When people think about boundaries, often they think of them in physical terms—structures that enforce separation and impose distance. But, paradoxically, knowing how to set boundaries in a relationship may, in fact, bring you closer to someone you care about.
What are boundaries in a relationship?
How can that be? Surely something that separates or distances us from others couldn’t bring us closer, could it? In fact, recognizing, expressing and enforcing boundaries may represent the opposite of closeness in the short term, but doing these things can enable a more sustainable and meaningful intimacy in the long term.
“I like to think of boundaries as representing the space where we can care for ourselves and others simultaneously,” said Jor-El Caraballo, a relationship therapist and co-creator of Viva Wellness. “Boundaries are important to our relationships, as they offer us a structure, or foundation, [on which] build healthier sustainable relationships.”
Crucially, he said, “Not having appropriate boundaries often leads to greater communication issues and resentment that builds over time.”
Physical boundaries in a relationship aren’t like the walls mentioned earlier. They’re more like rules about physical contact and interactions.
“Physical boundaries exist largely to help us keep ourselves physically secure and safe,” said Caraballo. An example of a physical boundary, he added, “Could be hugging only close friends and family.”
Physical boundaries are useful for protecting both your physical safety and your mental well-being. Either way, they’re approaches to the world that help you—and those you communicate them to—understand what you’re OK with and what you aren’t.
Respecting people’s physical boundaries is important, even if you don’t understand the reasons behind them. For instance, someone might not be comfortable hugging strangers due to trauma from physical or sexual abuse in their past, and people casually brushing those requests aside could be deeply triggering for them.
Emotional boundaries, on the other hand, are a less tangible version of the same thing—asking that certain guidelines be respected in terms of your interactions with others, but without the physical aspect.
“Emotional boundaries are all about making sure that our feelings and emotions are protected from minimization or invalidation,” Caraballo explained. “For example, if you’re exploring a new dating relationship, you may want to have more rigid emotional boundaries about particularly deep things, like details about your mental health struggles, until you establish more trust.”
“Another example could be not sharing a lot of information about your personal life with coworkers if you value that kind of separation and privacy.”
As with physical boundaries, emotional boundaries could stem from wanting to protect yourself from negative situations you’ve been in before—or ones that you aren’t keen on getting into for the first time.
How to set boundaries in a relationship
Boundaries function only if you articulate them—first to yourself, and then to the other person, sometimes over and over. Making them work means not only communicating how you feel, but also being intentional and thoughtful in how you do it—things that many people aren’t very practiced in. As a result, there are lots of different pathways toward improving your boundary-setting skills.
Listen to yourself
You’ll never even get to the point of articulating a boundary to someone else if you can’t trust in what you yourself need. That’s why, for Caraballo, step one is turning inward and seeing what’s going on with you.
“Setting good boundaries is first and foremost about honestly listening to yourself about what you like or need,” he explained.
That means trying to quiet the voices in your head that say you don’t deserve to feel safe or loved or to have your needs met, but to trust that if you’re feeling unhappy, scared or anxious then that means something.
Have a trusted confidant
If you’re in a place where you’ve started listening to yourself and recognizing your own needs, but aren’t yet ready to draw a boundary with someone else in your life, step two might be to look to speak to a third party—a close friend, a relative you trust, a romantic partner who’s got your back.
“Have someone you can rely on to be a sounding board if you’re feeling unsure of what to do,” Caraballo suggested. If this person has your best interests at heart, they’ll be able to encourage you along the way when it comes to setting the boundaries you need to set.
Consult with a therapist
Sometimes, the people you’d turn to for advice are the very people you want to set boundaries with. Talking to a mental health professional may be a great option in addition to or instead of someone you know and trust.
“Setting boundaries can be tricky, especially if you’ve never done it intentionally before,” Caraballo noted. “We all need a little help sometimes.”
A therapist can try to help you better understand the situation, why exactly you’re feeling the way you’re feeling, and give you suggestions for communicating your boundaries that are tailored to your circumstances.
Rare is the person who recognizes the need to set boundaries as soon as it arises. Realizing that you could or should have set boundaries weeks, months or even years ago can feel emotionally taxing, and make it all the harder to finally put your foot down in the present.
But Caraballo said this is a natural part of the process: “When we know better we can do better,” he explained. “Forgive yourself for not knowing better before and continue to move forward.”
Check in with yourself regularly
Another aspect of the journey, according to Caraballo, is to check in with yourself and try to gauge how you’re coping and whether you’re all right.
“Boundaries can get confusing,” he said, “so don’t forget to check in with yourself to make sure you’re feeling good about your action steps.” If you recognize that articulating your boundaries is exhausting you or not working, it might be a good time to talk about that to your trusted confidant or therapist.
Setting boundaries in relationships, whether romantic or not, can be a scary process in a culture where disagreement can feel like aggression. Especially if the reason you need to set a boundary is because someone else has been taking advantage of your unwillingness to confront them, you might be feeling reticent about the whole process. You may try to voice your boundaries in a soft way or using language designed not to provoke.
While it’s admirable not to be aggressive, that doesn’t mean you should shrink away from genuinely asking for what you need and explaining why. “Communicate with clarity and authenticity to get the best results,” Caraballo said. If you’re unclear about your boundaries now, it’ll often lead to more difficult conversations down the road when they aren’t clearly understood.
Designate a time to talk boundaries
“Sometimes setting boundaries means an unavoidable tough conversation,” Caraballo said. He suggested you “have a sit-down” with the person or persons in question to clearly state the boundaries, rather than trying to foist them into or tack them onto other conversations.
Bring them up again if necessary
In a perfect world, setting a boundary would take only one such conversation, or perhaps not even that much—but part of the reason we set boundaries in relationships to begin with is the reality that they are likely to be ignored or forgotten by other people in the heat of the moment. But there is a way to handle this: repetition.
“Maintain, maintain, maintain,” Caraballo said. “Setting boundaries is often about not just setting them, but also reinforcing them when they are tested or when you receive pushback [which will happen!].”
Understand that you may lose people
It’s an unpleasant reality, but sometimes drawing boundaries with people who aren’t used to it, who don’t want you to make requests of them, or who want unfettered access to you and your time or emotional reserves can have consequences.
“Sometimes setting boundaries also means you lose some relationships,” Caraballo admitted, “or they change drastically.”
That can feel incredibly demoralizing when it happens. Caraballo recommends that you take some time to grieve those relationships if they do end, knowing that it can be incredibly painful to lose someone even if they were acting in a way that was hurting you.