How to Establish Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

Healthy boundaries are key to healthy relationships rather than dysfunctional, destructive or addictive relationships. Boundaries define what we are willing to give and to take in relationships. Examples of this include: helping others only when truly able, ensuring one is treated respectfully, and maintaining personal safety. Understanding how to establish healthy boundaries in your relationships is a good way to prevent yourself from becoming co-dependent in your relationships. Here are some tips on how to establish clear, healthy boundaries in your relationships.

1. Understand Your Personal Values

A great way to start establishing healthy boundaries is by thinking about personal values. What virtues, ideals, or concepts are most important to you? It is important to understand what we value so that we know where the boundaries should be set.

Personal values come from many sources. For most, the primary source of values is the family in which they were raised. Family loyalty, hard work, the importance of education, and personal appearance values are often formed within the family during childhood. For example, a family that highly values family loyalty over education may frown upon a high school graduate leaving the immediate area to pursue a college education, while a family that highly values education would celebrate such a move.

Personal values are also influenced by community and culture. Consider how the civil rights and feminist movements changed how many people think about minorities and women. More recently, culture has changed in ways that impact how many people view celebrity, political involvement, violence in football, marijuana use, and even carbohydrate intake. Our appearance, entertainment choices, and career choices are often highly influenced by our culture.

Once we understand our personal values, we can set boundaries that help us establish when and where we are not going to allow others to cause us to violate our values. For example, if you value honesty and your spouse wants to cheat on your taxes, setting a boundary may mean insisting on honesty or filing separate returns. If you are trying to avoid being a workaholic and value family time, and your boss wants you to work overtime on a regular basis, you may need to tell her, "No," or begin looking for another position. If you are a recovering addict or feel uncomfortable around people who have addictive behaviors, you might establish a personal boundary that you will not get into relationships with addicts or even date recovering addicts.

2. Know the Benefits of Boundary Setting

There are many benefits associated with healthy boundaries. Setting boundaries allows you to be at your best for the things you value the most. It can be a freeing experience to refuse to accept unwanted activities or behaviors that cause you fear, stress, pain or a sense of being overwhelmed. Healthy boundaries are a form of self-care. They help to build self-esteem and self-worth. When you are responsible for your self-care by limiting how much you help others, and you allow others to be responsible to do some things without your help, it gives them the opportunity to learn and grow. Sometimes setting boundaries is hard, but knowing the benefits can motivate you to follow through and stick to your plan without caving in to the demands of others.

3. Set Boundaries Early in the Relationship

It is ideal to set boundaries at the beginning of a relationship. For example, when starting a new job, state which days of the week you are available for staying late or, when meeting for a first date, make it clear your rule is to do so in a public place. Establishing boundaries early makes boundaries easier for you to maintain and allows the other party to decide if they are comfortable with your boundaries and would like to be in the relationship. If Wednesday night Bible study is important to you and an employer often needs employees to work late on Wednesday nights, it may not be the right job for you. Failing to state your boundaries at the outset could lead to problems as either you or your employer will be dissatisfied in the future.

Often setting boundaries early in a relationship is not an option. Making a decision to reset the relationship boundaries may be the next best thing. Here are examples of how to reset a relationship where boundaries were fuzzy in the past. "I know I have laughed when you made jokes about my weight in the past, but I really don't find them funny. They actually make me feel bad. I'd appreciate it if you can stop making those jokes as of today." "I enjoyed volunteering a lot in the past, but I cannot do it now. I will call you when I'm available again." In each example, the speaker acknowledged the past was different from what is true now, or is about to occur, which alerts the listener to the reality of the change.

4. Express Boundaries Verbally and Clearly

In most cases, boundaries will need to be expressed clearly and verbally. Sometimes our boundaries are violated because we assume the other party knows and understands our boundaries, but we simply have not adequately communicated what those are. Here are a few examples:

  • An office worker who highly values organization becomes frustrated when others use his desk and move items, but he says nothing because he assumes adults should know better.
  • A parent complains his teenager borrows a car full of fuel and returns it without refueling.
  • The teen thinks as long as it is not on empty it is okay, unaware of the parent's unspoken expectation of at least half a tank full of gas.

Unspoken boundaries are certain to be violated. Learning to state boundaries may be a struggle at first. It does take practice. When talking with someone directly, maintain eye contact and state your boundaries clearly. Remember, stating your boundaries is about stating a need, not a want or a hope. It is not necessary to over-explain or defend your boundary. "I will not be lending you any money. You can use me as a reference for that part-time job you were talking about, though," is an example of a statement that is very clear and also demonstrates concern for the other person. If instead the person said, "I can't lend you any money. I'm short this month myself and my car just broke down," the speaker has positioned herself for an argument. The would-be borrower can challenge the speaker. "Short this month" could mean you're okay to help out next month. If you are concerned about stating boundaries with confidence, practice in a mirror or try setting boundaries with strangers first.

5. Establish Appropriate Consequences

Many boundaries are presented in an "if, then..." format. If you do X, then I will do Y. We need to be careful about what we establish as the consequences if boundaries are not respected. Consequences that are not the appropriate in severity or effectively punish the wrong person will result in the boundary being broken repeatedly. Consider the following rather extreme example: A parent tells a child, "If you don't clean up your room by Saturday, I'm throwing everything out." If the parent follows through with this, the parent will find themselves doing a lot of shopping in the future. Instead, the parent could say, "If you don't clean up your room by Saturday, I'm throwing out everything I don't think you need." We need to avoid setting up consequences we really do not mean.

Setting boundaries can be difficult work, but it is well worth the hard work when you take the time to do it, and can lead to more fulfilling relationships and a more fulfilling life.

Cyndy Adeniyi is a counselor and founder of Out of the Woods Life Coaching. She enjoys hiking, Zumba, and flea markets in her spare time. She lives with her husband and two children in Maryland.