Relationships offer us many opportunities for personal growth. They provide a chance to release or realign what we learned in childhood that no longer serves us. Growing up with 8 siblings, having my own personal space was rare luxury for me. But private physical space isn’t the only thing I lacked. At times it was hard to have emotional space as well. As the eldest son, I often felt I needed to take care of my parents and several of my siblings. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I learned how important it is to have my own physical and emotional space and to develop the skills needed to set healthy boundaries.
Relationships can be challenging and require work from both parties. Setting healthy boundaries in your relationship will increase the probability of its long-term success, especially after the honeymoon phase passes.
As two distinct human beings with different past experiences, it is important to realize that we are all entitled to having our own expectations. We set boundaries as a way to differentiate ourselves and our needs as a unique and separate voice distinct from our partners or family members. As uncomfortable as it can be at times, communicating personal expectations is always a good way to prevent the inevitable misunderstandings and resentments that arise when people let us down because they don’t know what we need.
Why Healthy Boundaries Are Important
A proven strategy that can bolster the health of any relationship is to set clear and open limitations. By communicating what is expected from romantic partners and friends in unambiguous terms, you essentially establish rules so that both parties understand expectations upfront. Without these rules in place, resentments are likely to build in any relationship.
Know Yourself First
In order to set healthy boundaries, it is important to be self-aware. You have to know yourself well in order to ask for what you want so serious soul-searching may be in order. Until a person defines what they want and need, it is impossible to communicate this to another individual effectively. Be specific about what you expect when setting boundaries. Vague directions are often misunderstood. For example, don’t say things like, “I want you to keep in touch with me.” Instead, say something like, “Could you please check in with me at least once a day so I know when you will be home?”
Following through and providing feedback is important for establishing boundaries that work. While it may be nice to think that we could count on our spouse to hear what we expect and then abide by our wishes 100% of the time, this can be a naive thought. Boundaries will be tested either intentionally or unintentionally.
In a healthy relationship, it is important to remind your partner about your wishes to reinforce the boundaries you’ve set. Avoid the temptation to silently endure the boundary being forgotten or crossed. It can be confusing to your partner when you tolerate a behavior for a while and then blow up when you have had enough. Withdrawing your love and attention as a punishment is also counter productive.
Setting and maintaining good boundaries takes practice. As with any new skill, you and your partner will not do it perfectly. Be kind and patient with yourself and others. An honest desire to shift the behaviors in question must be prevalent. But also don’t be in denial. If your partner continues to consistently disregard your boundaries and treats your requests as silly or is hostile toward you, that’s a red flag. You may want to re-evaluate whether to stay in the relationship.
GET INTO ACTION: Set aside 5 – 15 minutes to write a list of areas where you could improve your boundaries. Choose one and take action on it.