We often think of boundaries in relationships as rules that create distance between people, but actually, the opposite is true. Relationship boundaries keep people in, not out. They create safe spaces where we feel seen and heard.
Healthy boundaries strengthen relationships because they’re grounded in assertiveness and respect for one another—characteristics that make relationships more meaningful and enjoyable. Let’s explore examples of boundaries in relationships, how to set boundaries in relationships, and why relationship boundaries are so important for your well-being.
As author and researcher Brené Brown, PhD, explains, healthy boundaries in relationships are “what’s okay with you, and what’s not okay with you.” They’re roadmaps for interactions and behaviors that we find acceptable or unacceptable. Boundaries help us live our values and priorities by setting physical or emotional limits that protect our well-being, mental health, and comfort. They’re a type of self-care and a life skill we can keep learning, practicing, and improving. Boundaries are important in any type of relationship—children, partners, co-workers, parents, siblings, or friends.
Healthy relationship boundaries are essential because they promote balance, respect, and physical and emotional well-being. When we set and maintain boundaries in a relationship, the other person has a clear understanding of how they should interact with us. This helps us feel safe, respected, and cared for—because of this, we show up better for that relationship.
Relationship boundaries can help:
There are several types of boundaries in relationships, and they often overlap. Here are some key examples of boundaries in relationships.
Physical boundaries are how you take care of your body and your physical environment. They revolve around touch, personal space, and your physical needs.
Emotional boundaries protect your right to your own feelings and thoughts without criticism or dismissiveness from others.
Sexual boundaries are what we’re willing to do and feel comfortable with in our sex life. This can include touch, sight, and the way we want to be treated in a sexual context.
Time boundaries are limits we set around how we spend our time. This is a big one, and something that’s especially difficult for many of us.
Spiritual boundaries can come in different forms and aren’t always about religion. They can feel very similar to emotional ones, but spiritual boundaries center around your right to your personal beliefs.
Financial boundaries in relationships are limits you set around spending money and sharing information about your finances.
Cultural boundaries can include generational and cross-cultural challenges. These types of boundaries in relationships can be particularly complex and personal. Sometimes what one person views as a healthy boundary in their culture, another person has a problem with because they’re viewing it through the lens of their own culture. This gets complicated because you may want to respect the perspective of the other person while staying true to your own values. Cultural boundaries center around customs, traditions, and beliefs and may include:
There can be a cultural gap between younger and older generations as values change and evolve. For example, parents may come from a generation that believes children do as they say and parents have a right to all of their children’s personal information because they’re the parents. What we often see in families now is a younger generation that’s much more ready and willing to set clear boundaries than their parents. This includes youth and adult children. Examples of boundaries in a relationship that could be tied to generational differences include:
In general, if a boundary preserves your well-being and keeps you safe physically and emotionally, it’s a healthy one. Boundaries that impose on your well-being and safety may be unhealthy ones. On paper, some boundaries in relationships can seem healthy, but if you dig into them, they aren’t. Here are some examples of healthy and unhealthy boundaries in a relationship.
Unhealthy boundaries in relationships are those that are too rigid, too loose, or harm your or another’s emotional or physical well-being. For example, say you’re in a new relationship. You may tell the other person that you want to be exclusive. That makes you feel safe and is a healthy boundary for you. Another person could take this to the extreme though. Perhaps “exclusive” to them means they can demand access to your phone and passwords or forbid you from talking to others. In this case, exclusivity sounds like a healthy boundary, but really, it undermines someone else’s freedom and well-being.
Other examples of unhealthy boundaries in relationships:
In my work, I often meet with people who struggle with setting boundaries or have set boundaries that were crossed. This is particularly painful because it’s difficult to set boundaries at all and people may lose the confidence needed to set them again once they’re crossed. People with a strong desire to please others tend to think they’ll be more successful or get more validation if they continue to say yes, but this can result in burnout, anxiety, or resentment.
Here are a few signs you may need to start setting boundaries in a relationship:
In both personal and work relationships, burnout can be a sign that there are boundaries to set in a relationship. Maybe you feel obligated to say “yes” even when doing so doesn’t align with your values or needs. Perhaps your friend vents excessively or you feel pressured to take on a co-worker’s responsibilities. Ask yourself, “What do I need that I haven’t asked for yet?”
