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Setting boundaries in a relationship

If I had to break down all relationship issues to one single factor, it would be boundaries being disregarded. From trivial arguments to gross acts of unfaithfulness, it is the absence of clearly understood boundaries that is to blame.

Boundaries in the context of a relationship refer to the points at which acceptable behaviour crosses over into unacceptable behaviour. These points can and should be different for every relationship, based on the individuals involved. One thing that does not differ though is a positive correlation between boundaries being respected and how mutually fulfilling a relationship is.

There are different types of boundaries in a relationship; some are a lot more mutually beneficial than others. This article will describe those different types and discuss how to ensure that the boundaries in your relationship are always respected… :)

Assumption-based boundaries:

When you first start dating someone new, it is natural to fill in any gaps in rapport with assumptions about the other person’s character. As more intimate rapport is created, most of those gaps will get filled appropriately. However, boundaries are a common area where assumptions can supersede ever having a proper discussion and awareness of the subject.

Conveying your boundaries early in a relationship is a bold thing to do and most people are wary of not doing anything that might ruin a relationship before it has properly started. Consequently, a default practice is to assume that a new romantic interest has certain values and boundaries, perhaps similar to one’s own. The less varied relationship experience you have, the more basic these assumptions are likely to be.

If you do make assumptions about what your partner’s boundaries are and vice versa, at the very least you want to make sure that you both want the same commitment level in the relationship (an exclusive, monogamous relationship for example).

Remember that just because something is unacceptable in your eyes, it does not necessarily mean your partner automatically knows this. Likewise, if something is perfectly acceptable from your perspective, it does not necessarily mean your partner will be fine with it.

Fear-based boundaries:

All subconscious boundaries develop from previous experiences, but it is negative past experiences that have the most profound effect on the boundaries we impose. If you have fully trusted someone in the past, only to have that trust abused without any obvious warning, then you are likely to have at least a few fear-based boundaries.

Fear-based boundaries are those stemming from insecurity, jealousy and distrust. Not wanting your girlfriend or boyfriend to be around someone of the opposite sex because of what it could potentially lead to is a common example of a fear-based boundary.

The worst side-effect of fear-based boundaries, other than your partner feeling that you don’t trust them, is that it is easy to come across as controlling. Your partner should never feel that they cannot do something. Everything they choose to do in the relationship should be because of how you both want the relationship to be, not to protect the relationship from how you don’t want it to be!

Insecurities are something that you can turn around with personal effort and awareness but until one of your fears has actually manifested (the irony being that fear-based boundaries are often the cause of boundaries being crossed in the first place), understand that they are irrational and most importantly, a result of how you conduct yourself in the relationship!

Action-based boundaries:

Action-based boundaries are intended to be concise and self-explanatory: certain acts are unacceptable whereas anything else is fine. The problem with boundaries like these is that such actions are rarely instantaneous or without premeditation.

Some common action-based boundaries are:

  • Being physically intimate with someone else
  • Being emotionally intimate or flirty with someone else
  • Showing contempt for the relationship
  • Creating or causing arguments

The problem with the above is that they are all outcomes to a process; none of them occur without induction. Even if the above acts are unacceptable in your relationship, they do not signify a boundary being crossed; they signify the OUTCOME of a boundary being crossed!

For example, if your partner cheats on you with someone else, it is not the physical act that is the issue but what led to it, as well as the secrecy and dishonesty surrounding it. The cheating would be a symptom of a boundary being crossed, not the actual boundary itself!

Intention-based boundaries:

Intention-based boundaries differ from the previous types because they are flexible rather than fixed. They are not defined by physical acts but rather by certain attributes: respect, openness, honesty and integrity.

Someone who advocates intention-based boundaries judges each potential issue in a relationship on its own merits, as and when it happens.

The fact of the matter is that until you have actually experienced certain undesirable scenarios in your relationship (an action-based boundary being crossed for example), it is impossible to know exactly how you will react. That is why each instance should be judged on the intent behind it, rather than the act itself.

There is a big difference between boundaries being misunderstood or wrongfully assumed and boundaries being purposefully disregarded. Intention-based boundaries are about trusting that your partner will always act with respect, honesty and integrity towards your relationship. Consequently, the boundaries arrange themselves accordingly, without pressure or stipulation.

There are countless examples where your partner might inadvertently find themselves in an ambiguous or tricky situation and not know exactly how to react. As long as they are always acting with good intentions towards your relationship and what they know to be your values, they will by definition not cross that boundary.

How to ensure that your boundaries are respected:

It should be fairly obvious from the four separate definitions, which type of boundaries consistently lead to the most mutually fulfilling relationships. However, with most things in a relationship, you want to make sure that you and your partner are always on the same wavelength. They can’t respect your boundaries if they have no idea what they are!

