Boundaries are essential for good relationships. Clear boundaries help both people understand what to expect from one another, which can reduce misunderstandings.
But setting boundaries isn’t always easy, especially if you believe everyone else’s needs are more important than your own. Putting boundaries in place can also be difficult if you have to live or work with domineering, disrespectful, or toxic people.
This article is a general guide to setting healthy boundaries in your relationships. If you need advice on using boundaries in friendships, our more specific article on how to set boundaries with friends might help.
- What are boundaries?
- How to set boundaries
- People who don’t respect your boundaries
- Why are boundaries important?
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are limits and guidelines that clarify how you behave towards other people and what kind of treatment you expect and accept in return. When you set a boundary, you draw a line between what is and isn’t OK in your relationships.
You can set several different types of boundaries in a relationship. Here are 8 of the more common types of boundaries:
1. Emotional boundaries around your feelings and emotions.
Example: Only sharing deep or difficult feelings with someone when you’ve known them for a while and consider them to be a friend.
2. Financial/material boundaries around your money and possessions.
Example: Not lending money to anyone outside of your family.
3. Physical boundaries around your personal space and body.
Example: Not hugging or kissing anyone who isn’t a partner or close friend.
4. Sexual boundaries around sex, flirtation, and sexual humor.
Example: Only having a sexual relationship with someone when you’ve both agreed to stop dating other people.
5. Mental/intellectual boundaries around your beliefs and thoughts.
Example: Avoiding discussions about religion at family gatherings.
6. Time boundaries around how you spend your time.
Example: Keeping Wednesday evenings free for alone time.
7. Ethical boundaries around your morals.
Example: Refusing to tell lies, break the law, or cover for other people.
8. Digital boundaries around online activity and communication.
Example: Keeping social media profiles set to “private.”
Boundaries can be fixed and rigid, or more flexible, depending on the situation and the people involved. You may apply some boundaries to some types of relationships but not others.
For example, let’s say you don’t want to answer any phone calls from friends after 9 p.m. You might stick with this boundary most of the time, but you might make occasional exceptions for your best friend, especially if you know that they are going through a difficult time.
How to set boundaries
Here are some strategies you can use to set clear, realistic boundaries. These tips apply to both personal and professional relationships.
1. Decide what your personal boundaries are
To set a boundary, you need to decide what you need and want from other people. This can be challenging if you are used to putting everyone else’s needs first. You might want to spend some time reflecting on what makes you feel happy in a relationship and what makes you feel uncomfortable. It might be helpful to read this article on improving your self-awareness.
For example, maybe you have a family member who doesn’t agree with your political beliefs. When you spend time together, they often try to provoke you into a debate by criticizing your views.
You could consider setting a boundary with your family member that makes it clear your political beliefs aren’t up for discussion. When they try to steer the conversation toward political topics, you might say, “I don’t want to discuss politics with you. Let’s talk about something different.”
2. Try using I-statements when setting boundaries
You-statements, such as “You always…” or “You never…” can come across as attacking or aggressive. I-statements might seem less confrontational.
When you set a boundary using an I-statement, spell out exactly what you feel and why. You can then ask the other person to act differently in the future.
Here are two examples of ways you can use I-statements to set clear boundaries:
- Instead of saying, “You make fun of me, and I don’t like it,” you could say, “I feel embarrassed when you make jokes about the way I speak. Please don’t make any more jokes about my voice or accent.”
- Instead of saying, “You always come over late, and it’s annoying because I just want to wind down and go to bed,” you could say, “I need to get to bed early during the week because my work starts at 6 a.m. Please don’t drop by my place past 8 p.m. because I need to wind down and get to bed.”
Try to communicate your boundaries clearly. For example, “I need more personal space in this relationship” isn’t very specific. It would be better to say, “I need at least two evenings every week to myself because I need plenty of personal space.”
3. Avoid justifying yourself
When you set a boundary, do not get drawn into a conversation about your reasons. People who question or try to undermine your personal boundaries are probably not interested in a genuine, respectful discussion about your feelings.
Instead, try the broken record technique. Simply repeat your boundary, using the exact same tone of voice, until the other person backs off.
For example, let’s say you get on well with your coworkers, but one of them is very nosy. When you’re around this coworker, you don’t talk about your relationships outside of work because you know they will just keep asking you increasingly awkward questions.
Here’s how you might use the broken record technique at work to set this boundary:
Coworker: So why did you split up with your girlfriend?
You: I’m not going to talk about that.
Coworker: Go on, tell me! Did you have a fight? Did she cheat on you?
You: I’m not going to talk about that.
Coworker: I won’t tell anyone else, I just want to know. I can keep a secret.
You: I’m not going to talk about that.
Coworker: OK, OK! Fine.
4. Show empathy for the other person
When setting a boundary with someone who usually has your best interests at heart, it may help to show that you value their point of view and ideas. Sometimes people come across as controlling or interfering because they are trying to help, albeit in a clumsy way. If someone oversteps a boundary but is generally kind and loving, you can give them the benefit of the doubt.
For example, let’s say that your boyfriend or girlfriend wants to help you find more clients for your business. Without asking for your input or permission, they have placed an ad for your business on your local community’s Facebook page. They thought it would be a nice surprise, but you feel as though they’ve crossed a line because you don’t want anyone else to decide how you’ll advertise your business.
In this case, you could say, “I really appreciate that you care about my business and want to support me. But I don’t want anyone else to make decisions about how I advertise. In the future, please share your ideas with me instead of just going ahead.”
5. Set boundaries early
It’s usually easier to set boundaries earlier rather than later in a relationship. This approach helps you and the other person figure out whether you are compatible as friends or potential partners.
