Relationship Boundaries Explained: How to Set Healthy Boundaries

Published 06/27/2021

In this article, we discuss the various types of boundaries and how they can support you with promoting your sense of self through the ability to separate your identity, feelings, and needs from your partner, family, friends, or colleagues. Boundaries help create healthy relationships by outlining needs and respecting limits. When setting boundaries in a relationship, it is also important to review consequences of a violation to prevent abuse due low respect, lack of responsibility, or desire for control.

What Are Relationship Boundaries?

Boundary setting can help preserve a sense of self and help keep each member of the relationship accountable. Setting boundaries can also lead to mutual understanding and appreciation for differences while preventing resentment and feelings of neglect or invalidation due to unexpressed and unmet needs. Although asserting your needs and compromising might feel intimidating, taking this risk can help build a happy relationship where you feel satisfied as individuals.

Why Are Personal Boundaries Important?

Personal boundaries aid with taking responsibility for your own emotions and behaviors within the relationship. One can increase empowerment and reduce burnout or distress from neglecting your own needs and values by building boundaries in relationships. Reflect on your values and factors that shape your identity. How does it feel to think about the factors the relationship makes space for? What about the factors that don’t have as much space in the relationship? How does that make you view the other person or the quality of the relationship?

Types of Boundaries and How to Set Them

Boundaries can be categorized into different dimensions based on the type of need. The list below demonstrates the various areas to consider when assessing if you are satisfied with the current relationship dynamics and how boundaries operate within them. Setting boundaries may look like a simple ask or may require various conversations to maintain or reinforce. A discussion regarding consequences if these boundaries are violated can also help reinforce and share the importance of maintaining the boundary. The examples provided below illustrate ways to initiate discussions about healthy boundaries within each of the following dimensions.

  1. Emotional
  2. Sexual
  3. Physical
  4. Material
  5. Intellectual
  6. Time

Emotional Boundaries

Emotional boundaries correspond to emotional availability and responsibility for one’s feelings. These boundaries may be based on the safety you experience in the relationship and your partner’s availability to support you when in distress.

Examples

  1. I need some time to process my thoughts and emotions before discussing. Can you give me 30 minutes and then we can talk about it?
  2. I like when we can be playful and tease each other, but please don’t joke about my weight.
  3. It’s hard to be vulnerable with you because people have been dismissive of me in the past. I recognize it’s my responsibility to work through these difficult experiences and you can encourage me if you’d like.
  4. I can see you’re going through a hard time right now, I’d like to be there for you but this isn’t a good time. Can we set a time to talk so I can listen to you better?
  5. I can’t share with you how I’m really feeling if you continue to minimize my experiences. Please be respectful towards my feelings.

Sexual Boundaries

Boundaries around sex and intimacy may prevent unwanted touch and stem from previous experiences and values about sex in relationships. Although sexual boundaries may be most common in romantic relationships, you may also want to set boundaries in other relationships regarding consent, privacy, and respect.

Examples

  1. I’m not comfortable with (specific action) during sex. Can we try something else?.
  2. I’m comfortable with us having an open relationship if you agree to only date women, not men.
  3. Let’s discuss how to initiate sex better. I feel uncomfortable when you grab me without me expecting it.
  4. I’m feeling triggered due to my past trauma. I need a break.
  5. I enjoyed our date together. I’d like to see you again to get more familiar with you before we get intimate.

Physical Boundaries

A physical boundary serves to avoid neglect, abuse, and poor health that can come from ignoring needs such as rest, food, and drink in relationships. Consider needs for physical space and touch when developing this boundary with someone else.

Examples

  1. I need a break from touch at this time.
  2. I would like to share the space in our home better with you.
  3. I need a private area after work to de-stress.
  4. I need to take a break and eat something.
  5. I cannot allow you to slap or hit me.

