How to Set Boundaries in Relationships

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

It's hard to imagine healthy boundaries in an intimate relationship. Intimacy is a closeness, and setting boundaries can feel like you're pushing the person away. You might be afraid to set boundaries because it might make them feel unloved or unwanted. Refraining from setting boundaries out of fear can result in co-dependency, resentment, and toxic relationships.

So how do we set boundaries in a healthy way? What do healthy boundaries really look like?

No matter how close you two are, there will always be space between you. There is a place where you end and they begin, and where they end and you begin. This is healthy because it allows each person to be their own individual with their own set of thoughts, emotions, and needs.

As you begin an intimate relationship, it might seem like a sign that you're compatible when you start to feel what they're feeling. You might assume that being a good partner means anticipating and fulfilling their needs and putting their needs before your own.

Unfortunately, this makes you at risk to be a co-dependent relationship.

What is Co-Dependency?

In short a co-dependent relationship is when you put the needs of the other person before yours, in a way that hurts you. You can rely too much on another person to fulfill your emotional needs. It also involves some sort of self-betrayal in order to keep a person happy or to 'make them stay'. When a person fails to meet our emotional needs and we respond by ignoring our needs we become co-dependent.

Conversely, setting boundaries is about communicating your needs in a healthy way.

What are Boundaries?

A boundary is a guideline, rule, or expectation for how we want to be treated in a relationship. Boundaries can be set within ourselves first and then communicated with our partner.

For example: When your partner does something you don't like, you can stay quiet and ignore your needs and allow resentment to build up to be later brought up in a fight. Or, you can effectively communicate by saying things like "that was not okay with me." Thus, setting a boundary. Now, they know how you feel and it is up to them to respond in a loving and respectful way.

Why We Don't Set Boundaries

  • We are afraid of losing the person

  • afraid to make them angry

  • avoiding confrontation

  • afraid of offending the person

  • don't prioritize our needs

  • avoiding feelings of guilt

  • avoiding uncomfortable conversations

  • afraid of expressing our needs and still not having our needs met

  • fear of being disappointed

  • fear of disappointing someone

  • afraid of admitting that this person may not be right for us

"No." might make them angry. But it will make you free. Your freedom is more important than their anger - Nayyirah Waheed.

The worst thing we can do is stay quiet. We can't expect our partners to read our minds or automatically know what it is we need. We teach people how to love us. It's up to them to listen and respond accordingly.

Boundaries are a Form of Self - Care

Setting clear and healthy boundaries is a way to take care of our spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health.

Boundaries are a form of self-care because although it might be hard to do sometimes, we thank ourselves later. It's something we should do as often as brushing our teeth so we can practice, so it doesn't sound out of the ordinary to ask for what we need.

Women who were raised to believe that they are caretakers, that they should always put others' needs before their own, or that its selfish to want things, will have a hard time setting boundaries. So many of us spend a lot of time thinking that asking for what we want is 'bitchy' or 'selfish'. Because that's usually the reaction we get. It's important to stay firm in what we believe and what we desire for ourselves.

Self-care is valuing your feelings and emotional needs. When you clearly communicate your boundaries, people know how you expect to be treated, how you want to be loved.

We accept the love we think we deserve

Unfortunately, people will only learn how to love us by the things we allow. If we can first learn to love ourselves, we will know what it is we need and feel confident in asking for it.

When we practice self-care, tolerating mistreatment becomes unthinkable. When we increase our self-esteem and self-worth, we fight for a healthy state of mind, body, & soul. When we've done the work to create a healing environment for ourselves, it becomes easier to detect the things that drain our energy. We must maintain this act of self-care by working to heal or remove these toxins as they arise.

Setting Realistic Boundaries

How do we set healthy boundaries without being bossy? controlling? rude? bitchy? mean?

First, we need to understand how to set a realistic boundary.

An unhealthy boundary would be:

You have to make me feel happy all the time.

A healthy boundary would be:

I am responsible for processing my own emotions.

You are responsible for processing your own emotions.

We both make an equal effort to make the other person happy without harming ourselves.

A realistic boundary:

  • is sustainable

  • fills needs of both people

  • is not a command or demand

  • does not come from a place of control

  • does not harm or control either person

  • is not communicated in anger

  • comes from a place of self-respect & love

  • is agreed upon by both parties

We need to be careful with the expectations we put on others. Most people don't know how to love us exactly how we want and we can't expect them to because it's not their job. Just like it is not your job to love someone exactly the way they want to be loved at all times.

When we place unrealistic expectations on people we love, we make them feel like they're not good enough and we set ourselves up for disappointment. Our partners are human. They fail, they make mistakes, they hurt our feelings sometimes. A healthy relationship doesn't mean you'll never fight. A healthy relationship is learning how to communicate effectively.

What Does Setting Healthy Boundaries Look Like?

  • Speaking up when you feel mistreated

  • Saying exactly what you mean - don't agree when you actually disagree

  • Not feeling guilty for what you need or at least not letting the guilt get in the way of asking for what you need

  • Feeling safe in expressing emotions

  • Allowing the other person to react or respond how they choose

Examples of Healthy Boundaries Include:

I can depend on you without losing myself

I can take care of you while also taking care of myself

It’s not my responsibility to make sure others are always happy

It’s okay for us to disagree

I don’t need to sugarcoat my feelings

I can express my feelings without fear of upsetting you or punishment

Ways to Say No:

"I am not comfortable with that"

"This is not okay with me"

"I don't feel comfortable with this."

"This is not acceptable"

"This doesn’t work for me"

"I’m drawing the line at ____"

"I’ve decided to ___"

"I can’t do that but I can ___ instead"

"I don’t want to do that"

"Please don’t do that"


At the end of the day:

The only people who get upset when you set boundaries are the people who benefitted from you having none.

Someone who loves you will respect your boundaries and make an effort to improve.

If the relationship is right you won’t have to sacrifice what’s important to you. What’s important to you will be important to them.

If you set a boundary and it makes them uncomfortable or angry, it's not your job to make them happy again by removing the boundary.

If you need to ignore your needs to maintain peace in the relationship then it's not a healthy relationship.

People will show you who they are, it's your job to listen.

And finally,

Unconditional love does not mean tolerating mistreatment.

Affirmations for Setting Healthy Boundaries

I have a right to my feelings

I have a right to express my needs

It's okay to say no.

It's not my job to fix others.

I don't have to anticipate the needs of others

I have a right to alone time

Questions to ask yourself

What boundaries do I need to set with myself internally first?

What are my limits? What will I not tolerate?

What are my rights when it comes to setting boundaries?

How am I showing others I respect myself?

How am I practicing self-care when I set boundaries?

Why is it important to me to set this boundary?

What am I protecting with this boundary?

How do I expect this boundary to be respected?

What does crossing this boundary look like?

How do I plan to respond when my boundaries are crossed?

Do I have permission to be myself in this relationship?

Am I staying in this relationship because I’m scared of being alone?

What are my expectations for this relationship?

What are my partner's expectations for this relationship?

Does fulfilling my partner's expectations disregard my own needs?

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