How to Establish Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

How to Establish Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

How do we establish boundaries in relationships?

Relationship boundaries are the rules or expectations for interacting with each other that determine how independent – or interdependent – two people will be (Baucom et al., 1996). Firm boundaries generally lead to more independence, while less firm boundaries encourage the two people to share and rely on each other more. For example, in a romantic relationship, couples will often have different boundaries about how partners behave in response to feeling attraction to other people. A firm boundary might require that each partner disclose attractions as soon as they are felt, while a looser one might be that partners never speak of their attractions. Both of these boundaries can help a couple feel safe in their relationship – it’s just a matter of what the couple wants.

It is a basic idea of couple’s therapy and family therapy that boundaries that are not rigid enough, or too rigid, will result in difficulties in that given relationship (Minuchin, 1974). This may be true of all relationships: successful connection exists when the two people find the right mix of closeness and distance, as established by relationship boundaries. Since we and our worlds are always changing, this means most relationships will need to continually negotiate boundaries.

Benefits of Boundaries In Relationships

A primary benefit of boundaries in relationships is that they help us manage the balance between two key needs of ours: to be related to others and to be self-defining (Blatt, 2008). We all have an integral need for a positive identity that draws on how we understand ourselves to be singular and unique, and we all need some degree of intimacy with other people. To grow into a healthy, functioning adult, we must successfully overcome challenges in both directions (Luyten & Blatt, 2013) so that we can meet our continually changing needs for both connection and autonomy.

How to Set Boundaries in Relationships

The simplest way to set boundaries in relationships is to talk about them, something that most romantic couples do at some point in their relationship (Richters et al., 2014). Many times, couples assume that rules are implicitly understood, which leads to difficulties when partners realize that they actually have different definitions of “being on time” or “being faithful” or “putting our relationship first” (Petronio, 2002). When rules are not clear, or there is incompatibility between the expectations each person has, relationship tension is sure to follow (Petronio, 2002).

For these reasons, boundaries in relationships must be set through transparent and direct communication. When issues of boundaries come up, each person involved should take some time to reflect on what boundaries would work best for them. They can then articulate this to the other person, perhaps in a format like this: “I want us to interact at least once a day, even just through a quick text. This will help me feel that we are connected, but not feel pressured to say a lot if I’m feeling like taking time to myself. This way, I will want to talk to you, but not end up resenting how much we ‘have to’ talk.”

“We need to have a talk on the subject of what’s yours and what’s mine.”
― Stieg Larsson

How to Enforce Boundaries in Relationships

Boundaries in relationships also help us understand our relationships – they provide a meaningful context in which to interpret another person’s behavior (Hill et al., 2010). Think about how it feels to be hugged by somebody you know closely and deeply trust; now, imagine being hugged by a coworker you just met, or with whom you’ve never spoken. Not so warm and cozy, right?

We can enforce boundaries by referring back to the nature of the relationship. For example, getting a highly personal question from a coworker might be the moment to gently say, “That’s not the kind of topic that I usually discuss at work.” At the same time, if a family member questions your decision-making at work, you might want to respond with a gentle boundary setting: “I love hearing your concern for me, but you’re my brother, not my supervisor. If I want advice about professional matters, I will ask for it.”

In Sum

Whether you’ve thought about it or not, each of your relationships feature boundaries. In some relationships, boundaries may be a challenge for you, the other person, or both of you. Take the time to consider what your needs are for boundaries in each relationship. It is always worth it to articulate these needs to the other person – it usually makes the relationship stronger as a result.


● Baucom, D. H., Epstein, N., Rankin, L. A., & Burnett, C. K. (1996). Assessing relationship standards: the inventory of specific relationship standards. Journal of Family Psychology, 10(1), 72-88.

● Blatt, S. J. (2008). Polarities of experience: Relatedness and self-definition in personality development, psychopathology, and the therapeutic process. American Psychological Association.

● Hill, I., Pilkonis, P. A., & Bear, I. (2010). Social domains, personality, and interpersonal functioning. In L. M. Horowitz & S. Strack (Eds.), Handbook of interpersonal psychology: Theory, research, assessment, and therapeutic interventions (pp. 281). John Wiley & Sons.

● Luyten, P., & Blatt, S. J. (2013). Interpersonal relatedness and self-definition in normal and disrupted personality development: retrospect and prospect. American Psychologist, 68(3), 172-183.

● Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and family therapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

● Petronio, S. (2002). Boundaries of privacy: Dialectics of disclosure. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

● Richters, J., Heywood, W., Pitts, M. K., Shelley, J. M., Simpson, J. M., Patrick, K., & Smith, A. M. (2014). Who’s cheating? Agreements about sexual exclusivity and subsequent concurrent partnering in Australian heterosexual couples. Sexual Health, 11(6), 524-531