Your Guide to Setting Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

Illustrations by Amber Vittoria

by Jo Murphy

Your Guide to Setting Healthy Boundaries in a Relationship

Boundaries. They sound so unsexy, but your relationship will neither function nor last without them. What’s more, you need them in every area of your life, not just the bedroom. “When you set boundaries, you’re not limiting or withholding your love,” says therapist Jessica Boston. “You’re actually preserving your energy so you can give more.” In every way.

Setting boundaries is therefore an act of self-care that benefits your partner too. “If you just give and give without replenishing your energy levels, even though your partner hasn’t asked you to, you’ll end up feeling drained and resentful,” Jessica continues. “You’ll develop an unconscious bias that says your partner is to blame for everything—yet it’s you who has created this dynamic.”

Start As You Mean to Go On

A boundary is technically a line that you draw between the things you will tolerate and the things you won’t. This can be obvious in the bedroom, such as not wanting anal sex. However, it is less clear in other areas; so you may not always know for sure—but that’s OK, says Jessica, just make sure you’re not always prioritizing your partner’s needs over your own.  

“Make it clear from the start of any relationship which boundaries are non-negotiable, and which could be negotiated. You may want to test them and adjust them accordingly, so have some flexibility, but not too much as you’ll come across as a pushover. Don’t contradict yourself or give your partner the impression that you don’t take yourself (or your needs) seriously.”  

Know What’s Not Cool

A good indicator that you need to draw a line is when you feel overwhelmed or drained in someone’s company. They could be taking up too much of your time or space, or even saying things that don’t sit well with you. So use this as an opportunity to speak up without lashing out or placing blame. Instead, state clearly what’s cool and what’s not.   

“If you end up feeling depleted, you’ll begrudge your partner, and nobody wants to be in a relationship with someone who behaves like this,” explains Jessica. “You need to fill up your own cup, and to give to yourself, before you can give to anyone else.” This level of self-respect makes you way more attractive too.  

Know Yourself  

Set aside time for yourself to identify your energy leaks, as well as your emotional and physical limits. Are you always saying yes to people but never accepting help from anyone? Do someone else’s feelings always take priority over yours? Meditate on it, write it all down, and masturbate too, so you get better at asking for what you want and need.

“Give yourself permission to take a step back and recalibrate,” says Jessica. “You have a responsibility to yourself to know your emotional triggers and tolerances—it’s not always your partner’s responsibility to recognize these, even though we want them to know us as intimately as we know ourselves. Nor can you hold them responsible for the way you feel.”

Know Each Other

“Everyone speaks their own language when it comes to love. Your partner will have theirs and you have yours.” And that’s OK. Just because you have different needs doesn’t mean you can’t be together. “But don’t assume your partner always knows what you need or get annoyed when they misunderstand you (and don’t read your mind).”

“We all make assumptions all of the time, it’s how we make sense of the world, but it’s dangerous to assume that someone knows what you need without you stating it. Likewise, don’t project your own needs and feelings onto them, assuming they enjoy the same expressions of love as you. Spell it out for them.”   

All of the above actually helps you to distinguish yourself and your needs from your partner. This makes for a stronger relationship since healthy boundaries allow for elements of separateness and closeness, both of which are essential to your partnership’s longevity.

Practice Ambivalence

It is possible to hold two different emotions at the same time. Acknowledging this can make all the difference to your relationships. Say your partner has crossed the line and hurt your feelings, it’s totally OK that you still like them. Remember that song called “You Really Got a Hold on Me?” by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles? Feelings and love are confusing; sometimes you love then but you don’t really like them. That’s okay too. Healthy boundaries allow for the fluctuations and nuance of relationships.  

So, practice holding multiple truths at once. Honor your own feelings, needs and boundaries without losing sight of your partner’s. If not, you run the risk of becoming totally enmeshed with another person, believing they will complete you.

Nobody but you is responsible for your emotional wellbeing, no matter how intimate you are with your partner. However, if you have healthy boundaries in place, and your partner continually tests them, you should call a timeout.      

Know When to Quit

“It’s normal to test boundaries, to be playful and tease someone you’re close to,” says Jessica. “We like to know how much we can get away with, but it’s a red flag if someone keeps trying to violate your boundaries. This can be a sign of controlling behavior, as if they’re trying to wear you down emotionally and assert their power over you.”  

If someone repeatedly dismisses your boundaries, then you need to dismiss that person. “Some people want the benefits of a relationship without wanting to put in the work required. They like the idea of taking but give nothing in return. Yet a relationship should ebb and flow with both of you taking it in turns to give and receive.”

This means you not only love and support each other, but you love and support yourself too. “If someone isn’t willing to accept your boundaries, they’re not in it for the long run. Don’t be worried that you’ll scare someone off by stating your needs since anyone you lose by speaking your truth wasn’t yours in the first place.”