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A Guide for Setting Boundaries in Relationships

We often think of boundaries in relationships as rules that create distance between people, but actually, the opposite is true. Relationship boundaries keep people in, not out. They create safe spaces where we feel seen and heard. 

Healthy boundaries strengthen relationships because they’re grounded in assertiveness and respect for one another—characteristics that make relationships more meaningful and enjoyable. Let’s explore examples of boundaries in relationships, how to set boundaries in relationships, and why relationship boundaries are so important for your well-being.

What are boundaries in a relationship?

As author and researcher Brené Brown, PhD, explains, healthy boundaries in relationships are “what’s okay with you, and what’s not okay with you.” They’re roadmaps for interactions and behaviors that we find acceptable or unacceptable. Boundaries help us live our values and priorities by setting physical or emotional limits that protect our well-being, mental health, and comfort. They’re a type of self-care and a life skill we can keep learning, practicing, and improving. Boundaries are important in any type of relationship—children, partners, co-workers, parents, siblings, or friends.

Examples of boundaries in relationships:

  • Requesting that your mother give you one day’s notice if she’d like to stop by your home.
  • Saying no to holiday dinner plans with family.
  • Requesting your partner give you space the first hour after work so you can decompress.
  • Requesting a friend no longer vent to you about a certain topic.
  • Not allowing your child to use inappropriate language in the house.
  • Letting your supervisor know you won’t be responding to emails on weekends.
  • Asking someone to stop using language you find offensive or leaving the conversation.
  • Not participating in activities that go against your beliefs or religion.
  • Turning down a dinner invitation because you’re saving money for a vacation.

Why are boundaries in relationships important?

Healthy relationship boundaries are essential because they promote balance, respect, and physical and emotional well-being. When we set and maintain boundaries in a relationship, the other person has a clear understanding of how they should interact with us. This helps us feel safe, respected, and cared for—because of this, we show up better for that relationship.

Relationship boundaries can help:

  • Build respectful, trusting, and safe interactions where you feel comfortable sharing openly and saying no
  • Prevent yourself from being taken advantage of by others because you’re clear about what you will and won’t do
  • Encourage productive, two-sided conversations instead of arguments because there is mutual respect and understanding around communication
  • Avoid resentment, burnout, and anxiety that can result from taking on more than you can handle
  • Foster feelings of appreciation and validation, which strengthens positive feelings toward the other person

7 types of boundaries in relationships

There are several types of boundaries in relationships, and they often overlap. Here are some key examples of boundaries in relationships.

#1 Physical relationship boundaries

Physical boundaries are how you take care of your body and your physical environment. They revolve around touch, personal space, and your physical needs.

  • “I’m not a hugger. I don’t want to be hugged unless I initiate it.”
  • “I’m not ready to move in with you.”
  • “I don’t want to hold hands when we’re in public.”
  • “I don’t want you to come into my bedroom when I’m not here.”
  • “I’m tired, and I need to rest before we go to dinner.”
  • “It’s not OK for you to touch me in that way.”
  • “I’m not OK with you smoking in my home.”

#2 Emotional relationship boundaries

Emotional boundaries protect your right to your own feelings and thoughts without criticism or dismissiveness from others.

  • “I don’t feel comfortable crying in front of you.”
  • “I don’t want to share that personal information with you.”
  • “That wasn’t my fault, and I won’t take blame for it.”
  • “I won’t allow you to talk to me like that.”
  • “I need space to process this for a while.”
  • “I’m not OK with us dating other people.” 

#3 Sexual relationship boundaries

Sexual boundaries are what we’re willing to do and feel comfortable with in our sex life. This can include touch, sight, and the way we want to be treated in a sexual context.

  • “I’m not OK with displays of outward affection when we’re in public.”
  • “I don’t want to have sex yet.”
  • “I don’t feel like being intimate tonight.”
  • “I’m not OK with you sending sexual content via text.”
  • “I’m not OK with jokes that include sexual content.”

#4 Time relationship boundaries

Time boundaries are limits we set around how we spend our time. This is a big  one, and something that’s especially difficult for many of us. 

  • “This is my time for therapy, so please don’t message me or schedule anything.”
  • “It’s OK if you visit, but you’ll need to leave before dinner so I can have time with my family.”
  • “I go to the gym every Monday and Wednesday night. Please don’t plan anything on those evenings.”
  • “I don’t respond to calls, texts, or emails between 6 p.m. and 9 a.m.”
  • “I can only spend two hours at this event.”

#5 Spiritual relationship boundaries

Spiritual boundaries can come in different forms and aren’t always about religion. They can feel very similar to emotional ones, but spiritual boundaries center around your right to your personal beliefs. 

  • Protecting a religious or spiritual belief you don’t want to share with another.
  • Avoiding a spiritual trigger—for example, not praying with others before a meal because you were abused by a religion. 
  • Avoiding meals with others when the food includes meat if it’s against your beliefs. 
  • Saying a silent prayer before meals.
  • Foregoing religious services with a partner or family member.

