How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

Do you give too much and have trouble setting boundaries in relationships? Are you the friend who says yes to late night drinks even though you haven’t slept in a week and your Christmas decorations are still up in April? Do you make your husband a Bulletproof coffee with organic MCT oil and half a Splenda packet (ack…who still uses Splenda?) every morning while seething with resentment?

I get it. I’ve been there, too.

Growing up I was the good girl. The only one of four kids who did everything right. I cooked. I cleaned. I changed diapers. And after my parents divorced, I gave my mom every cent I earned from my after school job.

Not only did I not have boundaries, I didn’t even know what they were.

No one ever taught me. 

So, I carried my co-dependent, people pleasing nature right into adulthood, where I continually attempted to muster up even an iota of self-esteem by sacrificing my own happiness for the sake of others. I ate food I didn’t like. I stayed up later than I wanted to. I attended events I could care less about.

I lost myself in the pursuit of love and friendship and belonging.

But once I got clear, once I identified my trauma and acknowledged the story I wrote about myself because of that trauma, I learned how to create healthy boundaries for myself and my relationships.

What are boundaries, exactly?

The Oxford Dictionary defines a boundary as “a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.”

When I think of boundaries I envision the scene from Dirty Dancing where Johnny teaches Baby how to dance. 

They barely know one other. 

It’s awkward. 

She’s insecure. 

He’s H.O.T. 

But then, the energy settles when he sets the tone and demonstrates the fundamentals of being a good dance partner.

“This,” he says while drawing an imaginary buffer in front of him, “is my dance space. And this (he draws one in front of Baby), is your dance space.”

“I don’t go into yours. You don’t go into mine. You gotta hold the frame.”

And that’s exactly how you maintain relationship boundaries—by holding the frame.

How do you hold the frame?

You set the tone. You create your space. You show the other person the line that they must not cross.

And just like dancing, when there’s accepted mutual space—a frame—the relationship moves in a smooth rhythm. What happens when the frame is broken? Toes get stepped on. The dance gets choppy or stops all together. We might even get angry with the space violator; or, with more than one injured toe, resentful.

Remember, we need boundaries in all our relationships, not just the romantic ones. Family, friends, and co-workers can all violate our boundaries if we don’t hold the frame. 

To make sure Patrick Swayze would applaud how you hold the frame, here are five ways to create healthy boundaries in your relationships:

1. Be honest but kind

When setting the tone for a relationship of any kind, it’s crucial to be honest about what you won’t accept. This doesn’t mean you should dictate your requirements or bristle up when someone’s five minutes late. Setting healthy boundaries is initiated by forthright conversation spoken in a kind tone. Express your truth and be yourself. But be sure to keep some compassion and empathy on hand for those times when the other person oversteps with pure intentions. 

2. Schedule time for yourself

If you’re in a long term relationship or find yourself in a caregiver role, it can be challenging to hold the frame. It might even feel like you’re getting stepped on all day every day. If that’s the case, then it’s time for a reset. Step away from the routine for a bit. Schedule time for yourself. If you make a date with yourself to do something you enjoy, your emotional and energetic reservoir will fill back up. You see, it’s impossible to give of ourselves to someone when we have nothing to give. If we’re depleted, there’s nothing fueling our day but resentment. And there is no slower, more grueling death to a relationship than resentment. 

3. Exhibit self-love

There’s an old saying that we teach people how to treat us. When we give too much, when we allow our boundaries to be violated, when we live in pain instead of joy, we show others that we don’t love ourselves. We set the bar low for how we expect to be treated. Instead of feeling resentful and victimized, be your own hero. Dig into those parts of you that are strong and sexy, and vibrant. When you speak and act from a place that says “I love myself” you’re telling the world that you won’t accept less than respect and kindness. 

4. Express healthy anger and disappointment

When dancing with a partner there will inevitably be oversteps. That’s life and oftentimes these oversteps are a perfect opportunity to reset the frame of the relationship while testing the strength of our self-commitment. To do this, we must express our anger, frustration, and disappointment in a healthy way. Emotions are just energy. They are not who we are unless we allow them to infiltrate our mindset. 

If there’s a violation of your boundaries, it is perfectly okay to tell the other person how it made you feel. What is not okay is to burst into flaming accusatory mode and decimate the person you care about. Instead, take some time to process what happened. Analyze it. Look for triggers. Was it really a violation or did the tone of it trigger a childhood wound? If, after you try to process your emotions, the charge is still there, then go to the other person and tell them how it made you feel. Don’t be discouraged when this happens. Consider these moments a gift instead of a setback. These conversations often strengthen our relationships. 

5. Don’t be afraid to walk away

Sometimes it just is that the frame is broken beyond repair. Perhaps the person violates your boundaries continually. Maybe they don’t understand boundaries. Maybe they were never taught. And maybe they aren’t willing to learn. One thing I know for sure is this: you can’t love someone into respecting your boundaries. Single-sided love is never enough to hold the frame of a relationship. Think about it. No dance competition can be won if one partner holds the frame while the other has spaghetti arms. Sometimes, you have to be brave. Fearless. You have to love yourself more than you love the other person and you have to walk away. 

Setting boundaries in relationships is a powerful way to honor ourselves. When we’re rising above our old stories, we need a safe space to be ourselves. In that space, we can be with others while still learning who we are and what we want.  Setting boundaries is how we find emotional freedom–we can stay true to ourselves while experiencing the depths of intimacy and love. 

And for all of you out there looking for romantic love, keep holding the frame. With enough time and practice you’ll find a partner who will meet your frame with a firm clasp and hungry eyes. (Wink, wink.) 

Oh, and just in case you need a reminder about how to hold the frame, click here

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