Healthy Relationships: Boundaries
The below article was written by Patrick Ang, a second year McMaster Bachelor of Health Sciences student.
Boundaries are an important part of any healthy relationship. Boundaries help to establish each person’s needs, and how those in the relationship can help protect and meet those needs. Ultimately, boundaries represent self-care, mutual respect, and the ability to honour one another’s individual identities.
What are boundaries? Why is it important to set boundaries for healthy relationships?
A boundary is a limit or space between you and the other person(s) involved in the relationship. Boundaries may be rigid, loose, or somewhere in between. Everyone’s boundaries will be different, and it’s important to maintain your own personal boundaries to prioritize and protect your mental and physical wellbeing.
Different Types of Boundaries
Take a look at some of the different types of boundaries below. Use the question prompts to reflect on what kinds of boundaries might be useful in your relationships.
- Emotional Boundaries: Premised on trust and being able to separate your feelings from others.
- How much do other people’s moods influence how you are feeling?
- Are they supportive of me and my decisions?
- Are there times when we may want the person we’re speaking with to adjust their response whether it be being pragmatic, supportive, or just listening?
- Are they consistent with their actions and behaviours?
- Are you able to comfortably spend time apart from each other? Is this alone time something you want clearly scheduled, or not scheduled at all?
- Physical Boundaries: include your body, sense of personal space, privacy and physical intimacy. In any relationship, people should know how to respect each other’s space and bodies. Individuals in a relationship should also be open to communicating with each other if something changes with their preferences.
- Physical boundaries can sound something like “Please knock on my door before coming into my room.”
- How do we want to organize and maintain shared spaces to respect each other’s preferences?
- How often do we want to hangout together?
- In relationships involving physical intimacy, it is helpful to consider: “How far am I willing to go right now?” or “How do we feel about public displays of affection?”
Boundaries in Professional, Platonic and Non-Romantic Relationships
Boundaries aren’t just for romantic relationships! All healthy relationships have boundaries whether they are explicitly stated or developed over time. You can apply boundaries in all relationships by understanding what feels okay and what doesn’t feel okay to you.
- With roommates:
- Are you okay with splitting groceries/cooking responsibilities?
- Are you comfortable with sharing chores?
- Around what time do we want the house to be quiet so others can rest or work?
- With friends and family:
- When do we need space for ourselves?
- How can we make sure we accept responsibility for our own actions and not place blame on others?
- When do you feel prepared to communicate vulnerably?
- With your colleagues/supervisors:
- Time boundaries to separate professional and personal lives.
- Not holding yourself responsible for outcomes that are out of your control in the workplace.
- How can I prevent stressors from the workplace from influencing my mood in my personal life?
What are some barriers people experience when setting boundaries?
Implementing boundaries can be intimidating, especially in existing relationships. It is important to know this is a totally normal way to feel!
- Fear of rejection, losing a friendship, or harming a relationship
- Fear of confrontation and argument
- As boundaries are also a form of self-care, it is common to feel a sense of guilt when taking the step to implement them for yourself, but it is important to remember that self-care is an integral part of maintaining your wellbeing.
- Having to learn what healthy boundaries look like and mean to you. You may not have been taught healthy boundaries or seen them modelled by others in our life.
- Concerns for your own safety
- If the other person in the relationship is physically dangerous or threatening, it may not be safe to set explicit boundaries with them. In these situations, it can be helpful to work with a counsellor, or someone from your personal support system to create a plan for safety
How can you set boundaries in relationships?
Now that you’ve heard all about what boundaries are, why they’re helpful, and what some examples look like, here are some good tips for setting boundaries and navigating those conversations.
- Start by figuring out what you want from your relationship, and then set boundaries based on those needs.
- Set boundaries clearly, calmly, respectfully, and in as few words as possible. Do not apologize for the boundary you are setting as this will often send mixed messages.
- You are only responsible for communicating your boundaries in a respectful manner. If your boundary upsets others, it is not your fault.
- Explicitly explain why the boundary is important to you to help others understand your needs.
Steps to Setting Boundaries
- Speaking Up
Without speaking up, others in a relationship will never be able to fully understand where your boundaries are.
Communicating boundaries is key to healthy relationships.
- It can be as simple as letting your partner know what you like/don’t link, and what you are comfortable with and not.
- Using “I ____” statements helps with clarity and comes off as non-accusatory
- Ex. “I’m not comfortable when we….” or “Hey, I really like it when you…” or “I would like to…”
This is just as important as communicating your boundaries. Listening and asking your partner what they are comfortable with and what they aren’t helps make sure you are both on the same page about each other’s boundaries.
Boundaries can change over time! It is normal for boundaries to change as individuals grow and the relationship develops, and you get more comfortable with each other. We might also realize something crosses a boundary after we experience something for the first time. What is important is that you communicate these changes. You should only change/make boundaries because you genuinely want to, not because others are pressuring or forcing you.
Relationships should enrich lives and require us to grow as people and advocate for our needs. Boundaries are an important, empowering step in this process.
Examples and Resources for Setting Boundaries:
- Check out this worksheet by the MSU Student Health Education Centre
- Although it is more COVID-19 focused, there are excellent guiding questions and principles about setting boundaries and revisiting them consistently as housemates.
- Elizabeth Earnshaw on Instagram: “There is more than one way to let people know where you stand and what you can and can’t do.”
- Check out this Instagram post for some ways to set boundaries that aren’t just saying “No”.
SourcesLife Events, Relationships