Life

How to understand and set better boundaries in relationships

“You need to set better boundaries.”

I’m sure you’ve had someone tell you this before at least once in your life.

If you’re stressed out at work — you need better boundaries. If you’re feeling smothered by a romantic partner — you need better boundaries. If your father-in-law keeps showing up to you house unannounced — you need better boundaries.

Often, when people tell you to set boundaries, they mean you should say no. It is assumed that saying no means you’ll have more space to be less stressed, less smothered and have fewer unannounced visits from your father-in-law. But setting good boundaries is more than just saying no. It’s about relationships where you feel respected and connected.

Boundaries are created by two elements — individuality and belonging. A boundary defines the space between who I am (individuality) and who we are (belonging). In relationships with healthy boundaries, being an individual isn’t seen as a threat to the relationship. If you want to have some alone time, hang out with other people, or pursue you own goals, you aren’t made to feel guilty. In relationships with healthy boundaries, you make time to spend time together to do things that maybe you don’t love doing, but your partner does, so you join in.

In relationships with healthy boundaries, the amount of individuality and belonging is flexible and changes over time. When a partner or family member is ill, a healthy relationship can adapt by decreasing individuality and increasing the time spent together. When a partner is stressed about a job, a healthy relationship can provide more space for that person to get work done. The key is that when the sick person gets better, or when there is less work, these relationships will then change again.

If you want healthy boundaries in relationships, you need to learn to say no, but you also need to say yes. When boundaries become blurred and unhealthy, it is not because a person is bad at saying no. It’s because the relationship doesn’t respect the nos and the yeses. In relationships with healthy boundaries, two people can listen to what each other need, understand the context and be clear about whether the situation is a no or a yes.

If you have a father-in-law that keeps showing up unannounced, there is probably a reason. Maybe he feels lonely. Maybe he is worried about you. Or maybe he thinks that what he is doing is supportive. To make this relationship better suited to your needs, you should not only communicate what you need but hear what your father-in-law needs. Then you both can decide when coming over is a no and when it’s a yes.

If you say what you need and are clear about your yeses and nos and that person still doesn’t change their behavior, then different action is needed. When boundaries aren’t respected, the nature of the relationship needs to change.

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If work won’t respect your no, it may be time to find a new job. If your partner won’t give you the space you need, it may be time to break up. If you father-in-law keeps showing up unannounced, it may be time to move farther away.

Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a professor in the University of Iowa College of Education. He is also the co-host of the Attached Podcast. Comments: priestjb@gmail.com

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