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How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Your Relationships

What are your boundaries? That’s a simple question, but it may cause us a headache to try finding an answer for some of us. Often we say “yes” when we want to say no, and we say “no” when we want to say yes. We want to please and be liked by others, especially by our loved ones.

Research has shown time after time that setting healthy boundaries in relationships is key to maintaining a rock-solid relationship. But many people are afraid of doing this as they may feel selfish or inconsiderate towards their partners. “My partner was diagnosed with cancer; I have to make sure to take care of her all the time.” “My partner has been sitting on the couch doing nothing since he was laid off; I’m feeling exhausted about working and taking care of the home all by myself.”

Taking care of yourself, especially during challenging times, is not a sign of selfishness or weakness. Instead, it may be the best thing you can do to endure whatever hardship may come your way and not fall apart in the process. So today, we want to talk to you about setting healthy boundaries to deepen your relationship and sustain your well-being.

What It Looks Like When There is a Lack of Boundaries?

couples talking and having a conversation on setting healthy boundaries in relationship

Imagine that your partner is suffering from cancer. He has been recommended to eat healthy food and do light exercises to endure his chemo treatment better. You have adjusted your whole life routine to ensure your partner never skips a doctor or treatment appointment. 

During the weekends, you spend hours in the kitchen reading and making recipes to boost your partner’s immune system before the next chemo session. You try to stay positive and supportive with your partner even though you no longer have time to go out with your friends or visit a new place. Your life has become a routine of work, hospitals, and caring for your partner at home. Yet, despite all your efforts, your partner despises healthy food. 

He wakes up very moody every morning due to his symptoms. He spends 24hrs a day asking you to do more things for him because he feels he cannot do it himself. He has become so dependent on you that he does not want you to go out because of his fear that he will not do anything by himself. You, on the other hand, need a break but feel guilty about leaving him alone. So you continue to take care of your partner non-stop for another week. Then, for another month, and another month, and so on until one day you collapse. 

Ambiguous or lack of boundaries often lead to co-dependency, stress, frustration, and conflict in a relationship. You and your partner may live a life neither of you wants to live. Of course, relationships have ups and downs. Still, things can worsen if there is no structure, open communication, or clear expectations. That’s why it is so important to set boundaries, even if that may take you out of your comfort zone.

What Are Healthy Boundaries in Relationships?

Let’s begin by clarifying that boundaries are NOT rules. Creating a boundary does not mean that whatever you say will have to be done for years to come. Neither means that you must impose your will over the will of your partner. That’s wanting to exercise control, not creating healthy boundaries.

Sally Gilman, family therapist, speaker, and author, defines boundaries as a sort of COMPASS to guide your life and relationships. On the one end of the compass, there’s the word “YES.” And on the other end, there’s the word “NO.” Creating boundaries in a relationship involves learning to express these two words to your partner when you mean them, rather than engaging in pleasing, avoidant, or dishonest behaviours. 

In other terms, it means creating a sense of balance in your relationship in which both of you feel that your needs are met without compromising the other person’s well-being. However, be mindful that we said a “sense of” balance, not a “perfect” balance. Life is too complicated and unpredictable to achieve perfection. 

We know that creating boundaries is not easy, especially if you are not expressing your needs or desires. But, we also know that most people don’t like when another person tells them “No” to something they are asking for. So, if you are struggling with setting boundaries and do not know where to begin, keep reading because we will offer you some practical tools below.  

Be Honest About What You Need

The first step in setting boundaries is identifying which boundaries we would like to create in our current situation. It may sound easy, but sometimes we don’t even know what we want or don’t want, especially when we feel stressed, overwhelmed, or exhausted. 

In those moments, we may see everything with tunnel vision, thinking that every single thing in our relationship is horrible or doomed to disaster! So, even though that may be our frustration talking, it is essential to hear what our feelings are telling us in those moments.

Start by taking some time -or an entire week- to review your relationship and seek which areas are triggering very unpleasant feelings. For example, perhaps you feel tired of always having to rush out of your work to pick up your kids at school? Or maybe you feel overwhelmed by being with your partner 24/7 and not having time for yourself? Or do you feel upset about spending every holiday with your in-laws and not with your own family? 

Whatever the case, think about the areas of your relationship affecting your energy, capacity for love, and well-being and what kind of change you would like to see in those areas. Most importantly, be honest with yourself. There’s no need to come up with excuses or patches that would serve no one.

Communicate your Needs

After you have sorted out your own needs i.e. realizing in what situation you want to say “YES” or “NO” – communicate your needs appropriately to your partner.

Healthy communication is critical in boundary setting. The reason? Most of the time, rather than expressing our needs or feelings to the other person, we try to blame them, offend them, or ignore them. Our goal? That our partner becomes aware of our misery. However, the result is that we ended up provoking more conflict.

