Defining boundaries is essential when it comes to cultivating healthy relationships, whether you’re in a monogamous partnership, practicing consensual non-monogamy, having a fling, a summer hookup, in a long-term relationship, or something else. When boundaries are effectively communicated, they serve as a way to protect yourself and your partner(s) both emotionally and physically. Here are some tips to help you set boundaries in your relationship.
8 tips for setting boundaries in a relationship
No matter what type of relationship you’re in, it can be difficult to identify your personal needs and expectations, let alone communicate them to your partner. These strategies can help guide you through recognizing your boundaries, sharing them with your partner, and negotiating them if needed.
1. Understand what healthy boundaries are.
Healthy boundaries reflect your core values, principles, and emotional needs. In other words, they mirror your internal truths — your ‘gut.’ When you communicate healthy boundaries with a partner, you keep yourself safe and practice an important form of self-care. Healthy boundaries can look differently depending on the setting. Examples include saying “No” to something that causes discomfort, or advocating for alone time in your relationship. Regardless of the setting, healthy boundaries are effectively communicated with assertiveness, confidence, and self-compassion.
2. Recognize unhealthy boundaries or toxic requests.
Unhealthy boundaries involve disrespecting or controlling the needs or desires of your partner(s). For example, setting boundaries around what your partner can and can’t wear in public is not a healthy request. It may be worth re-examining the root of that boundary — is it rooted in self-confidence and integrity, or is it rooted in insecurity and fear? It’s important to differentiate between when it’s time to work on a personal issue or when it’s time to establish healthy rules in your relationship.
3. Communicate your personal boundaries.
Establishing personal boundaries, which include preferences and limits that you’ve identified outside of the relationship, can help your partner to better understand your current, general needs. For example, if you know that you have limited free time because of an intense job, you may have boundaries around the frequency to which you see your partner. Perhaps you have boundaries around sex because you identify as asexual. Set personal boundaries early-on so that your partner can best assess whether they feel comfortable or able to meet your needs.
4. Define boundaries for the relationship itself.
It’s important to define the relationship you want. You may set boundaries by establishing you always want monogamy. Or you may opt for consensual non-monogamy. Try asking yourself the following questions: What type of relationship feels most authentic to me right now? If my partner doesn’t want the same type of relationship that I do, where do I want to draw the line? Where do I want to compromise? In whatever type of relationship you choose, it’s important to discuss the terms and boundaries of that dynamic.
5. Be clear about boundaries related to your core values.
Your core values represent your fundamental priorities, beliefs, and goals. For example, you may know that you never want children, or maybe you’re passionate about politics and want a partner who you align with politically. You may not want to invest so much time and emotion into a partner whose guiding beliefs are largely incompatible with yours — especially if you consider any of them to be deal-breakers.
6. Discuss sexual boundaries: Yes, no’s, maybe’s.
Before you talk about your sexual boundaries, it’s important to know what you like and what you don’t like in a sexual relationship. The more you understand your own desires, the more likely you are to communicate them. Communication around sexual boundaries can include topics such as what turns you on, what turns you off, using safewords, the frequency you and your partner have sex, where you have sex, what words feel comfortable when referring to each other and body parts, etc.
When you’re open and honest about what feels good to you, it can have positive, long-term effects on your sex life and ultimately create a sense of safety. Using an online resource, such as O.school’s Spice Meter, may help to give you and your partner the tools to better communicate and define sexual boundaries.
7. Talk about boundaries outside the bedroom.
Such boundaries can include anything from the way your partner texts you, to how often you see each other, and everything in between. For example, you may want to define boundaries around PDA (i.e. “I am okay with hand-holding in public, but not kissing”), or you might have boundaries around text and call frequency (i.e. “I am okay texting throughout the workday unless I say otherwise, but don’t call me.”). Perhaps you have boundaries around how and when you spend time alone and together. Whatever your limits are outside the bedroom, speaking up about them can breed greater emotional and physical intimacy.
8. Discuss if any boundaries are deal-breakers.
Deal-breakers are boundary lines that can’t be negotiated. For example, if your partner has a boundary about never wanting to interact with your parents because of their political views, is that a boundary that you can live with? It may be a perfectly reasonable boundary for your partner to set for themselves, but will it work for you long-term? Has your partner defined that they never want children and/or marriage but you do want those things? Speaking about your deal-breakers in the early stages of a relationship can prevent unnecessary conflict down the line. Continue to check-in with yourself as your relationship progresses, and reflect on the boundaries that feel worth compromising for, and the ones that don’t.
Can boundaries change?
Just as consent can be withdrawn at any time, boundaries can change. Therapist Erica Cramer, LCSW tells O.school that boundaries are meant to be flexible. “Something that works at one point in the relationship may prove obsolete at another,” Cramer says. Our preferences and desires may evolve over the course of weeks, months or years, or they may change within the span of a single sexual experience, or even from partner to partner. For example, you might have attended a sex party with a partner and had a boundary about no threesomes. But as soon as you’re there, you find someone that you're interested in and your boundary changes.
Because boundaries can shift, Cramer says “it is important to have ongoing conversations about boundaries and modify them as necessary.” Frequent check-ins cultivate space for you and your partner to share your needs and desires. Ultimately, they work to drive the changes that need to be made (or not made) in your relationship.
Boundaries can be negotiated (and re-negotiated)
It can be difficult to find a partner who meets your exact needs in every regard. If your partner isn’t able to meet one or more of your boundaries, it may be worth finding creative ways to compromise or negotiate them. For example, perhaps you don’t share your partner’s kink and you set a boundary around it but they aren’t sexually satisfied. Instead of dismissing the kink entirely, try to have a plan in place about when this boundary might be revisited and potentially renegotiated. Is there a way for you and your partner to meet halfway? What would compromise look like? It’s also important to have a plan in place on what to do if that boundary is non-negotiable and can’t be met by a partner. Is it enough to end the relationship? Is it not?
Therapist Kasia Ciszewski, LPC tells O.school that when negotiating, it’s important to work on trying to understand your partner’s "why.” She says, “Sometimes, [your partner] needs to understand why this boundary is important to you and your well-being.” While many things are negotiable, your deal-breakers may leave little space for compromise.
What to do if boundaries are crossed in a relationship
Therapist Rachel Harlich, LMSW tells O.school that when it comes to boundary violations, especially physical ones, safety is the first priority. “Communicate with caution,” Harlich says. “Pay attention to your partner's response and decide whether you feel confident that your partner takes their violation seriously, is not further harming you in their response, and plans to address it.” If your partner hasn’t made any meaningful attempts to change their behavior, even after they’ve been confronted, take time to consider whether it’s worth staying in the relationship. Trust your intuition here — it often wins out anyway.
The bottom line
If something isn’t working for you, don’t let the discomfort simmer. Address it with your partner head-on and see where the conversation takes your relationship. Maybe you decide to compromise, or maybe you decide to walk away. Regardless of the outcome, you don’t need to apologize for sticking to your values, speaking your truth, and honoring your needs. In fact, be proud of your effort to communicate with integrity.