The Ultimate Guide to Setting Boundaries in a Relationship

Written by
Two Chairs Content Team
Reviewed by
Joslyn Reisinger, LMHC
Updated on
Whitewashed wooden picket fence in front of a blurred green plant

Boundaries are the foundation of any healthy relationship. But, they can be hard to understand and implement in your life — especially if you struggle to communicate your needs.

In this blog, we’ll cover the basics of setting boundaries so you can confidently determine whether they’re right for you and your relationship(s), whether that’s with a partner, a friend, a parent, a sibling, a coworker, a roommate, or anyone else. Plus, we’ll offer some tips on how to create and set your own.

What are boundaries in a relationship?

Boundaries have become a popular buzzword in the last few years — if you’re on social media, or have listened to a self-help podcast lately, you probably know what we’re talking about. But while a lot of available resources can be helpful, many include misleading or confusing information. 

So what are boundaries exactly?

Boundaries can be thought of as guidelines, limits, or rules that a person defines for themselves within a relationship. However, these rules aren’t always meant to be rigid and unchanging. Boundaries create a framework for healthy interaction and connection — they can be flexible, adaptive, and negotiated as we change and our relationships change. 

It’s important to note that boundaries are not about making demands or requests of other people, which is a common misconception of the term. Boundaries are really only about asserting what you will do in a relationship. 

To better understand this, let’s look at a quick example: 

Strong boundary: "I need some alone time in the evenings to unwind and recharge after work. During this time, I do not want to be disturbed.” 

Weak boundary: "You're not allowed to bother me after work. If you disturb me, I'll be angry."

In this example, the “real” boundary focuses on the individual's own actions, rather than demanding a specific action from the other person in the relationship.

What are the benefits of setting boundaries?

The benefits of setting boundaries in a relationship can differ depending on the person or people in the relationship. But, in general, boundaries serve to establish a sense of safety, respect, and healthy dynamics with another person. 

Let’s take a look at an example to better understand this.

Imagine that each person in a relationship has their own garden, which represents their personal space, emotions, and needs. Just as a fence protects your plants from being trampled on or eaten by animals, boundaries protect your emotional well-being and personal space within the relationship. They define where you end, and others begin.

This clear definition of limits and expectations can create an environment that allows each person to grow and flourish as an individual without fear of intrusion or harm — just as a well-tended garden thrives with proper boundaries.

What are healthy relationship boundaries?

If you’re new to exploring the dynamics in your relationships, you might not be sure about exactly what healthy boundaries are, or what they might look like. In truth, boundaries can take many forms, depending on your needs.

For example, boundaries to set in a relationship might be around:

  • Personal space
  • Finances 
  • Communication 
  • Behavior 
  • Independence

In essence, a clear boundary in each of these categories outlines how you, as an individual in the relationship, will operate based on your needs and values.

What are unhealthy boundaries?

As important as it is to understand healthy boundaries, it’s equally important that we understand unhealthy boundaries, too (so we can avoid them). While healthy boundaries can be varied as well, in general, unhealthy boundaries typically engender a lack of self-respect and/or autonomy. 

Some examples might include:

  • Codependency: One or both people depend heavily on each other for emotional fulfillment, often to the point of neglecting their own needs, desires, and well-being.

  • Enmeshment: People within the relationship rely excessively on each other for validation, approval, or decision-making.

  • Invasion of privacy: One or both people in the relationship disregard the other's need for personal space, confidentiality, or autonomy.

  • Manipulation and control: One or both people in the relationship coerce, gaslight, threaten, or intimidate the other. 

  • Lack of consent: One or both people in the relationship pressure or coerce the other into unwanted activities.

Unhealthy boundaries, in essence, are really the lack of boundaries — there is no “fence” around each person, dictating how they want to be treated independently of the other person in the relationship.

How do you know if you need boundaries?

While every person is different, every relationship has and needs boundaries. There are a few common signs to look out for that might indicate that you need to set some. 

If you need to set boundaries, you might be experiencing:

Overwhelm: If you often feel overwhelmed, stressed, or exhausted in your relationships, it may be a sign that you're not prioritizing your own needs.

Guilt or resentment: You might be afraid that if you assert your boundaries, you’ll disappoint or upset others. But, you constantly feel taken advantage of.

Difficulty saying no or expressing yourself: If you find it challenging to say no or set limits with others, it may indicate that you struggle with boundary-setting. You may fear rejection or conflict if you assert yourself.

Relationship conflict: Unresolved boundary violations can lead to resentment, communication breakdowns, and ongoing conflict.

Physical symptoms: Stress and emotional distress can manifest physically — you might experience tension headaches, stomach issues, or fatigue.

Loss of identity/autonomy: Feeling like you've lost touch with your own identity, interests, or values in your relationships might indicate that you need to establish boundaries. 