Material Boundaries

Boundaries surrounding material possessions may outline how you prefer the item to be used and set limits on the frequency of use. If your partner, family, or friend tends to control your access to your belongings to manipulate you, this may be a form of abuse.

Examples

  1. I need to you give me a heads up if you want to borrow the car.
  2. Please leave my keys and glasses where I left them. I get stressed when I cannot find them.
  3. I feel we’ve been spending more than usual and it’s making me worry. Can we cut back this week?
  4. Can you not search through my closet without asking? It reminds me of my mom invading my privacy.
  5. I really value my appliances, can you make sure you use them carefully?

Intellectual Boundaries

Healthy intellectual boundaries promote respect for each other’s thoughts, opinions, and values. This can promote space for productive discussions. Not all discussions may be tolerated and it is okay to make a boundary around topics that are harmful to groups of people such as racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc.

Examples

  1. I would like to avoid conversations about politics right now. I’m already under a lot of stress.
  2. I respect your position, can you respect mine without attempting to change it, even if you don’t agree?
  3. I would prefer not to watch or listen to violent topics in the home.
  4. I know you disagree with me, but I can’t allow you to criticize me like that.
  5. I feel uncomfortable when racist jokes are made. I can’t be around you if this continues. I can direct you to resources if you want to better understand why this is not okay with me.

Time Boundaries

A time boundary can help you balance priorities and commitments. They can prevent burnout within your professional life and help you share responsibilities with your partner.

Examples

  1. I feel I haven’t spent much time with my family and friends. I want to work with you to figure out how I can have more time with them on weekends.
  2. I need some help with the children. I haven’t been able to take a break and it’s taking a toll on me.
  3. I would love to hang out, but I can only stay for an hour.
  4. I can definitely help you, here are my rates…
  5. I’ve got a lot going on this semester. Let’s think about other ways I can help without overcommitting.

7 Examples of Boundaries That Won’t Work

Unhealthy boundaries may seem as if one person is in control due to them ignoring the other’s values, needs, wants, and limits. People that lack boundaries in relationships may be unaware that this is contributing to their dissatisfaction. In these cases, it may be helpful to take inventory of how much freedom you experience in the relationship evidenced by the frequency and ease in which you can interact with your personal interests, care for your needs, and express your thoughts, emotions, and values. Below is a list of phrases that illustrate how unhealthy boundaries can manifest in a relationship and lead to invalidation, abuse, disrespect, or fused responsibility for each other’s emotions.

  1. My partner experienced so much trauma, so it’s okay when they get upset and yell at me. I know I can fix them.
  2. I don’t get why they see things that way. They’re so ignorant. I keep telling them they shouldn’t be upset over something so small.
  3. She keeps saying no and that she doesn’t want to do it, but I know what’s good for her.
  4. They’re so frigid. I can’t believe they’d be that upset at me wanting to touch them. Don’t they know I have needs?
  5. I know you said you wanted to take Friday off, but I really need you to work on this new project and I expect a summary of progress by end of day on Friday.
  6. I can’t believe you’d rather spend time with them than me, don’t you see all I’ve been going through lately? You’re supposed to help me feel better.
  7. Oh, you feel upset? Don’t you see how you’re making me feel? Don’t you see all I do for you? You’re so ungrateful.

5 Tips for Setting Healthy Boundaries in a Relationship

Healthy boundaries can be constructed through reflection, communication, consistency, and consequences. To promote a balance between personal life and engaging with others follow the following steps to create personal boundaries.

  1. Point out your needs identified through self-reflection.
  2. Explore how rigid the boundary is any areas of flexibility.
  3. Practice setting and maintaining limits consistently.
  4. Draw the line when a violation occurs and follow through with appropriate consequences.
  5. Communicate about how to move forward after a violation and its impact.
Laura Richer, Seattle Therapist

Laura Richer, Seattle Therapist

Laura Richer is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and coach. Located in the Queen Ann neighborhood of Seattle, she is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and has been practicing in the state of Washington since 2011.

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