Draw the Line: Setting Healthy Relationship Boundaries
Originally Published: October 25, 2012
Revised: March 28, 2019
Boundary: (noun) the line that marks the limits of an area, a dividing line.
Boundaries are necessary for many things. The time one class ends so the other can begin is a boundary. The closed teachers’ lounge door that says, “Teachers Only,” is a boundary. There are boundaries all around us that set limits. Many boundaries are useful. And although it’s great crossing over boundaries such as state lines on a road trip, personal, physical and emotional boundaries are not as fun to cross over.
Relationships can be damaged if a boundary is crossed. Once a partner disregards a boundary, trust goes out the window. Can a relationship be healthy if one partner doesn’t respect the limits the other sets? No. But when boundaries are respected, relationships can be strengthened.
People set the boundaries that are important to them. For example, if you have a friend who is only a friend, but he or she goes in for a kiss, you have to remind that person of the boundary—or limits—of your friendship. And if your friendship is strong, you can talk to your friend about this without things getting awkward because you don’t feel the same way he or she does. Often, boundaries that are strong will also be flexible, adapting to different situations. So, while the boundary for you in this friendship means that you don’t kiss each other, it doesn’t mean that you can’t spend time together, talk and do fun things together.
But boundaries that are too flexible may also break easily, like if a partner is pressuring you to have sex and you’re not ready but you give in anyway just to please this person. On the other hand, being totally inflexible about the things that are negotiable can be a problem. Not being willing to compromise about the smaller things—like how you spend your time—can push your partner away.
There are all kinds of boundaries in relationships, but how do you set and keep emotional and physical boundaries that are right for you?
Ready or Not
The most basic boundary that I can think of in a relationship is deciding whether or not to have sex with a partner. Boundaries are set because every single person has a different desire for closeness. If one person in the situation doesn’t want to have sex and the other does, the one who isn’t ready to have sex should make it clear that he or she doesn’t feel comfortable having sex. Likewise, the person who is ready should respect the other’s decision. In this situation, the person who is ready can either stay in the relationship without sex, move on because he or she isn’t on the same page as his or her partner or decide that there are other ways both partners are comfortable expressing affection without having sex.
If you set your own boundaries and have relationships with people who respect your boundaries, you feel empowered to do what you feel is right.
There are many ways to be physically close like holding hands, kissing, touching with clothes on or off. But the only way you can let your partner know what you are or aren’t ready for is by openly sharing your feelings and communicating in an honest manner. This will lower the chance of hurting a partner because you’ve crossed a boundary that you weren’t even aware of.
While communicating clearly with your partners sounds really nice, having these conversations with your partner about boundaries and what you are or aren’t ready for isn’t easy. I know I would never have been heard talking about sex or sexuality until I realized that it’s something completely normal and healthy, and it has to be discussed to make sure you and your partner know where you each draw the line when it comes to sex and being physically close. Talking about boundaries can be so awkward, because you may find that this person you’ve got a huge crush on isn’t on the same page as you about sex. The excitement of a new relationship is so much fun, but finding out that you don’t agree about some basic boundaries isn’t fun. While these conversations about boundaries can feel uncomfortable and like a real downer, it’s even more uncomfortable not to have the conversations and to stumble through crossing boundaries, which can make things even more awkward or frustrating.
You must know yourself and what you’re comfortable with because everyone is different. If you don’t know what your boundaries are, you or your partner could be pushed to do something they never wanted to do in the first place. That’s why communication and boundaries have to be super clear. Once you start thinking about crossing lines like oral, vaginal or anal sex, you’ve got to discuss sexual histories, getting tested, safer sex and/or birth control with your partner so you’re on the same page.
You Decide What’s Private
Boundaries are not limited to the physical and sexual aspects of a relationship. There are also privacy boundaries.
Have you ever hung out with someone and all she does is text right in front of you? Maybe you get curious about who this person is texting and why her attention is so focused on texting. Maybe you even ask who she’s texting. But is that crossing a boundary? If you’re in a relationship, would it be alright to know who your partner is texting and look through his phone?
I honestly don’t know the answer or if there even is one, because every relationship is different. Perhaps you and your best friend are comfortable enough with each other to see each other’s phones with no problem, but with your partner you may feel a bit iffy. But some people may feel comfortable with anyone in their life looking through their phone. They may not need a boundary or limit in terms of who sees their phone. By the same token, someone could really treasure his or her privacy, which means this person wouldn’t enjoy having someone look through his or her phone at all. The same could be true with passwords and social networking accounts as well.
The only way to figure out what boundaries to set for yourself is to consider who you’re in the relationship with—a best friend, an acquaintance, a girlfriend or boyfriend. Then consider what you feel comfortable sharing with this person.
- Are you comfortable sharing your texts on your phone with this person?
- Are you OK having this person see everything on your Facebook page?
- Would you feel comfortable sharing your social networking passwords with him or her?
No one can answer these questions but you. Once you answer questions like this for yourself, you may decide to share passwords or you may decide to totally change your privacy settings. It really all depends on what you’re comfortable with and who you trust with things that are private—like your text messages. You get to decide what is right for you. And know that relationships change, and you may decide in the future to share more or less depending on how your relationships change.
What’s Right for You
We need boundaries to maintain a healthy sense of individuality within a relationship. If you set your own boundaries and have relationships with people who respect your boundaries, you feel empowered to do what you feel is right. Once you know what your boundaries are, that’s the time to talk with your partner. These discussions won’t be easy. They aren’t going to work out perfectly, because you may not agree. There may be some things you compromise on, but there are also issues that you may not want to compromise on. You must decide what’s right for you and what you will or won’t compromise on. Boundaries can be tough to maintain, but if you’re clear about them and stick to what you believe in, in the end, you are respecting yourself and your decisions.
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