This article was updated in October 2021.
Boundaries are necessary for all relationships, including your intimate relationships. There’s a common misconception that boundaries prevent intimacy in relationships, but in fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Many people think that boundaries are like fences, preventing people from coming into your space and therefore stopping intimate bonds from forming. Instead, boundaries are more like state lines. It’s the distinction between one place and another, or one person and another.
You have to be aware of them because rules and laws change from state to state, so crossing from one state to another will change the expectations for how you behave. It’s the same with people, knowing someone’s boundaries means you’re aware of how they need you to behave around them, in order for them to feel comfortable and open up to you.
When you treat someone in a way that allows them to comfortably open up around you, you can then build intimacy together. Therefore, setting and maintaining healthy boundaries actually facilitates intimacy.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries in relationships are healthy and respectful guidelines that define your needs, separate from your partner’s needs.
A boundary is generally defined as a limit or line that separates you and another person – where one person ends and the other begins.
We don’t all have the same likes or dislikes, vulnerabilities, or insecurities. Therefore, we all need different things – different boundaries – in every relationship.
For example, maybe when you come home from work you like to immediately talk about your day with your partner. However, your partner needs to have some quiet time and personal space to unwind from the workday before they are ready to talk and engage with you.
Both needs are healthy, but if your partner doesn’t tell you they need downtime to transition from work to home before they are ready to engage with you, you might not realise they have a need that is different from yours. You might accidentally violate their boundaries without meaning to.
An important part of boundary setting in relationships entails communicating how we are different from the other people in our lives.
When a boundary is defined, established, and maintained, our own boundaries enable us to create relationships built on mutual trust and the ability to respect each other’s boundaries.
They are a first step to managing conflict, understanding one another, and building intimacy in healthy relationships.
Different types of boundaries
There are generally considered 3 core types of boundaries in relationships:
- Physical boundaries: this refers to your physical body, your need for space and privacy, and your comfort with touch and closeness. If you’re standing on a crowded train and start to feel discomfort because someone is coming too far into your personal space, this is your physical boundary being crossed.
- Emotional boundaries: this refers to your feelings and how you manage your emotions in relation to another. If your partner is getting upset and then you start to feel the same way, even though their emotions are not related to yours, you may need to set strong boundaries so you don’t take on their emotional reactions.
- Sexual boundaries: this refers to your expectations around sexual touch and physical intimacy. This includes what is and isn’t ok for you sexually – which helps keep your sex life happy. When someone receives unwanted sexual touch or experiences sexual assault, that is a breach of sexual boundaries.
Each one of these is an important boundary that (hopefully) children are taught at a young age to ensure mutual respect and well-being.
What are healthy boundaries?
Healthy boundaries in relationships are limits that build intimacy. They eliminate distance and barriers between partners while allowing both people to feel emotionally comfortable and safe with the other person. They also allow each person to maintain a sense of self, separate from their partner.
When you set healthy boundaries, this has many benefits, such as improved mental health, self-esteem and self-respect. They allow you to have a balanced, happy relationship, where both partners are heard and respected, and both partners share equal power in the relationship. The danger of not respecting your own limits is other people may not respect them either.
Empowerment and a sense of safety are other important advantages to boundaries. Maintaining boundaries ensures your physical, mental, and emotional needs and limits are not violated. They also gain you the freedom to be assertive. You can truthfully say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without suffering any feelings of fear or guilt for expressing what you need.
Some examples of how to set clear boundaries include:
- Clearly expressing what you are and are not comfortable with
- Telling someone ‘no’ when they do, say, or ask for something outside of your limits
- Recognising and communicating your needs and wants so you feel respected
- Taking responsibility for your own feelings and reactions when you feel hurt
- Feeling mentally, physically, and emotionally safe around another person
- Listening and acknowledging another’s feelings so they feel heard without trying to ‘fix’ them
What are unhealthy boundaries?
There are constructive boundaries that help you define your needs and differences separate from your partner’s, and there are boundaries that build up walls and create distance between you and your partner.
Poor boundaries in relationships make you feel like there is an emotional barrier or chasm between you and your partner.
