What To Do When Boundaries Are Crossed In A Relationship
What To Do When Boundaries Are Crossed In A Relationship
Similar to contracts, relationships consist of various agreements (aka boundaries) that are mutually agreed upon. When a partner violates or behaves in a way that contradicts an agreement, it can feel unsettling and it can cause you to question the relationship or compatibility. Whether your partner intentionally or unintentionally crosses a boundary line, it’s important to confront the situation head-on. Here are some suggestions on what to do when boundaries are crossed.
Identify if a boundary conflict or a boundary violation occurred
Boundaries may fall into different categories: boundary violations and boundary conflicts. Take time to figure out which category your boundary falls into. From there, you can decide how to best frame the conversation with your partner.
Boundary conflicts result from incompatible needs or desires. They are generally easier to compromise on, negotiate, and resolve. Examples of boundary conflicts include:
- You prefer to avoid non-work related communication during work hours, but one morning, your partner calls you twice during a work meeting.
- Your partner wants to spend their weekends with you, but you prefer to spend time with your friends on weekends.
- Your partner tries to make out with you in front of your friends, which makes you feel uncomfortable.
Therapist Rachel Harlich, LMSW, tells O.school that boundary violations “occur when others do and say things that we've already stated are harmful to us and/or are so obviously harmful in general that the person is able to easily anticipate that they will harm us by what they are doing.” Boundary violations can be difficult to negotiate, and they tend to involve trust-rebuilding as an effort to repair the relationship. Examples of boundary violations include:
- You are in a defined monogamous relationship. Your partner breaks the agreed-upon terms of exclusivity and cheats.
- You told your partner you don’t like to be touched on a certain area of your body because of past trauma. Your partner touches you there anyway.
- Your partner agrees to not communicate with their ex. In the car, their ex calls on the bluetooth speaker.
Recognize if a boundary violation could escalate to assault or abuse
A boundary violation may occur when a partner touches you in a way that feels intrusive and violating. In some instances, this type of violation may be considered abuse and/or assault. Harlich suggests that it may be helpful to take some space to calmly assess the situation: “Is this behavior a potential warning sign of abuse? What would this look like if it escalated? What would I tell a friend whose partner did this?” If you are having trouble identifying the severity of the issue or its impact on your well-being, you might consider seeing a mental health professional for further help. You may also turn to resources such as RAINN.
Practice self-care and self-compassion
When a boundary violation or conflict has occurred, it can impact your emotional well-being. However you feel — whether it’s sadness, confusion, anger, or anything in between — it’s essential to give yourself some extra TLC during this time. In order to best care for yourself and process the experience, it may be helpful to take some time and space away from your partner. Perhaps you lean on the support of friends or family, or you pull in a mental health professional for help. Self-care looks different for everyone, but remember to focus on whatever brings you calmness and self-compassion.
6 tips for communicating that your boundaries have been crossed
When a boundary has been crossed, It can feel overwhelming and even scary to confront your partner. But if you don’t communicate about it, you run the risk of that boundary being broken again. However, if you felt the boundary violation was assault or abuse, you may consider forgoing communication and instead focus on tending to yourself, relying on your support, and reporting to authorities if it's what you choose. If you do choose to communicate with your partner about a boundary violation or conflict, however, here are some suggestions that might help guide the conversation.
- Be clear about your goal. Before speaking to your partner, identify what you hope to get out of the conversation. Is it to heal the relationship and save it, or is it to simply try to heal yourself and be heard? Sometimes, communicating about boundary violations isn’t about working through the problem with the hope of repairing the relationship. In some cases, especially when the violation is a deal-breaker, the goal of the conversation may be to feel seen and validated. In other instances, it may be to get your partner to understand where you're coming from so that you can move forward together, as a couple. In order to think purposefully about the future, take the extra time to figure out what you hope to accomplish from the conversation.