Think about it: how would you respond if someone tells you that everything wrong happening to that person is because of you? But, on the other hand, how would you react if your loved one shares that they need more space or assistance at this time in their life? Probably your reaction to the second request will be more understanding and compassionate than to the first one.

Listen to What Your Partner Needs

Setting healthy boundaries also implies learning how to negotiate with the other person involved in the relationship. As we mentioned above, this is not a matter of imposing your will, wishes, and expectations on the other person. That would not be maintaining a healthy relationship but creating another imbalanced dynamic where you become the dominant person and your partner the submissive part. Instead, try to understand or invite your partner to share their struggles. Listen to that person’s needs.

Is your partner afraid of doing things on their own? Or perhaps, is your partner frustrated because of the financial situation? Are they depressed about health or family issues? Sometimes there is more than one solution to a problem. Understanding your own needs and your partner’s may help both of you to find a solution where none of you feel overwhelmed or drained all the time.

Now, let’s review some examples of establishing healthy boundaries so you can have a better idea of how to start applying this knowledge.

Examples of Personal Boundaries

  • Use “I” Statements: ALWAYS speak about your own needs, rather than finding fault in the other person. For example, it is better to say, “I need some time for myself this afternoon,” than “You are keeping me busy all the time!” 
  • There are more gentle ways to say “NO”: If you are the type of person who does not like to say a blunt “No” to others out of fear that you may be harming their feelings, here are some nice phrases you can use instead. For example, “I can’t do X at this time,” “I don’t feel comfortable doing that,” “This doesn’t work for me,” “Sounds great! But I cannot join you at this time.” If you browse the internet, you will find dozens of ways to say no without sounding too harsh or rude. Find the phrases that are more suitable to your personality and start drawing your line. 
  • Speak with an adequate tone of voice and keep your message concise: Setting boundaries does not mean that you have to yell to the other person (“Don’t you see I’m busy???!!”), nor that you have to give them a whole speech to justify your decision (I’m sorry, my mom called me and asked me to do X, and then my boss is asking me to do Y for tomorrow, and then….) Setting boundaries implies that you speak assertively. For example: “I’m sorry, but I cannot help you right now” (In this example, you are drawing a line, but at the same time offering an option).
  • You can say No, and still provide an opportunity: While some situations call for strict boundaries, you may provide a choice in other cases. This is in line with not only respecting your own needs but listening to your partner’s needs. For example, you may offer another timeframe or date to go out with your partner. You may refuse to cook the entire dinner, but be open to making the appetizer or dessert. Sometimes people are more willing to commit, compromise, or collaborate when they have choices available.

Examples of Relationship Boundaries

  • Ask for permission: This is a sign of respect to the other person and not imposing your own will in the relationship. Even if you have spent a long time with your partner, do not assume that you know everything about that person. Everyone changes, and maybe your partner no longer wants to engage in the same activities they enjoyed before.  
  • Give physical/emotional space to the other person: Sometimes, we all need some space. It is not a matter that we no longer love the other person or have replaced that person for another. Instead, it may be that we need time to process an overwhelming feeling, think deeply about a decision, or spend time for ourselves. In those moments, respect your partner’s individuality and autonomy. 
  • Be accountable for your actions and words: “I” statements are not only helpful to express our own needs but also to acknowledge that we made a mistake. Or crossed our partner’s boundaries. In other words, take some time to reflect on whether you are the person who needs to say, “I AM SORRY.

Don't Be Afraid to Revisit Boundaries Discussions.

Last but not least, relationships are dynamic. So do not keep stuck on keeping boundaries that no longer serve you or your relationship. Your physical, mental, and emotional needs at 25 will not be the same when you are in your 30’s, 40’s, or 60’s. Nor will your needs be the same when you are confronted with life hardships or blessed with positive events. 

So be open to revisiting and re-formulated your boundaries when needed it. Remember, these are not rules set in stone.

Finding Info On The Internet Is Useful, But Sometimes...

We need one-on-one help. Even though we try to provide you with helpful tools and insights in this blog, we recognize that you and your partner may need someone to speak to and share your specific struggles with. 

Each person has particular needs, and every relationship is different. If you are finding it challenging to establish boundaries that will serve you and your relationship at this time, please know there is support available. 

Creating healthy boundaries is a common problem for many individuals and couples. So, you don’t have to go through this process all by yourself, trying to figure out everything. Instead, our counsellors may walk with you along this process and give you that helping hand that you may need at this time. 

Feel more than welcome to call us and let us know how we may better help you at this time. We are currently providing services in our offices in Toronto, Vancouver, and online.

Picture of Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.

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