Many of us struggle throughout our lives to set healthy boundaries. They go unspoken, or we let people test them and push us into discomfort in order to keep the peace. Ironically, setting healthy boundaries and enforcing them is one of the best ways to avoid conflict.
Let’s take a look at what makes a healthy boundary and what steps you should take to set healthy boundaries in your relationships.
What is a healthy boundary?
Think of a healthy boundary as a fence between two houses—it runs along the property line, and it lets people know what areas are safe for them to operate in comfortably. On your side of the fence, you can decorate your yard as you see fit—and your neighbors are free to do the same. Over time, you may bump into conflicts that call your fence into question. Maybe a tree with low branches hangs into your yard, or your dog gets loose via a gap in the fence and tears up your neighbor’s garden.
In relationships, a healthy boundary is one that lets you and your partner know what’s okay and what isn’t. They reflect your needs and expectations for each other—and when items come up that don’t quite fit into your established boundaries, you need to work together to figure out how your boundaries can be improved to take something new into account.
As a general rule, healthy boundaries are:
- Clearly defined and understood.
- Respectful of independence.
- Communicated clearly.
- Based on realistic expectations.
- Consistently applied.
Keep in mind that boundaries are not the same as forcing someone to behave in a way we want them to. Whether someone respects our boundaries is up to them and how we uphold our boundaries is up to us.
Your first step in creating healthy boundaries is to look inward and get to know yourself. What are your wants and needs in a relationship? Are you being realistic with your expectations? It’s important for you to know what you need in order to feel comfortable, safe, and respected in a relationship so that you can let others know what your expectations are.
They might not be capable or willing to meet those expectations—and that’s okay—that’s a good indicator that your relationship may not work out, or may require some realistic adjustments.
You need to be able to communicate your boundaries to others, which is why it’s important for them to be clearly defined. By the same token, it’s important for you to actively seek out and understand your partner’s expectations and boundaries. Sometimes we avoid these communications because we’re excited about a job, or the chemistry we have in a new relationship. If you’re avoiding the topic of your red lines and boundaries, it’s probably because you already know there’s a potential incompatibility there. Avoiding that is only going to make things worse.
While it’s important to have these discussions at the start of a relationship, it’s also important to revisit them over time. Boundaries change over time—like the borders of a river, we all change as we move through life. Setting aside time to talk and reacquaint yourself with each other’s boundaries is healthy.
Flexibility and Transparency
Your boundaries may change, and that’s okay. You can change with them. We evolve over the course of our lives, our bodies change, our needs change, even our goals and desires—setting healthy boundaries requires us to be open and honest about this as it’s happening, so that we can continue to make sure that the rules we have in place continue to serve us, and don’t cause friction.
If you’re struggling to create healthy boundaries in your relationships, consider reaching out to schedule a free consultation for marriage or relationship counseling. I help my clients explore the stresses and frustrations in their personal and professional lives—because those are usually the areas missing healthy boundaries.