Conveying your boundaries is more about an attitude than anything you have to verbally stipulate. As described throughout this article, boundaries do not have to be uncompromising, but your values, self-worth and integrity definitely should be.

A few traits that will help convey the sort of attitude I am describing are:

  • Having high standards
  • Possessing an abundance mentality
  • Being confident
  • Having self-respect
  • Being non-judgemental

The last trait becomes even more important in long-term relationships because it will make your partner feel that they can tell you anything. They will be able to discuss their feelings and desires long before ever doing something that you would disapprove of.

Having that mutual awareness and understanding is what creates respectful boundaries. It does not mean that your partner should never be forgiven or given a chance to justify any unwanted behaviour. What it does mean is that your boundaries are always backed by reason.

Much love,

Sam

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16 Responses to “Setting boundaries in a relationship”

  1. Jon says:

    Hi Sam. Really enjoyed this post. I’ve never really thought about different types of boundaries like this. I can relate to all of them tbh. You talk at the end about the attitude to have to make sure your partner knows about your boundaries and I like that list but how would you react if your other half had already crossed one. Would it immediately be over or is it about letting them know they did wrong? I’ve been cheated on in the past and its hard for the relationship to ever be the same again.

    This is a great post and I got a lot out of reading it so thanks. –J

    • Hey Jon,

      If you can keep your composure in the aftermath of cheating, how you react to it is dependent on two factors: what exactly they did and how you found out about it.

      If they confess to you themselves with complete honesty then it is suggests that there was at least some remorse for the act, which makes it easier to discuss the implications accordingly. I agree that it is difficult, although not impossible, for the relationship to be the same again if you do stay together. The attitude described at the end of the article would be even more important thereafter, as the worst frame to get into is one where your partner feels they can ‘get away’ with disrespecting your values.

      If someone has crossed a boundary in a relationship (and by definition, cheating would be an example of this) then the first thing to do is judge the intent behind it, as described in the intention-based boundaries section of the above article. The important thing is that you decide for yourself what it meant, why it happened and where to go from there.

      Thanks for commenting,

      Sam

  2. I think the ability to have open conversation about expectations and values in a relationship is an important step in establishing boundaries. And, making sure no one is making ‘assumptions’ about another’s behavior. And, as you pointed out that is difficult to do in the early stages of a relationship.
    Your 5 traits are great and set the stage for trust and respect. Love the phrase “mutual awareness and understanding….”

    • Hi Walker,

      I totally agree that it is important to be able to have an open conversation about expectations and values in a relationship. As you say, the success of that is finding the balance between not doing it too soon and coming across as needy or controlling, and not letting the relationship progress too far without knowing those expectations and values.

      Thanks for commenting and for your tweet about the article,

      Sam

  3. Aj says:

    Hey Sam. Me and my girlfriend been dating for 6 months now. She likes to go out from time to time. We got into a argument about 2 months go about her drinking an driving. Well this past Thursday she told me she was going out to the bar with her girlfriend. I passed out around 10:00 at night woke up around 2:30am and saw that she text me askin if in awake and what not. So I then replyed at that time an no answer from her so I assumed she was asleep. I woke up in the morning and was leaving for work. Normally I talk to her around 9:30 every morning. She didnt call so I just assumed she was sleeping. I tried calling at 10:30 no answer again at 11:30 and again at 1:30. No answer I was worried because last time I knew she was out and had no idea what happen. She texts me at 2:30 in the afternoon like nothing ever happen. She then told me that she didnt get home until 4:00am and we piss drunk driving home. So I freaked out an said some
    Bad things whatever the case may be but we talked it out and I still feel that I can’t be the same around her any help?

    • Hi,

      When it comes to issues like this, you want to make sure that your girlfriend knows why you felt the way you did. If you can get her to fully understand your perspective, without resorting to an argument, she is likely to be more considerate next time.

      To relate this to the terminology of the above article, the boundary in the situation you describe is your girlfriend letting you know she is safe at times where she knows you might worry. If she doesn’t know this already, it is something you should discuss ahead of time, as alcohol prevents people from thinking in a level-headed manner. Her not contacting you for quite some time after the event suggests that there is a combination of both of the above.

      The longer someone takes to acknowledge, apologise and fix whatever boundary has been crossed, the more intense it becomes. Tell your girlfriend calmly and in a non-controlling manner that next time you would just like to know she is alright and having fun.

      The interesting thing about the different types of boundaries I listed is that you can transfer which category a particular boundary falls under simply by the way you convey it. In your example, you can turn a fear-based boundary (worrying that something might have happened to your girlfriend whilst she is drunk) into an intention-based boundary (respecting each other’s feelings and letting each other know you are safe). The content is the same but the implications are not.

