What Are Boundaries in Relationships and Why Are They Important?

Boundaries are limits put on a relationship in order to establish the safety of an individual. These limits are for the purpose of maintaining the relationship to the degree that is emotionally/physically/sexually safe for the individual. This part is very important because good boundaries are not walls. Walls push people away and shut them out. When you establish certain boundaries in relationships, you are essentially saying to them, “This is what I need to feel safe in this relationship. If you can’t give me that, I can’t feel safe.” Boundaries are about needs not wants or what is convenient for you. Setting a boundary and telling your spouse that you can’t feel safe unless they put the silverware down properly in the dishwasher is not a healthy boundary. However, stating to them that you don’t feel safe having sex with them as long as they are looking and engaging in pornography and not telling you about it is a healthy boundary. Everyone has boundaries even if you don’t realize it (e.g. you probably don’t tell your pharmacist about your sex life). Healthy boundaries are ESSENTIAL to a lasting healthy relationship. When healthy boundaries are not established or respected in a relationship, emotional and relational distress WILL BE created. There are a number of requirements in order to use boundaries in a healthy way.

1) Good Intentions

The intent of the boundary has to be safety and to maintain the relationship on a level where this safety is respected. In other words, you shouldn’t use boundaries to control the behavior of other individuals or to punish them in any way (e.g. “You’re being a jerk today so you can say goodbye to any chance you had with having sex with me tonight!”)

2) Rational Mindset

Never establish boundaries when in a reactive/emotional state. Boundaries should always be established and expressed in a rational thoughtful manner where there has been sufficient time to think out the decision. However, this doesn’t mean that you won’t be feeling fear and worry when you express a boundary to someone. It takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to set healthy boundaries. You have to be willing to take the risks of losing possible connection to get healthier connection for both of you.

3) Follow Through

It is essential you follow through with consequences if your boundaries are not respected. If you are not willing to do this then don’t waste your time in setting the boundary in the first place. For example, if you state to your partner, “Bob, I want to understand how you are feeling, but I don’t feel safe to talk to you if you continue to speak to me with degrading and demeaning language. If you choose to use this language to communicate your feelings then I will have to emotionally protect myself by disengaging in the conversation.” Therefore, it is essential that you follow through with this promise. If you choose to get defensive and use the same language back then you are choosing not to respect your own boundaries and therefore, your partner will not either.

4) Clear and Specific

Boundaries need to be clear and specific. Vague expressions of boundaries can be confusing for your partner and yourself. Spend the time trying to establish specific limits for your safety and the consequences when those limits are broken or not respected by other individuals. What are your non-negotiables in the relationship? Non-negotiable are specific boundaries that will require separation or divorce if ever broken. What are your sexual, physical, and emotional boundaries that you are required to have to keep yourself safe and connected in the relationship? If these boundaries are broken, what would you need to do to continue to create safety for yourself?

5) Expression

Boundaries also need to be expressed when appropriate. We can’t expect people to respect our boundaries if they don’t know what they are. It’s wrong for us to assume people should know how we feel and what we need. This is one of the most common mistakes in relationships.

For more information about boundaries, I suggest reading Boundaries Updated and Expanded Edition: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life by Cloud and Townsend. Sometimes it can be difficult to see what boundaries need to be set in our relationship as well as how we should follow through with them. Seek guidance from an experienced counselor to help direct you in these decisions.

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