I regularly hear questions like “What do I do when my partner is being difficult?” or “How do I make my spouse stop doing that?” Usually, they’re just looking to make their life easier—but if only it were that simple! The real answer to these questions lies in understanding what healthy relationship boundaries look like.
The principles of relationship boundaries
Relationship boundaries are like property boundaries. I don’t have to paint my house blue because you tell me to. Similarly, I do not have the right to choose your patio tiles. My domain ends at our property line, where yours starts.
In a relationship, having boundaries means recognizing that we are separate people, with different wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings. I am in control of me. I don’t make my thoughts, feelings, or actions your responsibility. Also, I can listen to you—and others—but ultimately, I get to decide for myself what’s best for me.
In the same way, you are in control of you. You don’t make your thoughts, feelings, or actions my problem. Likewise, I can try to inform or influence you, but you get to decide what’s best for you. My son had this concept nailed at the age of 7 when he told his older sister, “You are not the boss of me!”
What do healthy relationship boundaries look like?
If we have good relationship boundaries, the following will likely be true:
- We each have friends outside of the relationship.
- We each have our own interests and hobbies outside of the things we like to do together.
- We weigh in on each other’s choices, but don’t try to decide for one another.
- We each respect our partner’s differences.
- We ask for what we need and want, but accept that our partner might not always give it.
- We do nice things for our partner without expecting them to return the favor, and vice-versa.
- We’re able to accept and move on from a relationship if it comes to an end.
Why relationship boundaries feel uncomfortable
I’m going to be honest—this idea of having boundaries in a relationship makes me anxious. This is especially true when my wife’s actions affect me, or when I have to accept that she can’t or won’t give me what I ask for. It can feel like how I experience our relationship is out of my control.
Another reason why boundaries may seem odd is the false narrative we often have about relationships. Isn’t our partner supposed to “become one” with us and anticipate our needs? Won’t all of this independence inside a relationship destroy the close connection we want?
The problem with unhealthy relationship boundaries
Not quite. Look again at the couple pictured above. Sure, they are sharing a moment of closeness, but they are also terribly unstable. If one sways to the right or left, they’ll both lose their balance and fall. This is a good metaphor for what happens when we need our partner to think, talk, or act a certain way for us to be okay.
Relying on our partner to maintain our own balance is not sustainable. They’ll never get it exactly right and they’ll soon become resentful—especially if we try to make them take care of our needs. We’re only setting ourselves up for disappointment and conflict when we give away our power to make ourselves feel better.
Now imagine the same two people standing upright. They can still get close, but if either moves, it does not affect the other. They’re standing solidly on their own two feet. As scary as it feels to allow our mate to do as they please, it’s the only way to have a relationship that works well.
Where do unhealthy relationship boundaries come from?
Healthy relationship boundaries are a result of having a good sense of personal security and self-esteem, which we develop early in life. But certain childhood experiences can leave us with a weak sense of safety, identity, and self-worth. As a result, we end up with a poor sense of boundaries.
Some of us feel like we “need” our loved one to say or do certain things in order for us to maintain our sense of stability. If they think, talk, or act differently than we want, we feel off-balance or even angry. In response to our discomfort, we try to bring them back into line. In other words, we try to control them so we can feel safe and secure again. This coping method may seem to work in the moment, but it’s a terrible habit that will only result in disappointment, resentment, or worse.
Others of us allow our loved ones to disrespect our boundaries and make their problems our problem because we “need” the relationship to feel secure. We don’t say “no” to unacceptable behavior because we’re too afraid of losing our connection with that person. Being alone triggers terrible anxiety and makes us feel unlovable.
Notice that in both of these cases, the key word is need. Needing our partner to behave in certain ways, or needing to be in a relationship to feel okay, set us up for trouble. In contrast, having a solid sense of self-esteem frees us to want a relationship, and fully enjoy the blessings it brings.
How to stop overstepping your boundaries
Back to our original question: when your partner is doing something you don’t like, what do you do? How do you stop your mate from doing something that hurts you?
Start by simply recognizing what is in your domain and what is outside of it. It’s actually very liberating to realize that there is only one thing that we have the ability – and responsibility – to control: ourselves. The popular saying “not my circus, not my monkeys” captures this perfectly.
When annoyed by another person and tempted to control or change them, brainstorm how you can think about the situation differently. Often, we realize that we’re not as affected by their poor choices as we think we are. Here are a couple of examples:
- Your wife uses social media to air petty complaints about your kid’s school. You advise her that she may be damaging her reputation, but she ignores your warning. She may sound ridiculous, but you realize that it doesn’t really reflect on you—you don’t need to be embarrassed.
- You are afraid that your husband will have an affair. If he does, that will make him a cheater, but it says nothing about you. You can end your marriage if it happens, but you don’t have to prevent him from making the mistake.
What to do when someone oversteps your boundaries
Does this mean that we just have to suck it up and let our neighbor, boss, or partner walk all over us? Absolutely not! We’re not doing the other person any favors by tolerating, and therefore enabling, bad behavior. And we’re certainly not taking good care of ourselves by putting up with treatment that is unacceptable.
The key is to take reasonable and appropriate actions in response. If our neighbor’s party got too loud, we could politely ask them to keep it down. We can even file a noise complaint if they chose to ignore our request. But it would never be reasonable or appropriate to respond by, say, punching them in the face. That would only put the focus on our poor self-control and make it too easy for them, and everyone else, to miss what started it.
Similarly, when our partner crosses a line that we find unacceptable, we can ask them to stop. If they continue, it is absolutely appropriate to create natural consequences. However, the severity of these consequences should be appropriate for the severity of the offense.
Perhaps your partner yelling at you or calling you names prompts you to take a time-out and return to the conversation when they calm down. Physical violence may mean you leave, and only consider reuniting if and when you’re sure they’ve permanently changed their behavior. If the behavior persists and they refuse to change, we always have the option to end the relationship.
What we should never do is retaliate by “giving them a taste of their own medicine” or resorting to dirty fighting or violence. We often think in the moment that these strategies will work, but they never yield the good, long-term results that we really want. Taking the high road maximizes the pressure we put on them to change. Note this strategy doesn’t guarantee it, but it gives us better odds for the best possible outcome.
Creating healthy relationship boundaries is hard
Establishing good relationship boundaries is easier said than done. It takes some time to decide what is reasonable and appropriate. What should we let in or let out, and when should we let go?
One common mistake is being too soft. We may question ourselves – are we being too sensitive or intolerant? Our partner may push back and claim that we are being unreasonable, adding to our doubt.
If we’re not firm and consistent about boundaries in our relationship, even under pressure, we communicate that we are not serious about them. It helps to talk to someone we trust, such as a friend, counselor, or pastor to get a more objective viewpoint. Once you arrive at an appropriate response, stick with it.
That said, using boundaries as a weapon against your partner is another trap–especially for small violations. We can’t expect our partner to be perfect all the time. Yelling at the neighbor’s kids to get off our lawn is within our legal rights, but it won’t earn us any relationship points.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you should simply shut everyone and everything out and only look after yourself, either. That’s not the answer. After all, a property is best enjoyed when you invite people over as your guests.
If you clicked on this post because you were looking for a magic formula to make your partner obey, I’m sorry to have disappointed you! But a good understanding of relationship boundaries is the only real way to get the close bond you desire. The saying “good fences make good neighbors” also applies to healthy relationships.
More about boundaries
The concept of relationship boundaries can be difficult to grasp, and as we’ve discussed, hard to implement. Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend have probably done the best job of making boundaries understandable through their bestselling book, Boundaries. You can also find more resources they’ve created around this subject on their website.