Boundaries are so important, we’re told constantly. “She isn’t respecting my boundaries,” we might hear a friend say about her ex; “I need to set a boundary,” a friend might tell us when we ask for help moving. The idea of setting boundaries is much more commonplace and accepted than it was even five years ago, and most of us have taken on the mandate that we need to be setting boundaries in our relationships for them to be healthy. So why are our personal lives, collectively, still challenging and fraught? Why hasn’t setting boundaries with your difficult parents, boss, or partner magically transformed the relationship?
The truth is that “boundaries” has joined terminology like “gaslighting” in being a term whose meaning is so broadly applied that it’s become almost meaningless. While no single action or psychological technique can fix every problem in your life, setting boundaries can in fact be transformational — but for most of us, setting boundaries isn’t what we’re actually doing. Here’s what most of us are missing when it comes to boundaries.
Identify what’s NOT a boundary
A shocking number of things we might be trying — or see others doing — when we work to set boundaries aren’t actually boundaries at all. Do any of these look familiar?
- Telling others to stop or change their behavior – “Don’t text me to come over after 10 pm; it makes me feel like you only want me for sex.”
- Communicating discomfort, disapproval, or disconnect of values: “It really hurts my partner’s feelings and makes them feel unwelcome here when you insist on using the wrong pronouns for them.”
- Proscribing others’ behavior within a relationship: “If we’re together, you don’t talk to your exes.”
Some of these things are completely normal and appropriate in a relationship — although that last one can be a marker of using the terminology of wellness to exert coercive control — but none of them are actually setting boundaries. These are, at best, communication. Even rejections of others’ behavior that feel very firm or even “mean” to us — “Talking to me that way is unacceptable” — don’t actually constitute setting boundaries, although they might create the context for boundaries we can set separately.
Communication is always good, and key to a healthy relationship – but the goal of setting boundaries is different than the goal of communication. The latter is giving those around you more information about your values and personal experience to inform their decisions; setting boundaries is a method to manage how your relationships impact you and maintaining a level of control around your time, energy, and well-being.
Focus on boundaries around your actions, not others
What’s the key difference, then, between communication and boundaries? Boundaries are, counter to many people’s belief, not about managing other people’s behavior — they’re about managing your own.
Let me explain what that means. It’s crucial to understand in this context that we can’t control others’ behavior, even when their behavior is genuinely out of line; it’s just not possible. We can only control our own. But far from helpless, focusing on what we can impact gives us a lot of power in dynamics with others, and that’s what boundaries are for. Setting a boundary means following up communication about the behavior that’s unacceptable with a concrete action you’re going to take in response to it. The boundary is realized when you actually follow through on that action.
What would that look like in the situations we outlined above?
- “It makes me feel disposable when I get a text after 10 pm asking me to come over for just sex. I don’t answer texts like that, and if it continues, we probably aren’t compatible and I’ll respectfully move on.”
- “It really hurts my partner’s feelings and makes them feel unwelcome here when you insist on using the wrong pronouns for them. If it happens again, we’re going to head out and get a hotel room instead of staying here.”
- “I’m not comfortable being in a relationship where my partner is still in touch with their exes; I understand those relationships are important to you, so I think we’d work better as friends than romantic partners.”
In each of these situations, you aren’t relying on the other person to take your cues or agree with your take; you’re outlining the action you’re going to take on your own if the behavior continues. You can’t control the choices other people make, but you can control the way(s) you shift your relationship in response to their choices — up to and including not having a relationship anymore at all.
We can see, then, that there’s no way for someone else to “violate your boundaries” as such — boundaries are something you maintain through a commitment to consistent actions that align with your own needs and values. Someone else can act in ways that contradict your values or agreements within the relationship — but you always have a choice of how you respond.
Be specific and action-oriented
This is the fundamental meaning of setting boundaries — but within that, It’s important to remember that your boundaries should be specific and action-oriented. Truly using boundaries to maintain your well-being and align with your values means thinking through what issues actually crop up and what’s a realistic and effective boundary to set. For example, “I don’t date people who don’t respect my time” is a strong start, but its execution is vague. A more effective boundary is “If someone is late without giving me a heads up, I’ll initiate a conversation with them about it; if they continue to be late to plans with me without communicating, I’ll go home and cancel the date.” Or, another version: “Let’s focus on making plans at your place, so I’m not left waiting for you at a meeting place.”
Follow through, prepare to repeat yourself, and watch your relationships change
The other key to effective boundaries is, like everything in relationships, consistency and follow-through. If you’ve said you’re going to set a boundary by leaving a party and going home when your partner drinks more than you’re both comfortable with, it’s crucial that you commit to actually doing this — every time. Setting boundaries does work to transform relationships, but only over a long period of time, during which you’ve committed to honoring that boundary consistently.
This may be tougher to do than it sounds — the early stages of a new boundary or a shift in the dynamic of the relationship are typically the hardest. We all struggle with change, and many people will feel frustrated, hurt, judged, or punished by a boundary — even though, again, in most cases, it’s a way you’re trying to make sure a relationship can continue. You may face some pushback or hurt feelings when you first set a boundary; however, if you backtrack on it, you’ll likely still be dealing with hurt feelings and also still be dealing with the behavior you resent. Sticking to your boundary and following through on it consistently helps build your own self-trust and sense of agency, and also helps to reshape the relationship; it carves out a way of relating to each other that doesn’t include the behavior that upsets you, allowing for more genuine and enjoyable connection.
You’ll notice that many of the actions in these examples involve temporarily withdrawing access or ending interaction with someone; this is often how boundaries function in real life because since we can’t control others’ behavior, we most often choose to not be present to subject ourselves to the behavior. This doesn’t mean you’re punishing anyone, or that you need to (or should) cut someone out of your life every time they upset you. setting boundaries is typically a way to work to maintain the relationship rather than be forced to end it because the behavior is a dealbreaker for you. Boundaries are also a way to prevent resentment from growing within a relationship; if you find yourself seething over how much you’re putting into a relationship because you have a hard time saying no, setting boundaries can help release and prevent that resentment for a better relationship.
If you do need to withdraw or change the terms of a relationship as a way of setting a boundary, this information should be communicated calmly and neutrally, not vindictively or with the intent to let the other person know they’ve messed up and should feel bad.
Most of these boundaries are much smaller and lower stakes than ending the relationship: explicitly changing the topic if an issue you’ve previously said you won’t discuss comes up in conversation; politely declining invites to parties if someone you don’t want to share space with is there; telling friends and family you’ll only be accepting invites to social events if they’re outdoors or fully masked indoors. Every choice you make to prioritize your own needs with firm, compassionate boundaries will make your relationships — and your life — healthier.