Resentment may stem from burnout. Maybe you’re taking on more than your share of work, home, or financial responsibilities in a relationship. You blame the other person for crossing a boundary you haven’t set with them. You hope they’ll finally “just get it” or that you’ll do enough that the situation will fix itself. This approach may feel safer than speaking up and stating your needs and expectations. The trade-off is you’ll continue to feel overwhelmed and resentful, and your well-being and the health of the relationship may suffer.
If someone crosses a boundary you haven’t enforced, you may start to feel anxious. For instance, if a co-worker repeatedly asks you to take on their work, you may begin to feel nervous every time you get an email from them or run into them at work. You may feel on high alert, anticipating another ask from the person you feel is taking advantage of you.
Putting others’ needs above yours can prevent you from taking the time and space to care for yourself. You don’t have a chance to recharge. Irritability can be an offshoot of the resentment, anxiety, and burnout you feel if you’re not setting boundaries in a relationship.
If you’re not used to setting boundaries, you may want to start with smaller boundaries (“Please don’t tell those types of jokes around me”) and work your way up to larger ones (“If you continue to tell those types of jokes around me, I’ll report you to human resources”). Once you set boundaries, it’s important to maintain them. Some people may keep crossing a boundary even after you’ve clearly stated it. This can feel unfair and exhausting, but these situations are exactly the ones where it’s crucial to keep enforcing your boundary and the consequences of crossing it.
Here are some tips for setting healthy boundaries in relationships.
The foundation for setting boundaries in a relationship begins with clarity and self-awareness about what’s making you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. It’s helpful to journal about this or explore it with a friend or therapist who can help you become clear and confident on the boundaries to set in a relationship. Ask yourself, “What do I need to feel comfortable?” “What will enhance my well-being?” Write this down.
You also want to be clear on the consequences if a boundary is crossed. For example, if your boundary is requesting that your partner stop speaking to you disrespectfully, maybe your consequence is that you’ll leave the room or the house until they apologize and you feel ready to return.
After you’ve identified boundaries and consequences, it’s time to communicate them. It can be anxiety-provoking trying to anticipate how the other person will react. It can be helpful to role play with a friend or therapist. If you’re not clear on what you’re going to say, your request may seem confusing, or you may backtrack on your boundary. There’s no way to know how it’ll go in real time, but role playing is a good way to get honest feedback and gain confidence.
Timing matters. Some people like to immediately respond to breached boundaries, while others need time to reflect. Ideally, you want to talk about relationship boundaries when you’re both calm, not in the middle of a disagreement or stressful situation. You may feel hesitant about setting boundaries in a relationship when things are smooth because you don’t want to ruin a good moment by bringing it up. This is exactly when you should discuss boundary issues—when you’re able to listen and speak thoughtfully and respectfully.
Once you’ve communicated your boundaries in a relationship, it’s time to maintain them. Not following through with consequences when a boundary is crossed is like giving someone permission to continue the behavior. Reinforce your boundary by following through with consequences each time. If a person continues to cross your boundaries, you’ll have to determine what action you’d like to take or if you want to keep them in your life.
Sometimes getting help from a mental health professional is important for boundary work. Trouble with boundary-setting can be a symptom of deeper issues like low self-esteem, codependency, or trauma. Here are a few situations that indicate you might need help learning how to set boundaries in a relationship.
Therapy can help you address the underlying reasons for unhealthy boundaries in relationships. For example, you may reprocess trauma so you feel safer setting a boundary. Or you may explore why you find boundary-setting hard and address symptoms stemming from poor boundaries like anxiety, depression, and stress.
One of the main things to remember about setting boundaries in a relationship is that it starts with your belief that you deserve boundaries. Some people have a hard time setting boundaries because they struggle with self-worth. They don’t believe they have a right to boundaries. If you feel this way, start there.
Whether you do it on your own or get guidance from a therapist or mental health coach, you need to explore where that message is coming from, then challenge the belief and adopt a more accurate one. When you value yourself and believe you’re worthy of respect, love, and kindness, boundary-setting becomes a natural form of self-care.