The way Tina Tessina sees it, all personal relationships from marriages to families and friendships require setting boundaries.
“Boundaries are the limits you place on how much others can ask of you, verbally or otherwise,” says Tessina, a psychotherapist and author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction. “If a friendship or relationship is between two people who both have solid boundaries, the subject may never come up, because neither person will encroach without permission—but the boundaries are there.”
You might have been in a relationship where you’re unable to say “no,” especially when it’s with someone you value so much that you want to give them everything they’ll ever need. But we all need that line between “I like/love you,” and “I will willingly take anything you throw at me—literally anything you throw at me.” And in a perfect world, there would be no need to set boundaries at all, right?
Sure. But this isn’t a perfect world, and in reality, we live in a society where as much as 15 percent of women feel tired very often, where at least 65 percent of people feel work is stressing them out, and 57 percent say they’re stressed out by their family obligations.
We are not terribly good at saying “no, this is my line in the sand,” and it’s given rise to countless self-help seminars where we pay good money to learn to say “sorry” less and “no” a whole lot more. But is setting healthy boundaries really as simple as learning to add one word to your vocabulary? Well…maybe!
We asked the experts what the key to setting boundaries is and how to differentiate between laying down the law and being demanding. Here’s how to draw that line in the sand…in a healthy way.
Setting boundaries is uncomfortable.
If setting boundaries were as easy as binge-watching a season of Shameless, we all would have set a whole lot more of them a long time ago. But setting boundaries takes work, says Fran Walfish, PsyD, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent.
“You can’t set boundaries and expect ‘all of us to be happy,’” Walfish says. “Someone is likely to not be happy.”
That person who’s unhappy might be you. As Walfish explains, “When you sign up for boundary setting, you must agree to tolerate increased anxiety. Here’s what I mean: You are likely to get flak from your boyfriend, partner, husband, parents […] when you say no to something they want. Everyone is given the blessing and gift of one life. That does not entitle them to control other people, spouses, and especially their children.”
In other words, while setting boundaries is important, we can’t exactly depend on everyone we know to be comfortable with us doing it. And they likely won’t say, “Hey, my line that’s not okay to cross is the exact same as yours, so I am on exactly the same page.” We need to be open, if not loud, about communicating what we think is okay and what isn’t. That applies not only to the people we love, our family, and our friends, but also to the random strangers we run into in the grocery store and in line at the post office. Our voices matter, and we need to use them.
Not convinced? Consider this: The fear that setting boundaries is selfish can hold us back, and not just at home. It can affect our jobs, our friendships, and even our health.
“Setting boundaries is simply asking for respect and insisting on it if necessary,” Tessina says. “There is nothing selfish about that, although a person with no respect for self may not understand it.”
So how do you set boundaries?
Setting Boundaries With Your Partner
You may not even realize you have boundaries that can’t be broached until they’ve been violated, even by someone you are in a serious relationship with!
What are some commonly violated or broached boundaries? “Reading personal mail or rummaging in personal space or demanding time, affection, or consideration without considering the other person’s wishes or feelings,” Tessina says. “Showing up unannounced is another classic breach of boundaries. Expecting someone to always pay for things. Talking behind backs, changing appointments because something more fun came up.”
If these things are cropping up in your relationships, be it with a friend or someone you love, step back and think about how you feel. If you feel “crazy” or are using similarly stigmatizing language about yourself, that’s a red flag.
“[You need] better boundaries if [you’re] feeling taken advantage of, not respected, not valued and that it’s never [your] turn,” Tessina advises. “Anyone can be subjected to rudeness and inconsideration. How you handle it determines whether you are setting boundaries or not. Most situations can be handled with polite firmness. People pleasers usually just don’t know how to say ‘no, thank you’ and make it stick.”
Every relationship is different, but one common example of boundaries that crop up in many relationships is the definition of the relationship itself.
“Specifically, if a woman is not available for an open relationship or a lack of commitment after a certain amount of time and, for example, her boundary is committed monogamy after three months, this is a conversation she may need and want to have,” says Annie Wright, a licensed psychotherapist and the owner and clinical director of Evergreen Counseling, a therapy center in Berkeley, California.
That conversation isn’t selfish. It’s not unreasonable. And the best way to present it is to be clear and concise.
“As obvious as this seems, not all of us are in touch with our boundaries, let alone our feelings,” Wright says, “So getting in touch with your boundaries may take self-reflection, maybe paying attention to any uncomfortable feelings or body-based signals a woman has that contain clues about what it is she truly wants, or perhaps it will take dialogue with herself, her friends, or her therapist—anything to help her get clearer on what she actually needs and wants from the situation.”
Use language that’s specific, such as “I am not open to an open relationship,” so you’re clearly communicating your boundaries. You should also ask specific questions of your partner, such as “Are we in a monogamous relationship?” Again, this language is specific and does not allow a partner to skirt the questions.
“Another example of a boundary may be the amount of time she is willing and able to give her partner versus investing that time in friends, family, and her own hobbies and pursuits,” Wright says. “Again, if a woman realizes her time boundaries are being encroached on by the relationship or by her partner and she feels uncomfortable about this, she may need to have a conversation and set a boundary about how much time she is able to spend with her partner on any given week/weekend.”
The key, once again, is being specific, clear, and concise.
“And then, once she gets clear on her boundaries, she may need to have a conversation with her romantic partner to explain her feelings about the situation she’s facing and to ask for what she needs and wants instead,” Wright suggests.
If you’re uneasy about setting boundaries with a partner, consider this: It could end up making the relationship better.