#6 Financial relationship boundaries

Financial boundaries in relationships are limits you set around spending money and sharing information about your finances.

  • Keeping separate checking and savings accounts from your partner.
  • Asking your parents not to access your financial accounts after you move out of their home.
  • Saying no when asked to spend money on someone or loan them money.
  • Saying no to spending money on a lavish dinner or other expenses that aren’t your preference or in your budget.
  • Putting a spending limit on holiday gifts.

#7 Cultural relationship boundaries

Cultural boundaries can include generational and cross-cultural challenges. These types of boundaries in relationships can be particularly complex and personal. Sometimes what one person views as a healthy boundary in their culture, another person has a problem with because they’re viewing it through the lens of their own culture. This gets complicated because you may want to respect the perspective of the other person while staying true to your own values. Cultural boundaries center around customs, traditions, and beliefs and may include:

  • How we greet people
  • What and when we eat 
  • What we’re OK with in terms of personal space and touching
  • How we dress
  • Religious practices
  • Gender roles

There can be a cultural gap between younger and older generations as values change and evolve. For example, parents may come from a generation that believes children do as they say and parents have a right to all of their children’s personal information because they’re the parents. What we often see  in families now is a younger generation that’s much more ready and willing to set clear boundaries than their parents. This includes youth and adult children. Examples of boundaries in a relationship that could be tied to generational differences include:

  • “Don’t comment on my parenting style.”
  • “Don’t comment on what I eat or how much I eat during meals.”
  • “Don’t bring up politics with me.”
  • “If you continue to do that when you’re with my children, you’ll no longer be able to see them.”
  • “Don’t vent to me about this issue anymore. This isn’t about me. It’s for you and your therapist.”
  • “I won’t come to family gatherings until you begin treating my partner with acceptance and respect.”

What’s the difference between healthy and unhealthy boundaries?

In general, if a boundary preserves your well-being and keeps you safe physically and emotionally, it’s a healthy one. Boundaries that impose on your well-being and safety may be unhealthy ones. On paper, some boundaries in relationships can seem healthy, but if you dig into them, they aren’t. Here are some examples of healthy and unhealthy boundaries in a relationship.

Examples of healthy boundaries in relationships

  • Communicating your needs and expectations in relationships with others and being open to their needs and expectations.
  • Saying no without fear of rejection or worrying that others will view you negatively.
  • Expressing your beliefs and views instead of downplaying or changing them based on others.
  • Taking time for self-care, even if it means turning down invitations or asking others to take on tasks.
  • Leaving a situation or conversation that makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
  • Deriving your sense of self from within and having a vibrant life based on your personal beliefs and preferences. Not relying on others to fill you up, dictate your interests, or validate you.
  • Prohibiting others to disrespect you in speech or touch.

Examples of unhealthy boundaries in relationships

Unhealthy boundaries in relationships are those that are too rigid, too loose, or harm your or another’s emotional or physical well-being. For example, say you’re in a new relationship. You may tell the other person that you want to be exclusive. That makes you feel safe and is a healthy boundary for you. Another person could take this to the extreme though. Perhaps “exclusive” to them means they can demand access to your phone and passwords or forbid you from talking to others. In this case, exclusivity sounds like a healthy boundary, but really, it undermines someone else’s freedom and well-being. 

Other examples of unhealthy boundaries in relationships:

  • A friend tells you that if you were a good friend you would always say yes to meeting with them. 
  • A romantic partner asks you to change your beliefs and interests to be like theirs.
  • An abusive partner tells you to be available at all times just in case they want to spend time with you. They ask you to forgo activities you once enjoyed, turn down invitations from friends, or cancel plans to spend time with them.
  • A romantic partner coerces you to do something sexual even if you feel uncomfortable. They may frame this within their sexual boundaries but it is abusive.

Signs you need to set boundaries in a relationship

In my work, I often meet with people who struggle with setting boundaries or have set boundaries that were crossed. This is particularly painful because it’s difficult to set boundaries at all and people may lose the confidence needed to set them again once they’re crossed. People with a strong desire to please others tend to think they’ll be more successful or get more validation if they continue to say yes, but this can result in burnout, anxiety, or resentment. 

Here are a few signs you may need to start setting boundaries in a relationship:

Burnout

In both personal and work relationships, burnout can be a sign that there are boundaries to set in a relationship. Maybe you feel obligated to say “yes” even when doing so doesn’t align with your values or needs. Perhaps your friend vents excessively or you feel pressured to take on a co-worker’s responsibilities. Ask yourself, “What do I need that I haven’t asked for yet?” 

Resentment

Resentment may stem from burnout. Maybe you’re taking on more than your share of work, home, or financial responsibilities in a relationship. You blame the other person for crossing a boundary you haven’t set with them. You hope they’ll finally “just get it” or that you’ll do enough that the situation will fix itself. This approach may feel safer than speaking up and stating your needs and expectations. The trade-off is you’ll continue to feel overwhelmed and resentful, and your well-being and the health of the relationship may suffer.

