them or offer them assistance.
                  • Say NO more often. Protect your resources, time included. Learn to say NO and make time for the things that are important to you.
                  • Schedule meetings and calls. If the other person does not respect the time interval you agreed on, walk away from the context when the agreed-upon waiting time is up.
                  • Use “Do Not Disturb” statuses on social media and other environments when you need to protect your time.
                  • Take time for yourself and do the things that make you happy, in solitude. No justification, no guilt.

                  Remember that Social Boundaries are not meant to isolate you from others or create a rigid social environment that makes it difficult for others to connect with you. They are tools that if you use in a reasonable fashion, will keep you linked only to the meaningful, significant, and nurturing contexts and relationships in your life.

                  What Are Healthy Boundaries in Relationships?

                  The health of your communication defines healthy relationships.

                  Understanding your partner’s boundaries will transform your ability to communicate and help nip issues in the bud before they overwhelm you.

                  Healthy boundaries are a reflection of your principles, rules, and guidelines that you have set for yourself. A break in those boundaries arises when your partner disrespects, ignores, or isn’t aware of those principles or personal needs.

                  Having a lack of boundaries can often lead to emotional manipulation from your significant other, whether or not it’s intentional.

                  You may have issues with saying no when someone asks you a favor, or you may dislike public displays of affection.

                  If so, you must speak up and communicate those needs to your partner.

                  Learn to recognize the signs that someone has crossed your boundaries. These include feelings of anger, resentment, or guilt.

                  The conversation you have with our partner may be tough at first, but it might be the key to a happy relationship.

                  'A family member made a comment about my wife over dinner. It crossed all my boundaries.'

                  Honesty is my love language, so I want you to know the truth:

                  I wrote an entire book on boundaries. They are more important in our lives now than ever. And yet, I still struggle to set them with some people and in some areas of my life.

                  I write this as someone who is smarting from a microaggression that I failed to correct.

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                  I’m nine years into my relationship with my wife, and we’re an hour into a birthday dinner for my brother.

                  It’s just him, our parents, my wife and our son. And before I can process what&aposs happening, I find myself in the middle of a conversation that chokes my capacity to speak up for myself.

                  "It’s interesting that none of your grandparents had an issue with your relationship with Nyssa, because Dad and I certainly did."

                  My mum offers these words across the table in the same tone that she asked for someone to please pass her the bread.

                  She has no idea that these words are violent, and perhaps it’s her naivete that shuts down my vocal cords. 

                  My brother flashes me an apologetic look –ਊ look that reads, ‘Why the f*** are we back at same-sex relationships as a big thing?’ He attempts to change the subject, but the cigarette is lit and now my dad is smoking it.

                  "Beck, did (my grandfather – one of my favourite humans, who is no longer with us) ever say anything to you about Nyssa?"

                  Dad is curious and has no idea that this casual conversation is emotionally cancerous to me.

                  He doesn’t know that this topic exists in the context of me feeling apologetic for bringing a ‘situation’ to them that they had to ‘get used to’.

                  And he certainly doesn’t realise that he’s just unintentionally weaponised against me a man that I idolised, by planting a seed that my darling grandfather may have disapproved of the woman who has made me a better me.

                  Nyssa holds my hand under the table, pressing it against my left knee that has gone rogue and is bouncing anxiously. 

                  I don’t know how we got here, and I want to throw up or cry or not be seen as 𠆍ifferent’ this late into nearly a decade of love that has been the best thing to ever happen to me.

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                  And so, as the author of an entire book on the importance of boundaries and how and when to set them, I. do nothing. Nothing but smile and answer them reassuringly.

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                  My fear system has launched into SOS-mode and I’m back at the day I told them I had fallen in love with a woman.

                  The same day they smiled and answered me reassuringly (but followed up by micro-managing how I was allowed to behave with Nyssa, ‘just in case anyone is offended’). 

                  I poke at my asparagus and the waitress benignly offers another round of drinks to the happy family at table number six.

                  It’s three weeks later now, and that conversation is smoke on a wind long gone from my parents’ minds. 

