In romantic relationships we often think of boundaries as a bad thing or simply unnecessary. Isn’t our partner supposed to anticipate our wants and needs? Isn’t that part of being in love? Aren’t boundaries insensitive? Don’t they interfere with the romance of a relationship?
Many people assume that having boundaries means not having loving feelings toward their partner. But it’s actually the opposite.
All healthy relationships have boundaries. Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif, defines a boundary as “the line where I end and someone else begins.”
When the boundary is clearly defined and respected, you don’t need walls or electric fences, he said. “People can even cross the boundary occasionally when there’s a mutual understanding.” However, when the boundary is violated in order to do harm or take advantage, then you’ll likely need walls, gates and guards, he said.
In healthy relationships partners “ask permission, take one another’s feelings into account, show gratitude and respect differences in opinion, perspective and feelings.”
In less healthy relationships, partners assume their partner feels the same way they do (e.g., “I like this, so you must, too”). They ignore the effects of violating their partner’s boundary (e.g., “They’ll get over it”).
Boundaries in romantic relationships are especially critical, because as opposed to other relationships, partners inhabit each other’s most intimate spaces, including physical, emotional and sexual, he said.
This is why communicating your boundaries clearly is key. But what does — and doesn’t — this look like?
Boundaries that often fail are those that include the words ‘always,’ ‘never’ or any absolute language. Such boundaries are usually unrealistic and don’t last. For example, “You can never” or “You must always.”
Other poor boundaries alienate you from your partner, have a double standard or try to manipulate a response or an outcome. Examples include, “If you don’t call me back now, I’m breaking up with you”, or “If you go out with your friends tonight, I’m not going to the movies with you this weekend.”
Vague boundaries also don’t work. These include, “Don’t call me too late”, or “I need you to talk nicer to me”. Instead, try, “Please don’t call me after 8pm.” And, “Please don’t criticize the clothes I wear.”
Many partners don’t even talk about their boundaries. They expect their partner to just know them. This is unfair. No one can read minds. Even in close relationships. Express your needs instead of hinting around and then getting angry or mope around when it doesn’t happen.
Not only is this ineffective, but it creates confusion and can hurt your relationship.
It’s important to set healthy boundaries. This includes everything from speaking up when you think you’re being disrespected to advocating for yourself to have time for your own interests.
Here are some tips:
The first step in setting any boundary is self-knowledge. You need to know what you like and dislike, what you’re comfortable with versus what scares you, and how you want to be treated in given situations.
After you know what your needs are, tell your partner. Misunderstandings can easily occur. One partner has a problem with certain behaviors, but they never let their partner know. Often this is because they worry it’ll trigger an argument.
However it’s OK to have preferences, and it’s OK to let your partner know those preferences.
Communicate to your partner how much you care about them, but let them know if they’ve overstepped a boundary. In doing this, it’s often effective to use “I” statements.
Rather than saying, “You need to do this,” or “You should always,” use such phrases as: “I feel,” or “I would appreciate,” or “I would like it if…”
Or try the ‘sandwich’ approach. That is, a compliment, the feedback, and another compliment. Starting with a compliment prevents your partner from getting defensive and leaves them with final compliment.
For instance, “I love getting your texts during the day. Yet, when I get too many and you always want me to respond quickly, it doesn’t feel that great. Could you agree to send me a few less of your cute texts during the day?”
While there’s no guarantee this will always work, people tend to be more receptive to criticism when they first feel heard, respected and understood.
Ultimately, healthy relationships require clear-cut parameters. Finding ways to communicating your boundaries in a loving, respectful way that makes your loved one feel heard is the key.