Boundaries are the limits that we set in relationships to let people know what we will or will not tolerate in our lives. Setting healthy boundaries is a very important part of having healthy, loving, supportive relationships.
The problem with setting healthy boundaries is that many of us grew up in dysfunctional families where we had no boundaries. All too often we had to tolerate the negative talk or behavior that was happening around us in order to simply survive in our unhealthy families.
Healthy Boundaries in Relationships
All healthy relationships need boundaries. Healthy boundaries simply let people know what is and what is not acceptable to you. For example, if you had healthy self-esteem and your partner repeatedly spoke disrespectfully to you, you’d naturally stand up for yourself and let your partner know that you won’t tolerate disrespect. But if your self-esteem was damaged, you may not even know that you have the right to set a boundary.
Healthy boundaries in relationships generally relate to you expecting your partner to treat you with love and respect. When he or she naturally does that, things will go smoothly between you and there is very little conflict. But when he or she is manipulative, dishonest, disrespectful or unkind, you absolutely have the right to speak up and ask for that negative behavior to change.
How to Set Boundaries
It’s perfectly normal if you grew up in a dysfunctional family that you don’t even know the language necessary to set boundaries. That’s not your fault! You can learn to set boundaries even if you feel very uncomfortable at the start.
The way to set boundaries is simply to let your partner know what you will tolerate and what you will not tolerate. For example:
- “It’s fine if you do your household chores on different days if your schedule is busy, but I’m simply not willing to be the only one who cooks and cleans.”
- “I’m very willing to wait for dinner until you can get here so long as you come before 7:00. I’m not willing, however, to eat dinner just before bedtime, because it disturbs my sleep.”
- “It’s totally okay if you need to change our date if you simply let me know in advance, so that I can make other plans. It’s not okay, however, to call me at the last minute after I’ve gotten ready to be with you and there’s not enough time to make arrangements with my other friends.”
Dealing with the Repercussions of Boundaries
Here’s another more challenging example. If your partner were to lie to you and you knew that he or she was lying, a healthy boundary would go something like this: “I love you very much and I really want our relationship to work, but I absolutely can’t tolerate dishonesty. Honesty is very important to me, because that’s what our trust is built on. If you apologize and tell me the truth right now, I’ll let it go this time, but if I find you lying to me again, I’ll have to leave the relationship.”
This type of boundary is more difficult, because obviously it’s pretty scary to leave someone you love. That’s actually why so many people stay in unhealthy relationships and tolerate their partner’s negative behavior. They’re terrified of dealing with the repercussions of setting a boundary. Often, they rationalize the wrong-doing because the pain of leaving seems bigger and scarier to them than the emotional pain of their boundary that was crossed.
Staying in an unhealthy relationship is a painful self-fulfilling prophecy, however. When you are willing to tolerate negative behavior, you’re letting your partner know that it’s okay to continue doing what they are doing. Needless to say, the negative behavior is likely to continue, along with the emotional pain it causes you.
Backing Up Your Boundaries
The only way to establish clear, respectful boundaries is to be absolutely sure that you are willing to follow through on what you have stated was your limit. You have to know that you will do what you said you would do if that happened again.
Boundaries are completely useless if you’re not willing to back up the boundary that you set. If you tell someone you won’t tolerate their dishonesty, but the next time they are dishonest you stay in the relationship anyway, the boundary means absolutely nothing to them.
If you have difficulty backing up your boundaries, you probably need to seek professional help. It’s very important to build your self-esteem to a point where you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you are worth being treated with love and respect and that you will not tolerate anything less!
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