A boundary is simply a border, a line around us that teaches people how to respond to us. Knowing what healthy boundaries are and feeling entitled to have them is crucial to our whole lives and crucial to having a healthy relationship.
Without healthy boundaries, we can feel hurt, feel taken advantage of, over-give, feel depleted, and tolerate the not-tolerable. We need to know where we stop in any relationship, and someone else starts.
Many of us did not grow up learning how to have healthy boundaries. Our boundaries may have been violated in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The good news is, we can learn how to cultivate them. Clear boundaries are part of a healthy sense of life and healthy relationships. We take good care of ourselves and teach our partners how to take good care of us.
It's not always easy to say no, but a person with enough sense of self can let the other be disappointed and know it's still ok. And we are still ok if they say no to us. Although there are some boundaries that people across the board might agree on, many of our preferences are personal. It's essential to know how to navigate it all, and these tips will help.
How To Navigate Boundaries For A Healthy Relationship
To start, think about healthy boundaries in three entities:
- Your Partner
- The Relationship
When both people are committed to taking good care of the relationship, it is easier to accept differences.
Now, let's look at four key areas essential for boundaries in healthy relationships.
#1 - Make Space For Another In The Relationship
This can feel like a "duh," but we often feel that if our partner thought the way we did and felt about things the way we did, life would be perfect. Even if we have a lot of shared values, our partner feels and does things differently.
Let's say your partner says something that disappoints you. Instead of countering, it's helpful to start by pausing and getting curious to understand their perspective and then validating their view.
It's important to be realistic about your expectations of boundaries within the relationship because part of having good boundaries is managing when your partner can't meet your needs. Give space for your partner to breathe, to do things that make them happy, even if it means taking time away from you.
For example, do you want them to go to a dinner party with you, and they have an opportunity to do something significant for their work? Be ok with it if their work meeting is more vital at this time. Not looking to your partner to meet all your needs is a sign you can manage moments and stay deeply connected as a couple.
#2 - Interdependence vs. Codependency In The Relationship
Take responsibility for healing your codependency. If your self-approval depends on how your partner views you, you will continuously abandon yourself to please your partner.
Over-giving in this way is a form of self-abuse. And it can feel suffocating to your partner - or leave you open to being manipulated and mistreated. Become your own source of validation and okay-ness.
Co-dependent relationships are where the expectation of attachment and emotional support is distorted. Each partner is trying to help the other not fall apart.
Interdependent relationships are two self-sufficient people with a flexible dance of helping each other without trying to rescue each other.
Both people stay open to life's ever-changing agendas in a climate of interdependence. Each partner is flexible and attuned to each other's needs while taking full responsibility for themselves.
In an interdependent relationship, you understand that you and your partner have different strengths and support and appreciate those. You don't expect your partner to be someone they are not. Instead of enmeshment, it is two adult beings resting in their sense of agency and there to respond lovingly to our partner's needs without losing ourselves.
#3 - Mindful Communication In Your Relationship
Once again, it's not what you say. It's how you say it… Everyone has their comfort levels, and we need to teach our partners about them as we go through life. Hopefully, we are letting them know in a kind and caring way. As you teach your partner how to respond to you, being a respectful communicator is key to that process.
How you say something is critical. If you feel that a boundary has been transgressed, invite your partner to know more about you safely. Help them understand you in your core, underneath it all, and why a boundary matters to you.
When communicating, show respect for the differences between you and your partner. Respect one another's personal space. Try asking your partner first, especially if it's something you think your partner may not be comfortable doing. For example, don't assume it's ok to invite your whole extended family over if your partner doesn't do well with big gatherings. It's kind and considerate to make space to ask your partner first how they feel when something directly impacts them.
While communicating, it's vital to take the time needed to respond vs. react. If your partner has a hard no in their response to you, it's beneficial for the relationship to take some time to pause, get curious, and take responsibility for how you engage. Choose not to be reactive and focus on a response without resentment or bitterness.
Part of honoring our partner comes from the space of "I love you for who YOU are, and I am going to give you the space to be you." Good boundaries are not meant to be rigid or suffocating. They have the right balance between what is non-negotiable and what needs to change to accommodate each other.
#4 - Setting Relationship Boundaries
Some boundaries have to do with the more concrete decisions of life, even if they are based on personality, upbringing, and preferences. For example:
- How to manage money as a couple
- Deciding to have children
- Deciding to buy a house
- How to integrate each partner's family
This is when we have to practice making room for someone who does things differently, thinks differently, and feels things differently than us.
Focusing on cultivating a sense of being on the same team and then acting in a way that shows you're on the same team can take some practice. You may have been very used to doing things on your own. Remember the coffee table in When Harry Met Sally? That's a great example of tiny things that can bring huge issues.
When you are setting boundaries with your partner, it's helpful to become good at the art of validating your partner's worldview. Even if it makes you anxious looking at their view - if you pause to make room for it, it allows them not to open up and become curious as well. It also allows them not to react defensively.
It's vital to understand the differences between healthy boundaries and unhealthy boundaries. Someone saying, "you can't do that, and if you do, I'll never work with you on this again,"… is very clearly NOT a healthy boundary.
Boundaries can also be a way for our partners to make a bid for connection in their comfort level. So being attuned to those and tending and befriending our own and our partner's boundaries makes for a loving, safe relationship.
Remember that being a grown-up means not always getting our way. Stay kind and respectful when sharing and honoring each other's needs - if you both can do that, you will flow through most of life's moments as a true team with healthy boundaries and lasting love.
Connect. Transform. Thrive.
This blog post was written by Evie Shafner, LMFT.
With a degree in clinical psychology in hand, Evie started private practice in 1979, as a licensed MFT. She was one of the founders of the Los Angeles Women’s Therapy Center, where she worked for over 20 years.
Evie began training in Imago Relationship Therapy in the ’90s, getting certified in 1994. Evie then went on to become an advanced clinician in Imago, a workshop presenter and has served on the Board of Imago Relational International for the last 6 years.
Check out her website too!