If you have a hard time with personal boundaries, you may feel fear, guilt, or an undefined sense of self. They will make you feel powerless and unable to say ‘no’ when you feel uncomfortable or when someone has violated your limits.
You may take responsibility for your partner’s happiness, and feel that if they’re unhappy, it’s your fault and you feel guilty. This can lead to low self-esteem and mental health issues.
Not sharing your needs and wants is another signal of an unhealthy boundary. If you don’t share and assert your needs with your partner, you’re not opening up. This removes the opportunity to build intimacy with your partner, and for them to build intimacy with you.
Some examples of boundary issues include:
- Stonewalling or refusing to respond or answer questions in order to control conversations
- A lack of concern or respect for the needs and feelings of one partner
- Putting someone else’s needs and happiness before your own
- Allowing people to treat you in a way that makes you feel bad about yourself or feel threatened
- Constantly smothering your partner by insisting you spend so much time together and not allowing them to be autonomous
- Completely giving up what you want when you think you’ve hurt someone’s feelings
- Trying to control someone else or situations
- Picking up your partner’s emotional energy and letting it affect your own emotions
Along with these examples, have a think about other areas that might be important for you to address in your relationship.
How boundaries improve your intimate relationship
While it’s important to set relationship boundaries, it can be hard as it’s something most people are not taught to do.
Better boundaries can improve your sense of self and the level of comfort you feel in your relationship. Healthy emotional boundaries help to build trust and respect in relationships.
You are a different person from your partner, and therefore you have different needs. Your partner’s boundaries may even be quite different from yours.
Healthy boundaries allow both of you to express and take responsibility for your individual needs. The process of establishing boundaries allows you to learn more about and build intimacy with each other.
And remember, boundaries change over time, so it’s always good to revisit them on a regular basis.
How to have good boundaries in your relationship
Other things to help you define, express, and maintain healthy personal boundaries with your partner:
- Know yourself and your limits
Identify what you can tolerate mentally, emotionally, and physically. It’s important to know what you are comfortable with and where the line is that changes that comfort into discomfort or distress.
- Be aware of your feelings
Spend time listening to your body and your emotions. If you feel uncomfortable about something, this is a sign you have exceeded your limits. Everyone’s limits are different, this is something you must feel for yourself, not something someone else can tell you.
- Be clear about your needs
You’ve identified your need for a particular boundary, clearly express what you need from your partner. You’re showing them how to make you feel comfortable mentally, physically, and emotionally. More boundaries for you doesn’t mean fewer boundaries for them, so don’t be apologetic but be open to give and take. You deserve happiness and comfort, too.
- Boundaries and love coexist
Express your love while maintaining your boundaries. Saying when you are uncomfortable or that your boundaries have been violated does not mean you do not love your partner. An easy way to ensure your partner still feels loved when you’re expressing your discomfort is to tell them.
For example, “I love going for walks with you in the evening. I like to relax and have a cup of tea right after dinner, though. Let’s take the dogs for a walk instead of letting them out in the yard before locking up for the night and we can all walk together then”.
Avoid saying “I love you, but…”. Tell them what part of the interaction you love, say what you need, and offer an alternative way to do things that meets your needs.
- Be calm, firm, and concise
Setting boundaries is something that should happen when you’re calm. Don’t set boundaries when you’re emotional. This allows you to stay your course. You’re expressing your needs, which is an important thing to do, so don’t apologise or backpedal.
Get right to the point. If you need alone time, say you need alone time. Unclear communication will only confuse your partner.
- Listen and keep communication open
Your partner has boundaries too and they need to feel their limits are being respected. Maintaining boundaries requires you both to be able to talk about and listen to each other’s needs.
Boundaries can be difficult to establish but they’re an important step in allowing you to feel good about yourself and feel good in the relationships in your life. Building healthy boundaries with your partner will help improve respect, trust, and intimacy in your relationship.
Do you need relationship help?
If you’re considering counselling, Clinton Power has extensive experience helping people create better relationships through his counselling process of using evidence-based therapeutic approaches based on the science of healthy relationships.
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.