How to set boundaries in relationships and actually stick to them

Laying down some ground rules with a date is awkward and scary, and we hate it. But it matters – a lot. Our resident agony aunt Beth Ashley is here to show you how it’s done.

Alright, Beth. Something’s weighing on my mind…

I’m all ears.

I know boundaries are important, but don’t know how to set them.

Well, you’re not alone. A lot of couples struggle to lay down their personal boundaries in romantic relationships. But as hard as they can be to discuss, they’re the stuff of great relationships. Discussing boundaries – what you like and don’t like, what makes you uncomfortable and what you absolutely cannot tolerate – prevents arguments or even breakups from happening further down the line.

OK, but what actually counts as a boundary?

For a lot of couples, these guides can cover sex, family, longterm goals, overall expectations, privacy, such as what you share online from your relationship, and whether or not they’re allowed to talk to exes. And these boundaries don’t have an expiry date. It’s even important to communicate boundaries if you break up, particularly if you plan on remaining pals. And boundaries are not just about saying no to things, they’re also how we communicate what we do want. Personally, my boundary is not eating children’s food in front of me and I think that’s fair enough.

Why are we so bad at boundaries, then?

Often, we struggle with laying down our boundaries because we don’t want to deal with the emotional consequences of saying no. We also don’t want the people we love to feel like they’re being rejected or told off. As humans, we’re natural peacemakers and people-pleasers – sometimes to a fault.

There’s also some good ol’ codependency and fear of abandonment issues involved for some people. Setting boundaries can feel frightening because we feel like there’s a risk of rejection.

It’s a lot, I know. But thankfully, there are ways to learn basic boundary-setting, helping you to set and manage those all-important boundaries so everyone can feel comfy and confident.

Do tell.

I’m no expert, but psychotherapist and author of When Love Bites Cathy Press is. She says you have a right to be explicit about your boundaries and ensure that those in your life know what they are.

Any good friend, colleague, family member or partner will respect your boundaries because they really care about you,” she tells us. Personal boundaries are yours and are not up for negotiation. If your partner says or does something that makes you feel uncomfortable, let them know. Tell them it isn’t acceptable to you. If it is a healthy relationship, they will listen and respect your feelings and your boundaries.”

But that makes me feel bad!

Of course it does. If there’s any two things British people are, it’s:

1) Awkward when it comes to talking about feelings

2) Over-polite to the point where our own feelings are squashed

That stiff upper lip might work in some settings, but it needs throwing out of the window when it comes to relationships. That means no more feeling bad about speaking up on what you need or want from your partner. Pinpoint what you need, ask for it, and enjoy your new boundary-supported connection.

Still feeling nervy? Well, that in itself could be a warning sign. If you are apprehensive or afraid of telling your partner what your boundaries are, you should consider that your relationship may not be the healthy one you might have thought it was,” says Press. Not respecting boundaries can clearly be seen as a red flag in abusive and controlling relationships.”

Ask yourself: are you worried about setting boundaries because it’s simply nerve-racking and you’re not sure how to go about it, or is there something about your partner specifically that invokes fear? If it’s the latter, then get out ASAP.

Now that I think about it, I’m not 100 per cent sure what my boundaries even are. How can I tell someone else if I’m not sure myself?

Fear not. We can all take a hot minute to figure out what we like, dislike, want to try more of and never want to hear about again. Being a human is all about trial and error, so don’t expect to have god-tier self awareness that maps out your wants and needs straight away.

Take time to think about what you like and don’t like by remembering what you’ve enjoyed in the past, as well as the moments you’d rather forget. What might you need or desire from the people around you to achieve or avoid certain situations?

You could also start by looking at characters in TV programmes you watch and ask yourself what you think about how they relate to one another as a starting point,” suggests Press. What are you prepared to tolerate? What will you not accept? What kind of behaviour makes you feel uncomfortable? Do you believe someone’s personal information should be shared and would this be acceptable if someone shared personal things about you?”

Take our friends Ross and Rachel, for instance. When you watch them painstakingly attempt a romantic relationship, do you think it’s cute when Ross sends a thousand gifts to Rachel’s office when she works late, or do you think it’s weird and annoying? If it’s the latter, there’s a good chance you’d absolutely hate this situation if you were in Rachel’s shoes. Voila! Now you have a boundary to set.

Got it. Watch more Friends. But I’m still figuring things out. Won’t my boundaries change all the time?

Me too, mate. I used to like certain sex acts and then, out of nowhere, they started giving me the ick. I had to reset some sexual boundaires, right in the middle of a long-term relationship. Having the heeeeeeeeeey, I used to like that thing you do but now I really don’t” conversation can be awkward, but it’s necessary.

Press says that life experiences change and shape you, and with that, you might have a shift in perspective – you know, how you view certain acts or gestures, or even how you value yourself. And that’s OK. The most important thing is to communicate it. Remember: boundaries help both people in a relationship to understand one another, know where they stand so they can only respect, value and honour your feelings,” she says.

And if my partner doesn’t like my boundaries?

How considerate of them to offer you such an obvious red flag that means you can dump them with confidence. Sorry, but you’ve got to throw the whole person away. Your boundaries are not questions, they’re protective instructions. If someone finds crossing the line to be more important than your comfort, they’re a total tit. Bye.

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