For example, let’s say you are getting to know someone who is very open about their life. They feel comfortable talking about almost anything, including personal issues, such as their mental health or the state of their marriage and sex life. Your new friend also likes to ask you very personal questions and encourages you to share everything with them.
If you are naturally a private person who takes a long time to open up, these conversations might make you feel uneasy. In this situation, you could make your boundaries around sharing clear by saying something like, “I’m not comfortable talking about intimate things like sex or mental health until I’ve known someone for a long time.”
Setting out a boundary in this way gives the other person a choice. They can choose to respect your boundaries, talk about lighter topics, and wait until you’re closer before asking you personal questions. Alternatively, they might decide that your personalities just aren’t a good fit and distance themselves. It also works the other way around: depending on their response, you might realize that you aren’t compatible.
6. Tell people when your boundaries change
If you need to change a boundary, spell it out clearly to avoid confusion or hurt feelings.
For example, let’s say you used to have a lot of late-night conversations with your friend when you were a student. But now that you have to work long hours at a job, you’ve decided to set a new boundary: you won’t reply to texts past 10 p.m.
You might say to your friend, “Just to let you know, I can’t reply to late-night texts anymore. I kept my notifications switched on most of the time when I was in college because it didn’t matter when I went to bed. But now that I have a regular job, I turn them off at about 10 p.m. because I need to be up early in the morning.”
Because you’ve offered an explanation and made it clear that your boundaries have changed, your friend won’t feel hurt when you need to reply to their texts the next day.
7. Ask a friend for support
If you need to set a boundary with someone who intimidates you, it might help to get some support from a friend. Your friend doesn’t need to say anything. It may be enough to have them in the room. For example, if you want to have a difficult conversation with a parent about your boundaries over the phone, your friend could sit next to you during the call.
8. Start by taking small steps
Setting boundaries may become easier with time and practice. It may help to start by taking small steps with people you trust. For example, let’s say you have a close friend who tends to talk for hours on the phone. When they next call, you could set a boundary by telling them you can only stay on the phone for 30 minutes, then politely end the phone call when the time is up.
9. Respect other people’s boundaries
You may find that other people are more likely to honor your boundaries if you respect theirs. If you aren’t sure whether you’re about to cross someone’s boundaries, ask them what they want or need from you. For example, if you want to hug someone but you aren’t sure whether they are OK with physical contact, you could ask, “Can I hug you?”
If you accidentally overstep a boundary, try not to get defensive. Instead, apologize and reassure them that you’ll take care to avoid making the same mistake again. For example, you could say, “I’m sorry for taking one of your chips from your plate. I forgot that you don’t like to share food.”
How to handle people who don’t respect your boundaries
Most people will respect boundaries, but a minority ignore them. This group includes people with narcissistic personalities, who often have a sense of entitlement. They might feel that they don’t have to respect your boundaries because they assume that their wants and needs are more important than yours.
1. Enforce consequences
If someone doesn’t respect a boundary, you have the right to enforce consequences. Explain what you’ll do if they overstep your boundary again.
Whatever consequence you choose, make sure you are ready to follow through. If you show someone that you won’t take action, they probably won’t take you seriously in the future.
For example, if you say, “I’m going to end this phone call if you keep talking about how I should be parenting my child,” make sure you are prepared to hang up if they ignore your wishes.
You can also learn some techniques to get people to respect you more.
2. Withhold personal information
Sometimes, the easiest way to stop other people from trying to violate your boundaries is to withhold information. This approach works best with people you don’t have to see frequently.
For example, let’s say you have a boundary around lending people your possessions. Your personal rule is that you don’t let anyone, aside from your partner and best friend, borrow things from you.
Unfortunately, you have a cousin who has a habit of repeatedly asking to borrow things from you. When you say no, they usually get annoyed and accuse you of selfishness. If you only see your cousin occasionally, the simplest solution might be to avoid mentioning recent purchases.
I might also like to get some tips on how to avoid oversharing.
3. Consider distancing yourself
If you’ve tried the strategies in this article, but the other person still tries to ignore your boundaries, it may be time to end the relationship. Our guide to ending a friendship without hurt feelings has in-depth advice on how to distance yourself from someone who is making you unhappy or uncomfortable.
If cutting someone off altogether isn’t a realistic option, you could try finding ways of limiting the amount of 1:1 time you spend together. For example, if you have overbearing grandparents who often ask you inappropriate questions, you could try meeting up with them at family events instead of visiting them by yourself.
Why are boundaries important in relationships?
Here are a few reasons why boundary-setting is a key social skill:
1. Boundaries can reduce resentment
If you give up all your time to help other people, you may end up feeling underappreciated, burned out, and annoyed. By setting clear boundaries around your time and energy, you can support other people while still having enough energy to take care of yourself.
2. Setting boundaries helps you lead a more balanced life
For example, if your boss often gives you too many tasks to do and assumes that you’ll take work home with you at the end of the day, setting boundaries (e.g., “I can’t work in the evenings because I need to take care of my family) can help you maintain a better work-life balance.
3. Boundaries can help you keep a sense of identity
You can think of boundaries as lines that separate your thoughts, feelings, and experiences from those of somebody else. Boundaries help you to make decisions based on what is right for you, instead of going along with what you think someone else wants.
In this article, you can get some tips to understand your identity more clearly.
4. Boundaries can reduce conflicts
When two people know what to expect from one another, it may be easier to avoid misunderstandings. For example, if you make it clear to your parents that you’ll visit them at weekends because you don’t have time during the week, they might be less likely to become upset when you turn down invitations to have dinner with them after work.