I truly believe that setting boundaries is the most essential ingredient to growing and maintaining happy and healthy relationships. Boundaries are the key to letting people know what is and is not okay for you, and allows you the backup to feel justified and strong enough to walk away if the time comes, or to reassess your goals and make adjustments accordingly.
Here are a few key case scenarios where I know that boundary-setting will serve you well:
The New Relationship – When romance comes knocking on your door, there are a whole bunch of crazy, new, excited, anxious feelings that can bubble up and make you feel a little bit coo-coo bananas. There is nothing wrong with that, and it can in fact be one of the best parts of new romance! But as wonderful and loved up as you may be, you need to be keeping an eye on the prize and get about the business of setting your boundaries- preferably sooner rather than later! Whether you are after a casual fling, a lets-see-how-it-goes relationship or a lets-settle-petal-down-and-be-two-penguins-sharing-a-life-together love, it is important to be clear about what you do (or don’t) want, what is okay for you, and what are the big no-no’s. This isn’t to say that you need to sit a dude or dudette down on a first date and say “RIGHT, I want to be married before i’m 35 and if you’re not down for that you can heave-ho goodbye”, but it does mean that you should not shy away from being clear about what you are looking for and place it in a delicate but clear manner. Being clear about what you want applies to all forms of romantic relations, and you shouldn’t be afraid of bring it up as you go down the track with someone. If they run for the hills, they’ve actually done you a huge favour by making clear the “I’M NOT THE ONE” sign that is so clearly painted on their forehead. Make sure to wave them goodbye as the door hits their ass on the way out.
Being clear about your boundaries can/should/may include discussing or stating the following:
- “I think you’re really cool and I just want to make it clear that I am (either): just after something quite casual and non committal / interested to see how this goes if you’re keen to keep dating for a bit / a bit tired of the casual dating scene and am really happy to see how this grows as we keep seeing each other if you also feeling good about that”. (This way you know where you stand from the get go and if things go pear shaped it’s not because you were both ignoring what you were truly seeking)
- “I just want to be clear about my boundaries with what feels okay and not okay for me because I know that this will be the best way to make sure that we are both happy and feel like we are being treated with respect. I know that it’s pretty common knowledge that cheating is a big no-no in most relationships, and I agree that cheating is not okay. For me, cheating includes the full range from kissing, to having a secret emotional connection with someone else, to any sexual act with another person. I just wanted to be clear about this so we don’t find ourselves in any confusing or murky waters in the future!” OR “For me, cheating includes the sexual stuff, but if you kiss someone whilst drunk I really don’t care, as long as you let me know about it!” (or whatever fits for you!)
Of course you should tailor this to whatever feels right for YOU. The important part is that you have the conversation. It will put you in good stead for the just-in-case scenario where your lover turns out to be a bit of a dirt bag. If this happens you’ll have a pile of important and clear conversations behind you upon which you can stand and wave goodbye to them from. Breaking someones boundaries is a clear display of either a lack of awareness of them, or a lack of respect for them (or both). By being clear, it can be clear to you that they understood your boundaries but chose not to respect them (and are therefore either a dirtbag OR a bit of a goose who only deserves another chance if they are self reflective enough to know that they are a goose, know what they have to do to fix things, SHOW you their ability and drive to change and not disrespect you again, and if you are able to trust them).
The Old Relationship – I’m talking friendships here. Just as you would (or should!) head to the doctor on occasion for a general checkup, checking in with friendships that are old and familiar is just as important. Friendships are amazing, but they also take work to remain joyful, encouraging, safe and nurturing. I encourage you to make the time to check in with the key people/person you have in your life who you consider to be your closest/best friend(s). Have a coffee together and see how they are. Share how you’re doing, and then have a chat about how you both feel your friendship is going. This may seem a little weird, but bear with me! This is an excellent opportunity to peel back the layer of “I’m good, and yourself?” that may have been growing for some time now. Try a combo of these:
- As you know, I love and respect and value our friendship SO much, and I just want to do a little friendship check-in to see how we are going?
- Is there anything that I can do to be a better friend to you?