Anxiety

If someone crosses a boundary you haven’t enforced, you may start to feel anxious. For instance, if a co-worker repeatedly asks you to take on their work, you may begin to feel nervous every time you get an email from them or run into them at work. You may feel on high alert, anticipating another ask from the person you feel is taking advantage of you.

Irritability

Putting others’ needs above yours can prevent you from taking the time and space to care for yourself. You don’t have a chance to recharge. Irritability can be an offshoot of the resentment, anxiety, and burnout you feel if you’re not setting boundaries in a relationship.

Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships

If you’re not used to setting boundaries, you may want to start with smaller boundaries (“Please don’t tell those types of jokes around me”) and work your way up to larger ones (“If you continue to tell those types of jokes around me, I’ll report you to human resources”). Once you set boundaries, it’s important to maintain them. Some people may keep crossing a boundary even after you’ve clearly stated it. This can feel unfair and exhausting, but these situations are exactly the ones where it’s crucial to keep enforcing your boundary and the consequences of crossing it.

Here are some tips for setting healthy boundaries in relationships.

#1 Identify your boundaries and consequences

The foundation for setting boundaries in a relationship begins with clarity and self-awareness about what’s making you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. It’s helpful to journal about this or explore it with a friend or therapist who can help you become clear and confident on the boundaries to set in a relationship. Ask yourself, “What do I need to feel comfortable?” “What will enhance my well-being?” Write this down. 

You also want to be clear on the consequences if a boundary is crossed. For example, if your boundary is requesting that your partner stop speaking to you disrespectfully, maybe your consequence is that you’ll leave the room or the house until they apologize and you feel ready to return. 

#2 Prepare to communicate boundaries 

After you’ve identified boundaries and consequences, it’s time to communicate them. It can be anxiety-provoking trying to anticipate how the other person will react. It can be helpful to role play with a friend or therapist. If you’re not clear on what you’re going to say, your request may seem confusing, or you may backtrack on your boundary. There’s no way to know how it’ll go in real time, but role playing is a good way to get honest feedback and gain confidence.

#3 Find an ideal time

Timing matters. Some people like to immediately respond to breached boundaries, while others need time to reflect. Ideally, you want to talk about relationship boundaries when you’re both calm, not in the middle of a disagreement or stressful situation. You may feel hesitant about setting boundaries in a relationship when things are smooth because you don’t want to ruin a good moment by bringing it up. This is exactly when you should discuss boundary issues—when you’re able to listen and speak thoughtfully and respectfully.

#4 Reinforce your boundaries

Once you’ve communicated your boundaries in a relationship, it’s time to maintain them. Not following through with consequences when a boundary is crossed is like giving someone permission to continue the behavior. Reinforce your boundary by following through with consequences each time. If a person continues to cross your boundaries, you’ll have to determine what action you’d like to take or if you want to keep them in your life.

Getting help setting healthy boundaries in relationships

Sometimes getting help from a mental health professional is important for boundary work. Trouble with boundary-setting can be a symptom of deeper issues like low self-esteem, codependency, or trauma. Here are a few situations that indicate you might need help learning how to set boundaries in a relationship.

  • Burnout or anxiety that feels unmanageable and affects your quality of life.
  • Being unsuccessful at setting boundaries on your own. 
  • Feeling retraumatized when setting a boundary because it’s tied to past abuse or other trauma.

Therapy can help you address the underlying reasons for unhealthy boundaries in relationships. For example, you may reprocess trauma so you feel safer setting a boundary. Or you may explore why you find boundary-setting hard and address symptoms stemming from poor boundaries like anxiety, depression, and stress. 

You deserve healthy boundaries

One of the main things to remember about setting boundaries in a relationship is that it starts with your belief that you deserve boundaries. Some people have a hard time setting boundaries because they struggle with self-worth. They don’t believe they have a right to boundaries. If you feel this way, start there.

Whether you do it on your own or get guidance from a therapist or mental health coach, you need to explore where that message is coming from, then challenge the belief and adopt a more accurate one. When you value yourself and believe you’re worthy of respect, love, and kindness, boundary-setting becomes a natural form of self-care.

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About the author
Ainhoa Indurain, LPCC, LCPC
Therapist, Lyra Clinical Associates

Ainhoa is a licensed clinical counselor who supports people with a wide variety of needs like reducing anxiety and depression, exploring issues in their relationships, or reducing work stress. Ainhoa also specializes in trauma work with adults and children. In their previous role, Ainhoa worked for the Chicago Children's Advocacy Center as a child therapist.

By Ainhoa Indurain, LPCC, LCPC
Therapist, Lyra Clinical Associates
7 of March 2023 - 14 min read
Mental health tips
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