How to set healthy boundaries in your relationship

Speaking out your needs to your partner when you know they won’t be pleased is a daunting task.

If you know there’s conflict right behind the words, “I need to take some more alone time each week” or “I don’t want to be intimate every day,” that upcoming friction may be enough to stop you from doing so say.

But when communicated with compassion and honesty, boundaries can actually strengthen a relationship, says Lisa Bobby, psychologist and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching in Denver, Colorado. They can also help reduce your anxiety.

Setting a limit isn’t about telling your partner what they need to do or change, it’s about telling what you’re going to do for your own health, she says.

“You set your own limits,” she says. “You don’t control the behavior of others. You tell people what you will or will not tolerate with the choices you make.”

Here’s why setting boundaries is so difficult and how to do it.

It can be difficult to set boundaries in a relationship

When you have a partner, you may feel responsible for their happiness. You have to unlearn that, says Bobby.

“Setting healthy boundaries is about breaking away from the idea that you have to manage the emotions of others,” says Bobby. “Your job is to take care of yourself emotionally and let other people take care of themselves emotionally.”

Your job is to take care of yourself emotionally and let other people take care of themselves emotionally.

That doesn’t mean you won’t encounter resistance, she says. In fact, you should expect it.

“That’s what makes it so hard for people to set healthy boundaries, that self-imposed obligation that they want others to be comfortable or happy,” she says. “Setting healthy boundaries for yourself isn’t always compatible with making others feel good.”

You should also expect that if you are in a “system” with someone who is not in a sane place, the “system will protest”.

For example, a partner who drinks alcohol to cope with stress and expects you to join them might try to make you feel guilty every time they’re having a bad day, despite your preferences. Know that this could happen – and that you can say “no”.

“The system will really try to pull that person back into an unhealthy place,” she says. “You don’t have to take part, but expect it.”

It’s okay to just say “no.” I can not.’

Your boundary is about your own actions, so speaking it should focus on what you’re going to do. For example, if your partner insists on being invited out with your friends, but you would benefit from some face-to-face time with your social group, you can say:

“I understand you’d like to be there, and sometimes I’m happy to do that, but having alone time with my friends is important to me, so I won’t invite you every time.”

They can also give a little more context, she says. For example, if your partner wants you to text them back while you’re at work, but you don’t want them to, you can say:

“I’ve heard that you prefer me to text you back, but I realize I’m having a hard time concentrating. I know you get upset if I don’t text you back and it scares me, so I have to set that boundary while I’m at work.”

When you try to set healthy boundaries for yourself, it doesn’t always go well with other people’s feelings.

Acknowledge her feelings and let her know that you care about them, she says, but that your health is important too. And remember to stick to what you need.

“People, especially women, really feel like they need to defend themselves, and they can get a lot of resistance if they set healthy boundaries,” she says. It’s okay to just say, “No, I can’t.”

It is important to be thoughtful and selective

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