Psychology and Relationships

Setting healthy boundaries with your partner will only make your relationship stronger, says therapist—here's how to get started

Illustration by Gene Woo Kim.

Vocalizing your needs to your partner when you know they won't be happy about them is a daunting task.

If you know a conflict lies just beyond the words "I need to carve out some more alone-time every week" or "I don't want to be intimate every day," that imminent friction can be enough to scare you out of saying them.

But, if 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 decrease your anxiety.

A boundary is not about telling your partner what they need to do or change, but saying what you're going to do for your own health, she says.

"You are setting limits for yourself," she says. "You are not controlling the behavior of others. You're telling people what you will or won't tolerate with the choices you make."

Here's why it's so difficult to set boundaries and how to do it.

It can be hard to set boundaries in a relationship

If you have a partner you might feel responsible for their happiness. This is something you need to un-learn, says Bobby.

"Setting healthy boundaries is about detaching from the idea that you need to manage someone else's emotions," Bobby says. "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.
Lisa Bobby

This doesn't mean you won't encounter pushback, she says. In fact, you should expect it.

"That is what makes it so difficult for people to set healthy boundaries, this self-imposed obligation that others should feel good or be happy," she says. "If you want to set healthy boundaries for yourself, that is not always compatible with other people feeling good."

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

For example, a partner who binge-drinks to cope with stress and expects you to join them might try to guilt you into going out with them every time they've had a bad day, despite your preferences. Know this might happen — and that you can say "no."

"The system will try really hard to drag that person back to an unhealthy place," she says. "You do not have to participate, but expect it."

It's ok to just say 'No. I can't.'

Your boundary is about your own action, so vocalizing 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'd benefit from some one-on-one time with your social group you can say:

"I understand you'd like to be included, and sometimes I'm happy to do that, but it's important to me to have time alone with my friends, so I won't be inviting you out every single time."

You 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 to you can say:

"I hear that you prefer when I text you back, but I'm realizing it's difficult for me to concentrate. I know you get upset when I don't text you back and that makes me anxious and so I need to set this boundary while I'm at work."

If you want to set healthy boundaries for yourself, that is not always compatible with other people feelings good.
Lisa Bobby

Acknowledge their feelings and let them know you care about them, she says, but that your health is also important. And remember to stay firm on what you need.

"People, especially women, really feel like they need to defend themselves and they can get a lot of pushback on setting healthy boundaries," she says. It's okay to just say "no, I can't do that."

It's important to be thoughtful and selective

Boundaries shouldn't feel like arbitrary rules, Bobby says. "It's not about anything, like setting a boundary around how to load the dishwasher," she says. "Healthy boundaries are generally thoughtful, values-based, and communicated compassionately."

Be selective with where you set them. They should be based on actions or words that would be damaging to you should they continue.

"Make them few and far between," she says. "Make them important. They need to matter."

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