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How To Develop Healthy Boundaries in Your Relationship

Here's how to draw the line on unhealthy boundaries in your romantic relationship, straight from the experts.

couple holding hands overlooking the seine river
WestEnd61/Getty Images

couple holding hands overlooking the seine river
WestEnd61/Getty Images

The start of a relationship is a happy time: those initial butterflies, the surge of excitement when you see their name pop up in a text message, and the thrill of every first. As your connection grows and deepens, however, it’s essential to create a solid foundation. This not only ensures you will have a prosperous romantic relationship, but it teaches both parties how to set healthy boundaries. After all, no matter how alike you may be to your partner, everyone has their limitations with personal space, communication, affection, and work/life balance. By setting emotional and physical boundaries, you will both feel happier and heard within your union. Here, we'll explore everything you need to know about setting boundaries in your relationship. 

How setting healthy boundaries creates a healthy relationship:

To put it simply, dating coach Kali Rogers says healthy boundaries are essential to any fulfilling and sustaining relationship. “A boundary is simply an invisible line that protects a person's personal space — which includes their values, time, and non-negotiables,” she continues. “Without boundaries, relationships lack structure and respect. And we can easily fall into toxic patterns which in turn brew resentment, jealousy, anger, and unnecessary pain.”

While vital, it isn’t always easy to express what you need, what you consider a dealbreaker, what irritates you and what speaks to your love language. Many people worry about coming across as demanding or difficult and worry setting boundaries can turn away the other person. However, the opposite is true: if a person is sincerely serious about your romantic relationship, they will respect your boundaries, as well as their own. 

Begin by knowing your own boundary violations. 

If you don't know your own personal limits, Rogers says it's going to feel almost impossible to set a boundary within your romantic relationship. Boundaries will shift and change as your dynamic progresses, but they can be straightforward things in the beginning. Boundary issues only become issues if you do not draw the line in the beginning. 

As Rogers explains, in early dating, it can be how long you're willing to stay out with each other, how often you'd like to see each other during the week, comfort limits regarding interactions with exes, intimacy, and even how much you're willing to commit financially to the relationship. 

“Before setting a boundary, it's best to explore your limits fully,” Rogers says. “Get curious about where you see the relationship in six months, a year, or five years. Ask yourself what you're comfortable giving and what you need more time and reflection for to move forward. The more comfortable you get with your own limitations, the easier setting boundaries will be.”

Boundaries in a relationship preserve mental and emotional stability

Everyone comes to a new relationship with history. While some have a longer dating record than others, no one has a fully clean slate as they fall in love. Over time, we learn to spot red flags, how to prioritize our own self-care and well-being, and to honor our own feelings. According to Jolene Beaton, a dating and relationship coach and matchmaker with Its Just Lunch, people often have unhealed trauma from childhood or past relationships that were unsafe or toxic, which motivates them to set boundaries. 

To give their connection a fighting chance, they tend to speak up early so they are heard, understood and valued by their significant other. By doing this, they are preserving their personal mental health and emotional stability, which makes them a better partner. 

“Healthy boundaries matter in relationships because they help people feel secure and have a sense of identity. They can also build trust and a stronger connection between the couple,” she continues. “Once each other’s boundaries are established and honored, a couple can focus on ‘the good stuff' like desire, passion, routine and family.”

Have patience when setting relationship boundaries. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we only had to have a single conversation with our friends or romantic partners about setting boundaries? One quick chat — and you’re good to go, forever and ever! The reality, however, is all relationship boundaries require multiple conversations and compromise, Beaton reminds. It’s unfair to assume someone fully understands you, or you understand them with a one-time sentence. “Ask them to elaborate or tell you the story around their thoughts and feelings if you’re uncertain in any way. Healthy boundaries are created when people understand each other’s viewpoints and are honest with one another,” she says. 

Beaton says it can be helpful for those new to setting physical boundaries or emotional boundaries to start with one boundary at a time so you don’t become overwhelmed or intimated. “Try not to use harsh language when discussing that boundary: you don’t want your partner to feel judged or to shut down,” she adds. 

Statements like "When you do or say this, I feel that and would like it if we did X instead" are a good way to ease into the conversation.

Practice healthy communication early and often. 

If you’re already in a relationship and have yet to have the boundary-setting discussion, you may stress that opening up a can of worms will cause chaos. However, no matter the stage you’re in, communication will help you to articulate your own needs. And more importantly, it will lessen the likelihood of creating detrimental relationship habits, like codependency or a lack of mutual respect. 

The key is to start chatting early and often. “Boundaries require constant communication. Stories about where the boundary originated from, examples of how those boundaries could be violated, and even the consequences that will happen should those boundaries be disrespected,” Rogers says. “Couples who are on the same page about their boundaries know each other's limits and values easily. While boundaries will always need to be communicated, couples who have both their boundaries and their partner's boundaries down will not be surprised or taken off guard when one is expressed.”

Talk about the types of boundaries. 

There are all types of boundaries, but they can be grouped into a few key categories:

  • Emotional boundaries: How your partner treats you, speaks to you and meets your emotional needs through various love languages, and so on.

  • Physical boundaries: How much personal space both parties need, how intimate you want to be, your PDA level, and so on.

  • Sexual boundaries: What you want and need in bed, your sexual limitations, mutual respect for each other’s comfort levels, and so on.

To dig into these types of boundaries, explore different topics, recommends Megwyn White, a certified clinical sexologist and the director of education at Satisfyer. “These can span from financial, work-life balance, intimacy, and beyond. When these conversations come to an end, add a touch in the form of hugging, cuddling, kissing or even making love if it’s the right time,” she shares as examples of healthy boundaries.

Listen more than you talk. 

Talking is important, but White reminds couples to also listen. “Listening and valuing each other’s perspectives, including the emotions that come along with boundaries, are all a part of building mutual respect,” she continues. “After all, proper communication could lead to further growth and development in a relationship, which could reduce stress in the long run.”

To let your partner know that you’ve heard them, she recommends saying a confirmation phrase like ‘I’m hearing that you feel..and that correct?’ “Mirroring what they're saying will help to validate their emotions and help to define the personal boundary,” she adds.

Be confident enough to walk away if healthy boundaries are violated. 

Though it is a worst-case scenario result, Rogers says that if a couple wants to have clear boundaries in a romantic relationship, they must be willing to walk away if these limitations are consistently violated. And while boundaries are not meant to be ruthless, they do draw the line on what is acceptable—and what is not. “They should orbit around issues that are considered 'non-negotiables' in relationships,” she continues. “Other little things, such as annoyances, don't require boundaries. No person or relationship is perfect, so setting boundaries over small, inconsequential behaviors is unnecessary.” 

However, because of the severe nature of boundaries, couples must accept and acknowledge the fact that constant violation of boundaries might mean the dissolution of the relationship, she reminds. Hopefully, though, you can grow together with open communication and regular check-ins—and not apart as you set boundaries for a healthy relationship.