How to Set Healthy Boundaries in a Relationship without Being Controlling

Asma Rehman, LPC

Boundaries are a popular topic.

With self care becoming mainstream, and discussions of mental health and therapy slowly becoming less stigmatized, boundaries have been an entry point into managing mental health and self care for a lot of people.

And that’s great! Having strong, healthy boundaries is important. They help us protect our time and energy for the things we value, they help us explore our own desires and our own needs. And they give us practice in having difficult, but intentional conversations with people in our life, varying from intimate partners and family members, to coworkers and neighbors.

Boundaries offer us a lot.

But while they are a tool in your self care tool box, boundaries do need to take more than just yourself into account. Rather than being a set of rules you provide to others for how they should interact with you, boundaries should be the building blocks you use to navigate the conversation between your needs and others.

Of course, depending on the intimacy of your relationship, there will be varying degrees to which you take others’ needs into account.

For example, at work, if your hours are set and you won’t be checking your email outside of those hours, it’s okay to stick to that firmly once it’s been communicated, barring any true emergencies. While you probably like your coworkers and don’t want to cause undue stress on them, it’s perfectly reasonable to be firm about the separation between your work and your off time.

So long as you are getting done what you need to and not using those off hours as a way to push work you should be doing onto your coworker’s plate, you’re upholding your social and professional responsibility to them. In this case, just letting your colleagues know that, without opening it for opinions or discussion is appropriate.

When it comes to people you have more intimate relationships with, boundary setting needs to be more of a conversation.

When you’re setting boundaries with your close friends, your family, or your partner, it’s not fair to the type of relationship you have to lay them out as rules the other person must obey. Relationships by nature, involve more than one person, and the boundaries set within them will more intimately affect both partner’s daily lives, so it’s important to consider both people.

So, what does that look like?

Just like when you set boundaries with people you don’t have an intimate relationship with, boundary setting needs to start with some self reflection. Where are you feeling worn out, uncomfortable, or unsafe? What needs of yours are being neglected? What boundary would you like to set?

Next, consider if your boundary is reasonable.

Lots of times, when we jump into a boundary setting we want to jump away from all uncomfortable feelings. But being a little uncomfortable is okay–it’s good, even. It’s how we learn what we can handle and how we grow. It’s important to learn the difference we feel between being manageably uncomfortable and genuinely unsafe. Is your boundary being set so you don’t have to deal with something uncomfortable?

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When you’ve taken the time to reflect on all of this, make time with your partner to discuss what you’ve been thinking about, what you feel you need, and how that makes them feel. They might be hurt, and that’s okay (so long as you didn’t do anything to hurt them intentionally). It can feel like rejection to hear a boundary, which is why it’s important to let them know you want to find a solution that works for both of you. Maybe they have a suggestion that can meet you partway, and you can check in with each other in a couple weeks on how it’s going. Maybe they have a need that will require being addressed separately in order to help them manage any rejection they may feel from your boundary.

Remember, boundary setting isn’t there to isolate you from anyone.

Boundaries are meant to enhance your relationship to yourself and to others by respecting everyone’s limits and needs. If your boundaries start to feel like hard and fast rules, or something keeping you distant from those in your life, it’s time to stop and reevaluate how they’re serving you.

If you and your partner are struggling with setting healthy boundaries within your relationship, couples counseling can be a beneficial step towards creating a healthier dynamic.

Our Houston mental health counselors are trained to guide couples through this journey and provide support and tools to improve communication, increase intimacy, and strengthen the relationship. Contact us today to begin your journey towards a healthier and happier relationship.

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