Boundaries are a crucial part of a healthy relationship where there is fairness in the give and take between each partner. Boundaries can be confusing and difficult to grasp and implement, and because of this, many couples are unclear about their boundaries. Most people think of saying “no” or giving ultimatums regarding clear, well-defined boundaries. Still, there is so much more that goes into setting and maintaining a healthy boundary in a relationship (especially a romantic one). So, what is a healthy versus an unhealthy boundary?
What is a Healthy Boundary?
A healthy boundary includes being clear about your needs, saying no when needed, respecting other people’s boundaries, and sharing yourself in ways that align with your values. Boundaries also include being explicit about what you expect and what you want (not just what you don’t want), as well as defining what feels inappropriate, what feels uncomfortable, and what feels unsafe.
What is an Unhealthy Boundary?
Nedra Tawwab1 describes unhealthy boundaries in her book “Set Boundaries, Find Peace” as being either too rigid or too flexible (“porous”1). It depends on the situation and context to determine whether a boundary is too rigid or porous for the circumstances, which is why it is imperative to understand the values underlying a decision to set and enforce a boundary. People with unhealthy boundaries typically experience some burnout – compassion burnout, mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion, resentment, anger, anxiety, depression, or feeling overwhelmed by the unreasonable belief that they can do everything without any support from others1. Someone with unhealthy boundaries might also experience others avoiding them or limiting closeness if they have pushed limits or expected too much and created an imbalance of give-and-take in the dynamic.
Common Pitfalls Couples Make When Setting Boundaries
Couples often fall into the trap of avoiding touchy topics or opting out of important but hard, uncomfortable conversations in the name of “boundaries.” This might sound like, “I don’t like this topic; it’s stressful, so we’re done talking about this. You have to respect my limits.” This is an example of a rigid boundary where someone opts out of growth or discomfort by assuming that boundaries are designed to protect against any discomfort. It takes practice and a lot of self-reflection to determine where the line is between feeling appropriately uncomfortable in the name of growth versus unsafe or violated because your partner is using inappropriate words or methods (e.g., manipulation, verbal abuse, emotional terrorism, or punishment) to try to influence you in challenging conversations.
Partners can also fall into the trap of pursuing a topic too forcefully or urgently in the name of trying to “resolve conflict” or holding a boundary of “being heard,” but this can result in disrespecting someone else’s boundaries if a partner needs a break or space to calm down to communicate effectively.
Boundaries are not just about limiting (e.g., saying “no” or protecting yourself) but also intentionally and thoughtfully allowing and accepting influence from others based on what feels appropriate for you. Rigid boundaries may protect you from rejection or hurt, but they don’t allow for vulnerability, connection, or understanding. And overly flexible boundaries may allow you to feel connected initially, but they can result in oversharing, overextending, codependency, and a loss of independence. Finding the right balance between connection and autonomy for each circumstance is key in deciding how flexible a boundary should be.
6 Types of Boundaries
Six different categories of boundaries exist in human relationships: sexual, intellectual, emotional, material, time, and physical. Sexual boundaries are there to protect your safety and sexual preferences. Intellectual boundaries can provide a respectful space for each partner’s opinions and thoughts. Emotional boundaries protect our feelings and relate to “where, what, and how much a person shares their emotional life and how your own and others’ emotional needs are handled”1. Material boundaries protect our possessions and property, time boundaries protect how we spend our time and our time preferences, and physical boundaries protect our personal space and our bodies1.
Boundaries Couples Should Discuss
The conversations you and your spouse or partner have about boundaries should be ongoing, with regular check-ins about how the boundary is or isn’t working, tweaks that may need to be made, and continued clarification of expectations.
Expressions of Hurt and Negative Emotions
Couples must have ongoing conversations about what they consider appropriate versus inappropriate expressions of anger, hurt, resentment, rejection, etc. Healthy conflict is rooted in communication patterns with specific limits related to conflict. Some of these boundaries may sound like:
- It is okay for me to talk about feeling hurt by something you did, but it is not okay for me to tell you what your intentions were.
- It is okay for you to be angry, but it is not okay for you to cuss at me or call me names.
- It is okay for each of us to take a time-out if we are getting too heated, but it is not okay to brush the fight under the rug and never come back to it.
- It is okay for me to seek support from friends or family, but it is not okay for me to vent about you to get loved ones to get them to “pick a side.”
The more openly couples talk about their sexual relationship, the more likely they are to have higher levels of sexual satisfaction and closeness. Discussions around sexual boundaries can include things like:
- What you are and are not okay with your partner saying to you or doing to your body during sex.
- What is the difference between respectfully initiating and pursuing sex versus pressuring or coercing your partner?
- What are ways a partner can talk about a partner feeling rejected or disappointed if the other doesn’t want to have sex without it feeling like emotional punishment for being rejected?
Boundaries with Other People Who May Threaten Your Relationship Agreement
Many couples leave too much unsaid about what is considered appropriate in the way of interactions with other adults where romantic and/or sexual interest could arise. Couples should continually clarify what their relationship agreement says when it comes to things like:
- What is considered “flirting”, and when is this appropriate versus inappropriate?
- What level of physical and emotional closeness is okay to have with other people?
- What safeguards do we as a couple want to have to avoid violating the relationship agreement?
Other boundaries partners can make a priority to get clear about include how much quality time each partner wants to spend with each other, with friends and family, work-life balance boundaries, or media usage.
Healthy boundaries can allow you to be a better person, partner, friend, professional, and human in general. Without healthy boundaries, partners tend to grow resentful about giving too much or receiving too little. It requires a lot of self-reflection with oneself and one’s partner to determine what healthy boundaries look like for each unique partnership. Couples or individual therapy can be a helpful space to sort through what boundaries may be rigid or porous in your relationship(s) and how to strike a healthier balance that allows each partner’s preferences, comfort, time, thoughts, feelings, and safety to matter equally.
Tawwab, N. G. (2021). Set boundaries, find peace: A guide to reclaiming yourself. Little, Brown Book Group.