For many people maintaining good boundaries in relationships is instinctive, they have had enough positive experience of being able to trust others as a child, and of not being let down, so that they have a clear idea of what they want in a relationship and will resist attempts by others to wear down the boundaries.
When we have healthy boundaries, it means that we are able to take care of our inner self, we have a clear sense of ourselves as being separate to others, with different needs and wants. We can parent or look after ourselves and have a resilience that helps us overcome difficulties.
But for other people, who have experienced being let down and having their trust broken by adults as a child, healthy boundaries in adult relationships are more difficult. For these people it’s more difficult for them to separate out what they want from what others want from them. This can lead to difficulties in the relationship, when boundaries are not in place feelings of confusion and disorientation can arise. Sometimes, we can have boundaries that are too rigid, often arising from issues with trust, so that we are so concerned with keeping ourselves safe, that we can’t let anyone in, this can lead to isolation and loneliness.
How do I go about setting boundaries in romantic relationships?
The first step to setting boundaries in romantic relationships is to be able to touch base with how we feel in the moment, this involves taking a pause, to check in with ourselves so that we know what we are experiencing. If we can pay attention to how we feel, then we are able to honour ourselves as a separate individual and use that information to renegotiate a different position.
Checking in is a skill
However, the skill of checking in with one’s self is something that can feel alien and uncomfortable to some people. Often this happens if we believe ourselves to be the sort of person who gets pleasure from helping others, and values kindness to others above all else. Sometimes, we do this as a way of compensating for low feelings of self-worth in the mistaken belief that we will feel better if we do what others want us to do. In reality, this sort of behaviour just compounds the existing low self esteem and leads to more unhappiness. But even the action of checking in with one’s self can feel risky. We can mitigate this with self-soothing and reassurance and remind ourselves that it’s okay to put ourselves first and that if we can do that then we are more likely to be able to have a healthy relationship with others.
Many people imagine that having boundaries in a romantic relationship is a bad thing, especially during the first few heady weeks and months of falling in love. This idea is misguided, tempting as it is to imagine that we are merged as one with the other, the reality is we are two separate individuals, with our own desires and needs.
In fact, boundaries are even more important in our intimate relationships as they involve letting others into our inner world. So, it’s crucial to have a clear sense of what is and isn’t okay in the areas of sex, emotional needs and physical needs.
We know we have good boundaries in place if we are not feeling hurt, or sad, or embarrassed when for example, we have sex with our partner, or when we confide in our partner. Having good boundaries in relationships means being able to speak up for yourself, in the knowledge that we can trust our partner to listen and to respect to what we are saying, even if we have differing opinions.
Boundaries with friends
The rule of being able to touch base with yourself also applies to friends. Sometimes with long standing friends it can be hard to renegotiate boundaries around things that bother us. If the friendship is healthy then the boundaries will be flexible, so for example if we notice that we always seem to do things on a friend’s terms then a healthy friendship will withstand us speaking up for ourselves and suggesting activities that we enjoy. A toxic friendship will not withstand this challenge and is unlikely to be flexible, leaving us with a stark choice, to remain in the friendship or to leave with our self-worth intact.
Slow down and pay attention to how you are feeling
If we can slow down enough as adults, to pause and pay attention to how we feel then we can use this information to ensure that we make informed decisions in our relationships.
Sometimes it’s difficult to do this on our own, and it’s important then to seek help. Sometimes both people in a relationship are aware when boundaries are muddled, and for these people couples counselling will be able to help them redefine what the relationship can offer. For other people individual counselling can help set them on the road to self-awareness and self-care and help empower them to develop good boundaries in adult relationships.