                  They love Nyssa like their own child. They call her just as often, if not more, than me. She is one of us, and we are that happy family, joined together਋y a wicked sense of humour and shared preference for music with a strong beat.

                  Behind those microaggressions are two people who are loving the best they can, with the knowledge and awareness they have right now, and with their individual capacities for emotional growth. 

                  They are influenced by their own ‘stuff’, and still, they have successfully raised children with whom they share friendships as adults. An achievement to be pretty damn proud of. 

                  Does it make the microaggressions okay? No. Should I have spoken up and set a boundary? Probably. Will I do so in future? Honestly, I don’t know.

                  I am also a human doing the best I can with the knowledge and awareness I have right now. 

                  And sometimes, that means that I cut others some slack simply because I understand their intentions are not harmful. They don’t mean it, and would likely be horrified if they knew it was hurtful.

                  Sometimes, this is an informed and conscious decision on my behalf. Sometimes, I’m driven by an unconscious need for self-protection because the unhealed wounds I carry have been triggered and I’ll do whatever I have to do in the moment to feel safe again. 

                  That’s right, psychologists have ‘stuff’, too.

                  Dr Rebecca Ray is the author of the book Setting Boundaries. Image: Supplied.

                  Establishing Boundaries

                  A first important step in the process of setting healthy boundaries is generally identifying what behaviors from others are acceptable and what behaviors from others might lead to discomfort or distress. Feeling drained, stressed, or resentful after an interaction with another individual is often an indication that setting a boundary within that relationship may be a good idea. Any boundaries a person determines for themselves should be assertively and openly communicated to others in a clear way.

                  Setting a boundary does not necessarily imply that other people will immediately respect the boundary. For that reason, maintaining boundaries is crucial to healthy relationships. Sometimes, it is necessary to continue to communicate one’s boundaries to others and to make others aware when the boundary has been crossed. Maintaining boundaries also requires a person to establish consequences that are followed through when those boundaries are violated. For example, a person may say to their partner, “I will not date someone who lies to me.” Following through would mean ending the relationship upon discovering their partner told a lie.

                  Boundaries are not threats or ultimatums and should not be taken as such. If an individual refuses to respect a boundary despite repeated attempts to set it, it may be useful to take a break, or period of time away from the friendship or relationship. In some cases, a person may choose to end the relationship.

                  Some individuals, especially those who grew up in situations where their boundaries were violated or their caregivers did not set healthy boundaries, may find it difficult to set and maintain boundaries. They may feel guilty when doing so, as if they are being selfish. In reality, mental health professionals see boundaries as a crucial component of healthy relationships. Having clear boundaries in all relationships allows people to care for themselves psychologically, which is not selfish, but an essential aspect of well-being.

                  1. Hereford, Z. (n.d.). Healthy personal boundaries and how to establish them. Retrieved from
                  2. Manson, M. (2013, January 14). The guide to strong boundaries. Retrieved from
                  3. Setting boundaries with difficult people. (2017). Retrieved from
                  4. Twardowski, J. (2014, December 1). 6 steps to setting boundaries in relationships. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from
                  5. Whitehead, T. (1993). Boundaries and psychotherapy, part I: Boundary distortion and its consequences. Retrieved from

                  Don’t Be Afraid To Revisit Discussions

                  People change. Relationships change. Boundaries change.

                  Clearly-communicated, healthy boundaries bring couples together in the knowledge that they can talk without fear of recrimination or unfair judgment.

                  When we’re able to see that setting boundaries within a relationship doesn’t limit it but actually strengthens it, the juvenile fantasy that someone has to be open and completely ours gives way to the more adult appreciation of our loved one’s as individuals.

                  Asking and respecting are key components in any relationship, and the reality is we all have boundaries, we simply don’t always resolve to state them or, sometimes, even examine them.

                  Discussing boundaries shouldn’t be seen as a forecast of trouble, but rather putting trust and faith in reality lasting longer than unbounded fantasy.

                  Still not sure what boundaries to set in your relationship or how to do it? Chat online to a relationship expert from Relationship Hero who can help you figure things out. Simply click here to chat.

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