Types of relationship boundaries 

Boundaries can be set in practically any facet of your relationship. But some common types might include:

Physical boundaries: These boundaries define the physical space and touch that individuals are comfortable with in a relationship. This might include personal space or physical touching. 

Emotional boundaries: Emotional boundaries pertain to the feelings and thoughts that individuals are willing to share or disclose in a relationship. This might involve respecting each other's privacy, emotional needs, and vulnerabilities. 

Social boundaries: Social boundaries involve the extent to which individuals share their social lives, friendships, and interactions with others within the relationship. This might include respecting each other's friendships, hobbies, and social activities outside of the relationship. 

Time boundaries: Time boundaries refer to how individuals allocate their time and prioritize activities within the relationship. This might involve balancing personal and shared interests, responsibilities, and commitments. 

Material boundaries: Material boundaries involve decisions about money, possessions, and resources within the relationship. This might include agreements on financial responsibilities, shared expenses, and ownership of belongings. 

How to set healthy boundaries in a relationship 

Setting healthy boundaries in relationships takes effort and practice. For those of us who are new to asserting ourselves in relationships, discerning, asserting, and maintaining them can feel a bit overwhelming and, frankly, a bit scary. 

Here are a few tips to set boundaries, no matter what they are or the relationship you’re in.

Reflect on your own needs

Before jumping into setting boundaries in a relationship, first, take the time to understand what you hope to gain from doing so. 

It might be helpful to reflect on your needs and values and how those might be respected with specific limits. Consider what behaviors, actions, or situations you find acceptable and others that aren’t.

Plus, take a close look at your relationships and consider how you might feel as well as how the relationship might change for the better if you set boundaries.

Communicate clearly

The success of any relationship hinges on communication. And when it comes to setting boundaries, much is the same.

When approaching someone about boundaries, be sure to be thoughtful about the conversation by:

  • Choosing an appropriate time and place to meet: Pick a mutually agreeable time and place where both people might feel comfortable discussing your relationship.
  • Using "I" statements to express your feelings: For example, you might say I feel overwhelmed when..." instead of "You always make me feel overwhelmed.” This can help emphasize personal responsibility and ownership of feelings, and help avoid blaming others.
  • Being specific: Explain why setting your boundary is important to you. Use assertive language to communicate your boundaries confidently and respectfully.
  • Communicating consequences: If a boundary is violated, be sure the consequences include what you will do, not what the other person will experience or have to do. It’s important that this language isn’t harmful or threatening. 
  • Encouraging the other person to think about their own boundaries: Every person deserves respect and autonomy. That’s why it's essential to support the other person in the relationship in communicating their own boundaries, too. 
  • Being open to negotiating (if appropriate): Boundaries are not meant to be rigid — if appropriate, find a compromise that works for all parties in the relationship. 

Reinforce boundaries consistently 

One of the most challenging parts of setting boundaries is committing to reinforcing them over time.

It can often feel easier and safer to fall back into old patterns or habits. But, one of the keys to making boundaries a successful part of your relationship is continuing to uphold them by addressing any violations promptly and directly as they come up.

Here are some examples of someone reinforcing a boundary that’s already been set:

  • "If this [behavior, action, etc.] continues to happen,  I'll need to take a break from our interactions."
  • "As I’ve expressed, I value my personal space. When it's crossed, I feel uncomfortable, and I'd appreciate it if you could respect that."
  • “As I’ve mentioned, I will participate in [activity] but not [activity].” 

Check in regularly and reassess

Boundaries are a flexible, often ever-changing part of a relationship. What served you as a boundary at one point in your life may not continue to serve you in another. 

That’s why it’s important to constantly check in with yourself, and even others if appropriate, to ensure that the boundaries are still healthy and contributing to the success of the relationship, or if they need to be adjusted.

Be kind to yourself

One of the most important things to remember about boundary setting is that it isn’t easy — in fact, lots of people struggle to set and maintain boundaries. 

Remind yourself that setting boundaries is a practice — you might not get it “right” on the first try, and that’s okay.

Let us help you set boundaries 

Seeking support for establishing healthy boundaries from a licensed professional is one of the best ways you can strengthen your commitment to yourself and your loved ones.

If you’re not sure whether you need professional help, here are some signs you might need support:

  • You have difficulty setting the initial boundary
  • You have trouble maintaining the boundary
  • You’re not sure if you need boundaries
  • You have a history of trauma or abuse

A licensed therapist can guide you in your boundary journey, keep you accountable, and help you address issues as they come up in your relationships.

With Two Chairs’ research-backed matching method, you can take the guesswork out of finding the right support. Getting paired with the right provider gives you a better chance of successful treatment outcomes — like feeling both more autonomous and more fulfilled in relationships at the same time.

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