Generally, when I start talking about boundaries, people mentally check out of the conversation.
Even though everyone’s heard they’re supposed to set them, knowing what your boundaries are, can be tough. On top of that, actually having the conversations to set and hold them can seem confronting and hard.
Boundaries are physical and emotional limits that tell other people how to treat you.
When you see it written out like that, it’s pretty simple right?
Boundaries tell the people around you what’s ok and what’s not ok in their relationship with you. And like it or not, boundaries are THE thing that will have your life and relationships work.
Why is setting boundaries so hard?
Most of the time it’s because we haven’t really gotten clear on what our boundaries are.
Even if we do know what they are, telling other people about them is uncomfortable – especially the ones that seem like they’re insignificant or ‘you should just be cool and not bothered by such things’.
A few examples of those include:
- Please don’t interrupt me
- Don’t raise your voice at me
- I prefer if you don’t gossip around me
- I’m not available to listen to constant complaining
- Being on time is important to me, 20 minutes late is too much
- Getting together on weeknights is hard for me, can we look for a weekend that could work for both of us?
Those seemingly no-big-deal boundaries are the ones we let people compromise most often. It can seem like saying something will just create a problem, and:
“It’s ok. I can handle it. In the greater scheme of things I know they don’t mean any harm. It’s not a big deal. I can just overlook it…”
(Does that sound like familiar internal dialogue?)
The problem is, every time we don’t speak up and say something, we build up resentment towards them. When resentment starts building, the next thing to show up will be contempt and that’s really hard to recover from in a relationship.
According to Dr. John Gottman’s research (the guy who can predict the likelihood of divorce with more than a 90% accuracy rate) once contempt is present, recovering the connection in the relationship is very challenging.
(That basically means it’s next to impossible to recover from contempt. Once it’s present, the person who is experiencing it, has often emotionally disconnected from the relationship. In order to repair the connection, they have to be willing to see through their contempt, and most of the time they can’t – or won’t – look past it.)
That’s why having conversations about boundaries is SO important! Clear boundaries (that are respected) are integral in any healthy relationship.
Where to start when setting boundaries in your relationship.
If you’ve already figured out what your boundaries are, communicating them in your relationship will be easier. If you’ve never spent time consciously thinking about what your boundaries are, you might be at a loss for where to start.
Here are some examples to consider:
Expectations of each other:
People can get stuck here, putting too much responsibility on the other person. This can sound (or feel like) “it’s your job to make me happy” or “you’re making me unhappy”.
Making it clear that you are not responsible for each other’s happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction etc. in life is important. Of course you contribute to and influence each other’s experience of these things. That’s very different than being responsible for.
If your partner is doing something that takes away from your happiness, fulfillment, etc. it is your responsibility to say something, and vice versa.
A contributing factor to this being a bit murky in a relationship is an expectation of “if they really cared, they’d just know” – AKA mind reading – and that’s not part of a healthy relationship. Period.
This can be assuming common sense will prevail and you and your partner are on the same page. Unfortunately, this is an area of breakdown for couples because the basics haven’t been discussed and agreed to.
A few examples to get you thinking about behavioural tolerances, and what’s ok or not ok, are:
- Ignoring each other
- Swearing at each other
- Raising your voice or yelling
- Belittling or condescending language/tone
- Being late
These types of behaviours usually don’t register as a problem, until they are a problem. Being pro-active can be helpful.
Extended family interaction:
Determining ahead of time the type of influence and access your parents, in-laws, and ex’s will have to your relationship is important. If both of you have expectations and limits around this that differ, coming to an agreement together before problems arise will make a difference.
An example could be that one of you wants to spend every Sunday with your parents and siblings and their families, carrying on a long-standing tradition of Sunday family time and dinner. Talking about what that looks like in your relationship and getting aligned around each other’s expectations will make a huge difference in the long run.
Time together, and time alone:
At the beginning of relationships, it can be easy to have some mixed messages here, as generally you want to spend all your time together. After the relationship starts to settle into a regular pattern, it’s important to discuss each other’s needs around time.
Understanding and reaching agreement about the amount and type of quality time you spend together is just as important as discussing how much alone time you need. Failing to do this can lead to big misunderstandings and a lot of guilt in the future.
Maintaining friendships outside of the relationship is really important for everyone. Friendships help build and create a sense of belonging and acceptance, self-esteem, and community. They can also be important for keeping your hobbies and leisure activities alive.
Aligning around how much time is spent with friends (either together or individually) is important. If one of you wants to spend the majority of your leisure time with friends and the other prefers to have one-on-one time, there will be trouble down the road.
Additions to the family:
Bringing pets and children into the relationship deserves a conversation ahead of time. Alignment around how to parent (both human and fur) children can make a big difference with the added stress that comes with changing the dynamic of just you two.
This is also worth discussing ahead of time when combining households.
How will the ‘non-parent’ interact with, be responsible for, and discipline step-children and pets coming into a combined home? Collaborative conversations around this topic are vital.
Things to consider include how you decide what to do if you have to break a date or agreement. If you want to cancel date night or rearrange picking up the kids, how do you work that out?
A pattern that can develop here is cancelling or rearranging to accommodate a busy work schedule. That can sometimes leave one partner bearing more of the weight of chores and childcare or putting date night on the back burner too often.
It’s important to know what’s acceptable and what’s not for both of you in this area.
External emotional connections:
Having friends outside the relationship is important. Having people (who have your best interests at heart) to vent to or help you work through something is an invaluable resource.
Determining where the line is about sharing relationship details can prevent the opportunity for potential betrayals ahead of time.
With the increased presence of technology and social media in our lives, blurred lines around emotional affairs are more prevalent than ever. Clear discussions about what’s ok and not ok in here can help avoid serious problems in the future.
Beyond date nights, looking at how you want to maintain the health of the relationship is really important. Couples can get into traps where they don’t want to discuss what’s not working for fear of causing a conflict.
Avoiding that conversation will inevitably make things worse in the long run. Discussing how you want to manage this and if/when you’ll seek professional support is important information for you both.
Better boundaries make better relationships.
What we’ve discussed so far is just the surface of this topic. Here you’ve see a few examples of the key areas where blurry boundaries can cause serious problems in your relationship.
Some other areas to consider include:
- Drug & alcohol use
- Vacation and leisure time
- Career changes that require moving
- Sex… the topic everyone avoids talking about
- How you handle money – spending as well as saving
- Managing individual health – really important if one of you is doctor avoidant and the other one isn’t
Setting aside some time to have these conversations with your partner proactively will make all the difference in the level of satisfaction and connection in your relationship over the long-term. When both of you are clear on what each other’s boundaries are, your ability to manage bigger issues that you will inevitably face will become easier.