      The drink-driving issue is a different matter altogether because although it is universally thought of as a foolish activity, it is ultimately her decision whether to do it. The only thing you can do is try to help her see the potential consequences of drink-driving and encourage her to arrange alternative ways to get home after a night out. Whatever your personal feelings are on the subject, try to remain as empathetic and calm as possible when talking about the subject. She will be far more likely to listen to your points if you do.

      I hope that answers your questions and thanks for commenting,

      Sam

  4. Emma says:

    This is all excellent advice Sam. My favorite bit is where you talk about the difference between boundaries being misunderstood and being purposefully disregarded. It got me thinking about my own relationship with my boyfriend. My boyfriend is a great guy but has told me how jealous he gets if another guy is flirting with me at a bar. I feel like he sometimes takes his anger out towards me when I try not to do anything wrong. Do you have advice on how we come to a compromise in times like that? I don’t mind other women flirting with him as long as he doesn’t flirt back but it seems that if I do the same it still is I am crossing a boundary.

    Every other part of our relationship where there are boundaries is fine and we are pretty good at talking about things like that. I really like the ending of your article where you talk about the best attitude to have, self respect et.c. I think times I feel insecure about boundaries in my relationship are times I’m not feeling so confident so I can see how that applies. Thankyou for the enjoyable read and thankyou for always replying to my questions on here. Emma

    • Hi Emma,

      An important aspect of boundaries is being able to relate to or empathise with other people’s boundaries even if they differ from our own. There are many differences between how men and women react in a social environment and your boyfriend probably thinks that you are more vulnerable or more easily taken advantage of than he is.

      Of course, these gender differences are generalisations and it is down to you to ensure that your boyfriend knows your intentions, regardless of how you react to men flirting with you. Let him know where YOUR boundaries are on the matter, so that he knows more accurately what your viewpoint is and that you aren’t naïve to the social dynamics at play.

      That’s great that you can talk to each other about boundaries; it will make compromising on the above situation far easier. You make a brilliant point about how our own confidence at different times relates to how secure we feel about boundaries. Once you are aware of what triggers those different states, it becomes easier to recognise that they are simply momentary feelings and are very much changeable.

      Thanks for commenting Emma,

      Sam

  5. Prime Lady says:

    Yes brilliant topic. Very relevant and helpful. I think the most common problem which you wrote is we assume people have the same boundaries as us and we’re surprised or confused if they don’t. Maybe we should realize that people don’t think in the same way always because of their experiences and upbringing. This helps you to reflect so you don’t assume. This article helps people realize that so its good.

    It is very true because my ex would interpret my friendliness to other people as overstepping his boundary. That confused me. I would try to justify it which was silly. I think that was his jealousy problem and at the end of the day, someone who is possessive and jealous, they are going to have abnormal boundaries. Realize it is not their behavior but is their insecurities.

    It is also a cultural thing because in Greece I remember a man saying if a woman is out of your sight, you can’t trust her. Society believes this. Not each individual but the culture as a whole does like Arab culture and covering women. It reflects on boundaries because a lot of boundaries are how you are brought up and how you see other people behave. It can be from other people like parents and vulnerable families not just relationships. What is good about this article is that it helps you reflect on your personal experiences and how they make you feel about relationships. The answer is don’t let your past experiences spoil a good relationship.

    • Hi, you make some great points!

      I agree that boundaries form through experiences and upbringing and that those experiences, if not helpful in being the person you want to be, are changeable. Empathy is a valuable trait to possess when you are with a partner with vastly different past experiences and upbringing to your own.

      Your ex-partner acting jealous exemplifies those points. Having mutually fulfilling boundaries is about finding what works for both of you, so neither person feels that they are compromising their true self. For a person experiencing intense feelings of jealousy, the first step in overcoming them is to realise that it is their own issue and is only indirectly caused by their relationship or their partner. This will at least prevent loading the relationship with fear-based boundaries. An empathetic partner can definitely help with that process.

      That is an interesting point you make about different cultures and how it can affect relationships and boundaries. To some extent even marriage, which is advocated throughout many cultures, is an attempt to force certain boundaries on a relationship. That is not to say that certain cultural traditions are inherently bad, but that they can still be conducted with an open-mind and a willingness to accept your partner’s potentially differing views.

      Past experiences can either be very useful, or they can be restricting as you say. The key is always being able to differentiate between the two.

      Thanks a lot for commenting,

      Sam

  6. Nigel Smith says:

    Thanks Sam,

    I found this very useful! Boundaries are both for good and for bad. Often we put up negative boundaries because of our assumptions or fears. But certainly, its important to be open minded and put in place the boundaries you need so that others will respect you, your own personal space and your emotions.