“Boundaries are essential to healthy intimacy,” Tessina says. “Boundaries are evidence of respect, and it’s not possible to really love someone if we don’t respect them. Setting boundaries creates mutual respect and consideration. These qualities allow people to be close without emotional harm.’”
Setting Boundaries With Parents
Of course, your partner isn’t the only person who can be crossing that boundary line. Society is slowly but surely adjusting to the notion that parents can also be a toxic influence in a person’s life, and with that comes the issue of determining whether you need to establish boundaries with your own family.
So how do you determine when you have a typical (albeit annoying) parent and when you have to set healthy boundaries with your parents?
“If [someone] is filled with thoughts about her parents and family of origin, and they take up the majority of her mental thinking space, then she needs to establish reasonable separation from her parents in order to be an independent adult as a prerequisite for coupling up,” says Walfish. “This is a crucial milestone in adult development.”
Saying no to our parents can be difficult, regardless of your upbringing, but it’s particularly difficult for kids who grew up in so-called “dysfunctional families,” where researchers have noted a tendency for children to develop anxiety and other mental health disorders.
But consider an upcoming holiday: Your parents want you at their place. Your siblings are pushing you to agree because it would be easier for them if everyone just showed up at the old homestead. But you want to stay home with your kids.
Is it okay to set boundaries here on behalf of your partner and your kids as well as yourself? Absolutely, Wright says.
“It’s important … to, again, self-reflect and to understand what she is and is not available for in terms of which holidays she does or does not spend with her family, how long she’s willing to spend when she does go there, and to also reflect on why and how it doesn’t always feel good for her to do so,” Wright says.
The next step?
“Usually, a conversation needs to happen with parents and siblings to reset expectations about what the adult woman is willing and able to do in terms of visiting or not, plus any additional requests she has about how she would like to be treated (for example, she would like her mother to stop bringing up her divorce and shaming her about it),” Wright notes. “These kinds of conversations are not necessarily easy, but I do think they are critical for healthy boundary setting with our families.”
Setting Boundaries With Your Kids
Of course, our parents and siblings aren’t the only people who can push, push, push. If you have kids, you know they test their limits. And setting firm boundaries can be even harder when you take one look at their darling faces with their puppy dog eyes.
But while you clearly have to give more to a helpless infant than you do to your 30-something sister who can’t seem to stop blowing up your text messages, even setting boundaries with children is possible…and necessary.
Setting those, however, often starts with you. Yes: you.
Are your kids trying to set boundaries with you that you waltz right over? It happens, even with the best, most well-intentioned parents, Tessina says.
“You can breach boundaries with your children by snooping in their private affairs without good reason, not allowing them to grow up, treating them like babies,” she says.
Other sins: “Doing too much for them—for example, getting too involved with their homework and doing it yourself instead of just helping them think it through—and expecting them to live up to your expectations and aspirations without considering their own dreams,” Tessina notes.
How often have you heard that kids learn by example? That’s especially true when it comes to setting boundaries.
“To give them boundaries with you, insist that they treat you with respect, and set the example by respecting them,” Tessina says.
Walfish likes to use this common parent “mistake” as an example of how setting boundaries helps not just us but our kids: “Many teens and young adults have become anxiously attached to their electronics including [the] computer, iPhone, smartphone, iPad, and so on. The more you check your device, the more fuel you are feeding this addictive behavior and revving up versus winding down to go to sleep.”
As a solution, Walfish suggests, “Create your own reasonable curfew/bedtime. Make a solemn commitment to turn off all electronic devices at curfew time, then turn them back on in the morning. You will begin to develop confidence and security knowing your messages, texts, and emails are there, secure, and waiting for you to retrieve the next day.”
Setting Boundaries With Friends
Dinner’s over, and the check shows up. Your three friends want to split the check four ways, but you scooted in after work, meaning you missed the pre-dinner cocktails…and you’re driving, so you skipped the after-dinner drinks, too.
What do you do?
Financial boundaries are a common issue for friends, Wright says.
“For instance, when you have two girlfriends, one with a lot of disposable income and preferences for girls’ weekends away and fancy meals out, and another girlfriend who really enjoys spending time with her friend but who is on a stricter budget, often a need will arise for the friend who is on the stricter budget to set reasonable expectations with her other friend about what she can spend, how often they can go out together, and maybe negotiate finding low-cost or no-cost things to do together,” she notes.
Again, self-reflection matters here. You have to determine where and how you feel like your boundaries are being crossed and what you’d prefer happen instead.
Then speak up!
“If you say ‘no, thank you’ several times, then gently tell the person you don’t like what they’re doing, that it makes you uncomfortable, and they still don’t get it, then you need to sit them down and tell them you will not allow them to do that to you,” Tessina suggests. “For example, if a friend borrows money or lets you pay for lunch all the time, you can say, gently, ‘I think it’s your turn to buy lunch today’ or ‘I really need you to pay back the money you borrowed.’”
It it doesn’t work, you may have to be blunt.
“Say, ‘I think you’re taking advantage of me financially, and I can’t be your friend if the situation doesn’t improve,’” Tessina says. “‘So, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to lunch with you anymore unless you buy, and/or I’m not lending you any money.’”
It may sound scary to throw out an ultimatum, but this comes back to the self-reflection: Is this boundary important to you?
“Hopefully, your friendship is strong enough to tolerate you setting a boundary and having your own needs and wants, and hopefully, your friend will be able to honor that,” Wright says.
At the end of the day, that’s what all boundaries come down to. You deserve to be treated well, and you deserve people in your life who are willing to respect that.