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A Guide to Setting Healthy Boundaries in a Relationship

Boundaries are a sign of healthy communication, mutual respect, and strength in a relationship

Boundaries are limits you set in order to take care of yourself. All relationships need boundaries, but they’re especially important in romantic relationships. 

“One of the most common causes of relationship dissatisfaction is frustration caused by uncommunicated boundaries and expectations,” says Dr. Jacqui Gabb, professor of sociology and intimacy at The Open University and Chief Relationships Officer at Paired. 

“We often forget to have these discussions because our partner is supposed to already know and act on our needs and wants.”

In the ‘Enduring Love?’ study, Dr. Gabb and her colleagues found that in both straight and LGBTQ+ relationships, acknowledging that a partner is not a mind-reader enabled open communication, which resulted in a greater sense of togetherness. 

“Establishing and maintaining clear and healthy limits and guidelines helped partners to feel more comfortable and respected,” explains Dr. Gabb. 

Setting boundaries involves communicating your likes and dislikes, what makes you uncomfortable, as well as your needs. 

Setting boundaries in a relationship isn’t just an act of self-care, it ensures both your and your partner’s needs are met, fosters a sense of safety and respect within the relationship, and reduces conflict down the line

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What are boundaries? 

Boundaries are like a line that you draw between what you will and won’t tolerate. But boundaries aren’t just about saying no, they’re also a way to communicate what you want or need. They’re the non-negotiable expectations you have for how your partner should treat you. 

Boundaries vary from person to person, and from couple to couple. “Boundaries in a relationship can be both physical and emotional,” says Dr. Gabb.

They might involve what you’re comfortable doing in the bedroom, how much of your relationship you’re willing to share with the in-laws, how much alone time you need during the week, and whether it’s ok to keep in touch with an ex.

“Physical boundaries include your body, personal space, and privacy. Violations include inappropriate touching, looking through your diary, or unexpected drop-ins from your mother-in-law,” explains Dr. Gabb. 

Emotional boundaries are often harder to monitor, she says. “They involve staying true to yourself and your values, and not letting someone’s feelings dictate your own. Violations include being peer pressured into doing something you’re not comfortable with — for example, gaslighting or showing a lack of respect.”

How to set boundaries in a relationship

Setting boundaries can be easier said than done, and even in the healthiest relationships, it’s a skill that requires constant practice. 

“It can be intimidating to set clear boundaries in a relationship,” says Dr. Gabb. We might also have a hard time setting boundaries out of fear of disappointing our partner or making them feel rejected, but that initial discomfort will be worth it in the long run.

“Our ability to set them often correlates with our level of self-esteem and sense of identity which are deep-rooted in us since childhood, but there are a few things you can try,” says Dr. Gabb.

Below, Dr. Gabb shares her tips on how to set boundaries in a relationship: 

  1. Identify your deal breakers. Know what you like and dislike, what you’re comfortable with versus what scares you, and how you want to be treated in certain situations.

  2. Commit to putting your emotional needs first. Your best test of whether a boundary has been broken is whether you feel as though you’ve given up a part of yourself for someone else.

  3. Avoid absolutes. Boundaries that include words such as “you must always” or “you can never” rarely work as they’re usually unrealistic and therefore won’t last.

  4. Be specific and direct. The more specific you are the better. For example, “I want to hear about your day. Can we talk at 6 pm when I’ve finished work?” or “I’m comfortable kissing and holding hands, but not in public.”

  5. Stick to your guns. Own your boundary. If you have trouble standing up for yourself, calmly state what’s important to you and why. This doesn’t mean being intractable but it does mean being true to yourself.

Dr. Gabb adds that if a boundary is broken in a relationship, you’ll know about it. “Key signs include discomfort, resentment, feeling taken advantage of, guilt, or fear,” she says. If your partner says or doe

Boundaries are there to protect your safety, so any good partner will want to respect them because trust and respect are significant aspects of maintaining boundaries — the key is communicating them clearly. 

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