All healthy relationships have boundaries. Ryan Howes, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California, defines a boundary as “the line where I end and someone else begins.” He likens boundaries in relationships to the boundaries around states.
Much like sharing a bedroom with a sibling, most of the time it goes well. But when it doesn’t, we start to divide the room by drawing an imaginary line through the bedroom. And one of us isn’t allowed to use the other’s side of the room. Then it gets to be problematic — someone got the door, someone else controls the window, and then who has access to the closet? It can be a mess but for many people, this is probably one of their first experiences with intentionally setting boundaries for themselves and those around them.
The reality is that every relationship should have boundaries — work, friends, family and intimate partners. Setting boundaries is never a bad thing. It’s about protecting yourself and your relationships.
Types of Boundaries
There are five major types of boundaries.
Physical: the physical space around you (when someone gets in your space), public displays of affection (not everyone is comfortable with this).
Personal space is a thing..it’s real. And we all know when someone gets “in our space” and how uncomfortable that can be.
Emotional: honoring your own feelings; not feeling responsible for someone else’s feelings or letting another’s feelings dictate your own; sacrificing your own needs to please someone else.
We all have the right to our feelings. We should be able to express ourselves without worrying how someone else may react to something that we have done, thought or said. Our partners need to own their feelings and not blame us for how they feel.
Material: your possessions, when and how they can be used and/or treated.
We work hard for our possessions, and we should get to decide who gets to use them and under what conditions. Ever have someone borrow your clothes and they return them and they’re trashed? It doesn’t feel good.
Time/Energy: about people being on time when you have plans, expecting favors, free labor, etc.
We are all busy. But our time and energy should be just as important as anyone else’s. We have to value ourselves, and the time and energy we put into things.
Mental: having your personal thoughts, beliefs, values and opinions respected; agree to disagree.
Everyone has the right to their own opinions. We don’t have to agree, but we shouldn’t disrespect another person’s beliefs and opinions.
Setting and communicating your boundaries takes some work. It might not be easy at first, but with practice, it does become easier.
Be aware of the things that you like, but more importantly the things you don’t like. What are you comfortable with? What scares you?
- Be clear — it’s okay for you to own your feelings.
- It’s okay to tell your partner what your expectations are.
- The more specific you can be, the less chance there is for misunderstandings and miscommunications. It’s okay to say, hey…I want to help you with ABC, but first, I need you to do XYZ.
- It can be helpful to start these important conversations by stating your love. I love you and I want to work through this, but I’m having trouble with…
Using “I” statements can take the pressure off of your partner, and make it easier for them to “hear” you. Rather than starting with a negative — you don’t do this; you shouldn’t do that…start with an “I” statement. “I appreciate it when you do this.” “I love it when you take my feelings into consideration.”
You can also try the sandwich method of expressing your concerns by “sandwiching” a criticism between two compliments. Starting with a compliment can put your partner at ease and more receptive to any criticism. For instance:
- “I love it when you help me with my geometry homework! It is so helpful. I wish you wouldn’t tell me that I’m not very smart but my grades have gotten so much better since you have been helping me.”
- “I like it when you show your affection but I am not okay with kissing in public. Can we hold hands instead?”
- “I love it when you pick me up before school but I want you to wear your seatbelt. I love you and want you to be safe.”
- “I am happy we are official, but I'm starting to get overwhelmed when you ask about everyone who tags me in posts. It makes me feel like you don’t trust me so I would love it if you could let me respond to those people in my own way.”
- “It’s cool that we follow each other on Insta, but I'm starting to get overwhelmed with you replying to everyone who comments on my posts, can we talk more about respecting each others social media accounts?”
Learn to Be Okay with Saying No
Although this may be uncomfortable at first, learn to say no. You can say no without an explanation and without providing any emotional labor to the person you’re saying it to.
Set Silent Boundaries
- Put private items in a locked drawer or box.
- Use a password-protected digital journal instead of a paper one.
- Schedule nonnegotiable alone time or time when you’re just doing your own thing.
- Use passwords, codes or other security features on devices and social accounts.
- Don’t share any passwords
- Temporarily delete email and messaging apps when you don’t want to be contacted.
- Use the Do Not Disturb feature on your phone and other devices.
- Make a promise to yourself not to respond during your “you” time.
Navigating relationships and boundaries are a normal part of life but sometimes these can be really difficult conversations. We need to be able to stand up for ourselves, and it can be hard to do. If you are having difficulty with setting boundaries or figuring out where your relationship falls on the relationship spectrum, please reach out and have a conversation with a StrongHearts Native Helpline advocate.
We are here to listen with an open mind and will not judge you. We can help you process where you are at and where you want to go.