    Cheers,

    Nigel

    • Hi Nigel,

      I completely agree with you. Boundaries can be both for the benefit and the detriment of a relationship. The skill is to successfully heighten the boundaries that are beneficial to the relationship as a whole, and dismiss the ones that are not.

      Thanks for commenting,

      Sam

  7. I love how you broke boundaries down. Sometimes we confuse emotional walls for personal boundaries. This is an important distinction– emotional walls keep us from love; “I will not let a man close”, “I will not expose my vulnerability to a man until he exposes his”. Personal boundaries ALLOW you to get close; “I will not tolerate abuse, control, infidelity.” Personal boundaries give you self-worth and allow you to trust yourself. They allow you to be vulnerable with a man from the jump (soft, feminine, warm and melty) because you know that you won’t allow a man to take advantage of you.
    When you personal boundaries are regularly enforced, your emotional walls crumble.

    • Hi,

      You’ve made some great points. I agree that there is a difference between emotional walls and personal boundaries. The former is based on fear and insecurities whereas the latter is based on self-respect and assertiveness. I love how you link the two.

      The initial examples you give both represent a fear of being hurt. This is especially true for people who have been hurt in the past or deprived of positive social experiences whilst maturing. Those do not have to define your personal boundaries however.

      The shift in mindset you describe is great. One of the hurdles is that a lot of people fear that enforcing boundaries might cause the downfall of their relationship. True, but in those cases it is not a relationship that, by definition, you want to be a part of. You get to choose who you associate with and you certainly get to choose who you are in a relationship with!

      As the article states, enforcing boundaries is an attitude rather than a declaration. I agree that developing that desired attitude will counteract any emotional walls over time, resulting in far more authentic and mutually respected boundaries. It is possible to be confident in your vulnerabilities, and I think that is something a lot of people overlook.

      Thanks for commenting; you have an elegant way with words.

      Sam

  8. Jossie says:

    Nice article but I’m still left with this feeling that I have to ask you. Is there a line between being assertive and a door mat. You see, my boyfriend of 8 years left for medical school out of the country about a year ago. We lived together for 4 years before this. I’m here taking care of our lives sort of speak and he’s there working on making it a better one for our future. Through out this time I’ve let him know how I feel about him going out to clubs or parties. That is, I believe he needs to. I think that he works and studies so much that he should take a break. The problem is he’ll tell me his internet isn’t working good so we can’t skype and then I find out he went to some club with school friends. I’ve seen pictures online. Not his facebook but people from his school. I know its terrible to look into these things because I’m setting myself up for disaster. What I’m wondering is… why the lies? I do have some insecurities about us since we have dated for so long but why lie about going out? The first thing that comes to mind is he’s cheating on me. But it’s counteracted by all the wonderful things he sends me and great moments on skype. He tells me he loves me all the time and really does make me feel special. So then I think… does he just want to keep me in the background to maintain his life here in the states (house, dog, business). Or is he afraid I’ll get upset and jealous. One more question… do I tell him that I’ve seen pictures of him at these places and talk to him about it or just stop looking and let it go. My biggest fear is that I’m wasting my life away. Thank you for any insight you might have.

    • Hi Jossie,

      The line between being assertive and being a doormat is not notably defined; it is definitely possible to go too far with either one though, to the extent where it negatively affects the relationship. The area in between is where compromise takes place: an important feature of any mutually fulfilling relationship!

      The main thing to be aware of is if you are making assumptions predominantly based on fears. There is a big difference between lies and miscommunication, especially when it comes down to the distinguishing factors: intent and desire.

      If you genuinely believe that your boyfriend is intentionally lying to you, ask yourself why you think that might be. It is possible that you are subconsciously conveying a certain level of mistrust, which makes lying a more beneficial option for him in certain situations.

      If your boyfriend was losing desire for the relationship, it is unlikely that he would be putting effort into the positive aspects of the relationship that you mention. I’ve written about the subtle changes that a long-distance relationship invokes in other articles; those changes are even more prominent when it is one person who has moved away and is suddenly experiencing a very different lifestyle.

      The best thing you can do is let him know that you are genuinely interested in his new lifestyle and what he gets up to. This must be done in a way where he never feels that you are resenting or restricting that new lifestyle by the way in which you inquire or react. It is up to you whether you think mentioning the photos will help achieve that.

      It sounds like there are loads of positives in the relationship, as well as a prosperous future together. You are only “wasting your life away” if you are no longer embracing and enjoying it. Whilst I usually advise basing relationship decisions on current feelings, creating a more open level of communication during this new interval should help you to both understand what you truly want in the long run.

      All the best and thanks for reading the website,

      Sam