- Here are a couple of things that I would find really helpful in our friendship (insert a, b & c)
- If you are ever feeling really stuck and need a chat or some advice please know that I am only ever a phone call away.
- We’ve been friends for a long time and we have both grown and changed loads over that period, what kind of stuff do you find really important in your friendships now? Is it different to how it was a few years ago?
- Do you feel like there’s stuff you can’t come to me with, and do you want to/think we could fix that and make it a safer space between us?
I think that you should even do this with friends that you see once in a blue moon. I think that it is a really cool way to remind your dear friend how much you value them and their friendship, and it opens a few opportunities for them to really open up and share/deepen your relationship if there is something going on under the surface. Relationships should feel good, safe and full of respect, and if it’s not really feeling that way then maybe it’s time to check in. It’s true that friends can drift apart, and it’s much easier to bear if you know that it is a natural growth apart rather than something that could’ve be prevented with some relationship-maintenance.
My best friend and I have been doing the friendship check-in a few times over the years, usually in response to us drifting apart a wee bit as life gets busy or throws us curve-balls. When we notice this happening, we come together to check in to see if something is going on, check that one another are okay, and reinvigorate that safe, loving space that dear friends hold for one another. Without this checking-in process, I don’t think that we would be as close as we are, and I am so thankful for it. Our boundaries as friends have changed and grown over the decade we have known each other, and I attribute the continued strength of our friendship to the knowing that if we need to re-jig our boundaries, we can do that with a lot of care and respect.
The Not-So-Nice-Anymore Relationship – This one applies to those who fall outside of the romantic and friendship categories, so namely family members or family/friend acquaintances. Sometimes there are individuals who the wider society says you MUST maintain a relationship with no matter what (a mother, father, sister, brother, aunty, uncle, cousin, whoever!). Coming to realise that a relationship with said family member/acquaintance has turned sour can be a sad, painful or maddening experience (or a combination of those), but what’s even worse is how other people can act as megaphones for the obscene societal expectation that being a *insert title of persons position in your life* somehow allows said sourpuss permission to make your life a living hell.
Let me say this with complete and utter certainty: You do not have to be a doormat for people who do not treat you with respect, and their position in your life grants them zero permission to do so.
As you make moves to set boundaries with the sour apples in your life, be aware that many people may never understand your reasons for doing so, and that is okay. It is not your responsibility to march around town and explain your story, trauma and reasons for placing strong boundaries with certain people to everyone. Even if you do, people are still going to say “But it’s your DAD / MUM / SIBLING/ ect.” as if that somehow negates every awful story you’ve so vulnerably shared with them as to why you can’t possibly continue a relationship. Setting your boundaries with sour apples is essential, difficult, and absolutely your business to either share or not share with others. But it is your business to do it. The happiness that is waiting on the other side of that river of pain is so worth it.
-Blanket rules for setting boundaries where the stakes are high-
This applies mostly the the romantic relationships and the family relationships mentioned above. The basic rule for setting concise boundaries with these people is to make clear the cause and effect of their actions.
- “If you cheat on me I cannot stay in this relationship, and it will be over”
- “I need space, and if you cannot respect that then this will not work”
- “If you get the help you need then we can consider having a relationship in the future, but if this does not happen we will have no chance at reconciliation”
- “Please do not contact me anymore, and if you don’t respect this, know that I will not be contacting you in response”
Being as clear as possible and then sticking to what you say is important. Following through with consequences is important. It shows that you have respect for yourself, and the boundaries you set. You can make these boundaries clear through a sit-down conversation, a phone call, or through writing. My advice is that a conversation can be best for romantic relationships and friendships, and through writing can be the most helpful for difficult family members/acquaintances. Through writing there is a much reduced opportunity for your words to be twisted, misinterpreted or somehow used against you. It also eliminates the immediate risk of an all-out argument (if that’s a worry for you) as it gives said person time to digest the information you’ve shared, and then any action that comes is their absolute choice. Much like teaching a child/an animal/anyone right from wrong, consistence is key, and caving to pressure will only put you on the back foot.
Be strong with your boundaries, and you will prove to yourself that you have the integrity to know when to stay, and when to walk away.
You’ve got this!