Boundaries separate us from others physically, socially, and emotionally. We often hear “boundaries” thrown around in regard to relationships that aren’t serving us anymore, whether a recent (or about-to-be) ex, an app match who isn’t getting the not-interested hint, or a homophobic family member. Sometimes, if you haven’t had healthy boundaries up until a certain point, a situation might inspire you to set some. But it can feel way better to incorporate healthy boundaries all the way along – they won’t stop you from winding up in those situations completely, but they are a valuable toolset to use if you do.
Everyone Has Boundaries and Limits
If you meet someone who tells you they don’t really have boundaries and just go with the flow, run. Healthy relationships of any kind depend on boundaries. A boundary is what separates you from another person and delineates your thoughts, feelings, and actions from theirs. You might have boundaries around sex, around touch, around how much time you spend with whom, around what you share with certain people, and about what you ask (or don’t) from certain people. What are some more examples of things people have boundaries around?
If you’ve heard of the lesbian “urge to merge,” boundaries are the opposite of that. And that’s a good thing! Any time of relationship has two (or more) people in it, and boundaries keep it that way.
Boundaries are also just a way to say that what you want is on one side of a line, and what you don’t want is on the other side, with a few important caveats.
Boundaries Say How You Will Behave, Not How You Will Feel or How Others Will Behave or Feel
A healthy boundary describes your needs and actions in a situation, not those of others.
To take a classic example, let’s say you’re in a dating relationship with someone who’s close to their most recent ex. You know that lots of people have such friendships – you actually cat-sat for one of yours last summer when her first sitter bailed at the last minute – but from what your dating partner has told you about the situation, you’ve been wondering if there are unresolved feelings. She also texts her ex when you’re together, has cancelled on you once or twice when her ex got locked out, and brings her up enough that sometimes you feel like you’re dating both of them (and not in a hot way). You know relationships are complicated and evolving, and you’d be okay with any one of these things, but not the picture they paint all together.
An unhealthy way to set a boundary would be to say, “If you don’t stop all contact with your ex, I can’t date you anymore.” Why is this unhealthy? It’s trying to control the way someone else relates to those in their life. It makes the issue about the other person (control), instead of about you (a boundary). It’s also ineffective, because it’s a surface statement – you need her to stop seeing this one ex – instead of getting at the underlying issue – you want a partner who can be emotionally and physically present with you when you’re together.
A healthy way to set a boundary would be to say, “I choose to date only people who can be emotionally present with me.” Why is this healthy? It focuses on the space you need to thrive, not on the way others act or feel. It doesn’t try to control someone else, simply states what you will do in a given situation. And it goes bigger than your interaction with one person to look at your overall needs. You don’t need this one dating partner to block this one ex; you need anyone you date to be able to be present and available for connection with you. It’s okay if she wants to stay that enmeshed with her ex – it just means you can’t date and need to remove yourself from the relationship.
Think of other possible social situations. For each, what are some examples of unhealthy ways to set boundaries, and what are some examples of healthy ways?
Boundaries Require Follow Through
A boundary without follow through is a threat. Stating that you have a boundary around something, and then repeatedly not upholding it, makes what’s happening more about the way the other person responds than about your own boundary, and also weakens that boundary.
For example, say you’re having a Zoom movie date, and you know you need to end the date at 11. You tell your date you’re excited to see them, and just so they know you have to go at 11. At 10:30, they tell you they just want to hang out with you all night, and you laugh and say “same, but I still gotta go in 30.” At 11, your movie ends, and you start to say goodbye – and they, acting jokingly and in a way that makes sense for the conversation, press play on the sequel.
If you follow through on your boundary, it might look like this: you really want to see the sequel, and you’re having such a nice time, and it’s so annoying that you have to get up for work tomorrow anyway. But you said you needed to go to bed at 11, so you unmute your mic and tell them “Ha, I wish!