- Be prepared. Therapist Tricia Johnson, LCSW, tells O.school: “When addressing boundaries in a relationship, it’s important to first think through what you want to say and how you plan to say it.” Planning for the conversation could look like processing the event with someone you trust or writing your thoughts down on paper. “Be specific and determine what is acceptable for you and what isn’t,” Johnson adds. “Knowing what you will say will help you feel more prepared and confident.”
- Address the issue head on. Once you recognize that a boundary has been crossed, address the situation directly with your partner. Harlich suggests using “I” statements to communicate your boundaries. For example, it may be more effective to say something like, “I felt uncomfortable when you kissed me in front of your friends,” as opposed to, “You always kiss me in front of your friends and it’s uncomfortable.” By reducing feelings of blame, “I” statements prevent defensive and argumentative responses.
- Acknowledge if the behavior was unintentional. When your partner crosses a boundary unknowingly, Harlich adds that “it may be useful to include an acknowledgement that you recognize your partner did not intend to hurt you or cross your boundaries, especially if your partner is prone to defensiveness or beating themselves up about such feedback.” At the same time, Harlich emphasizes that it’s best to avoid justifying boundaries. You have every right to assert your needs, and there’s no need to apologize or give “a good reason” for it.
- Re-establish and re-define boundaries. To avoid miscommunication or misunderstanding in the future, re-state your boundary. During difficult conversations, it’s easy (and natural) to lead with emotion. You may feel deeply hurt by your partners’ actions and want to express that experience. While those responses make sense, it’s not always as effective to communicate simply through the weight of our emotions. When you restate your boundary, try sticking to the facts of the situation. There’s no need to place any judgment on you or your partner’s experience — simply describe your boundary. What specifically do you need from your partner? What would it look like for them to comply with your boundary? What would it look like for you? Clearly assert yourself and express your limits.
- Identify what you need from your partner going forward. In order to move forward, determine what kind of assurances you need from your partner — whether it’s a simple acknowledgement of the issue, a safe word, an agreement to participate in couples therapy, a certain type of apology, or something else. Ask yourself, “What future actions would repair my feelings about the situation and relationship,” or “What steps can we both take to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
It may be helpful to determine repair strategies with your partner, so that you can brainstorm what feels realistic and best for both of you. Repair efforts — when followed through on — can help to regain trust and intimacy within your relationship. If you’re not sure what repair efforts could look like, it might be helpful to turn to a personal or couples therapist.
Work with your partner to prevent future boundary issues
It’s normal for boundaries to shift and change and be renegotiated as we grow individually and within our relationships. We may feel icky about PDA one week and fine with it the next. Similarly, your partner could have previously agreed to a boundary that they don’t feel comfortable with anymore. To avoid boundary conflicts or violations in the future, schedule frequent or occasional (depending on your preference) check-ins with your partner. Reflect on the boundaries currently in place or potential ones that you or your partner have in mind. In any type of relationship, checking-in often and thoughtfully sets the tone for strong and healthy communication.
Know when to walk away if boundaries continue to be crossed
If your goal in communicating with your partner was to repair the relationship, recognize how your partner responds to your needs. Sex therapist Yana Tallon-Hicks, LMFT, tells O.school: “If [your partner(s)] disregard your feelings, flip over the blame to rest on your shoulders, or attempt to explain away their actions rather than see them, label them, and repair them, then this person might not be willing or able to adjust their behaviors enough to repair the relationship.” Tallon-Hicks suggests that it may be time to walk away if you continue to feel a lack of trust or notice repeated patterns. “When in doubt, trust your gut and the actions you observe, not just the words you’re being told,” she says.
The bottom line
Your needs deserve to be met and respected, always. To prevent boundary conflicts or violations in the future, set boundaries as soon as you identify them, establish open and honest communication, check in often, and discuss when boundaries need to be changed or negotiated. While it’s not easy to confront a difficult situation, it can ultimately give you more clarity about your partner and your relationship. Just remember to treat yourself with compassion and kindness before and throughout the conversation, regardless of how your partner responds. Either way, you’ll walk away from it knowing that you stood by your values and honored your needs.