How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

Young woman making the sign of stop with her hand

Setting healthy boundaries determines what behaviors from others are acceptable to us and what behaviors are not. The act of establishing boundaries isn’t a tool to punish or control others. It’s rather an expression of self-love, self-care, and identity. Feeling angry with ourselves, frustrated, and cheated when people don’t respond to us the way we do to them is a sign of poor boundaries. Personal boundaries also test our relationships. Some will respect and honor our personal boundaries – the expression of who and what we are (our beliefs, values, views, will, and individuality). Others won’t because they are more interested in our compliance than our identity. Setting boundaries is mostly about communicating our needs and expectations to others with self-confidence (knowing who we are and what we want).

Boundaries in Toxic Relationships

People who are victimized in toxic relationships deter from setting personal boundaries because they fear conflict. They don’t want to upset their partners. The fear of punishment, rejection, and abandonment is too strong to ignore. They just want to belong. To such effect, they are willing to sacrifice their own needs and expectations.

People affected by intimate partner violence are usually overwhelmed by self-defeated thoughts such as:

  • It’s my fault that he got angry; I shouldn’t have said/done that.

  • She’ll be lost without me.

  • If I just give more of myself, the relationship will be better.

  • At least he isn’t as bad as my last partner.

  • I’ll do anything to make her happy.

  • I don’t know what I’d do without my partner.

  • It’s not all bad. It occasionally gets better.

Unhealthy boundaries in intimate relationships are an expression of powerlessness and loss of self. People experiencing domestic violence live in a world of fear and anxiety because of the cycle of abuse. At first, they are worried because of their confusion and inability to make sense of the incipient abuse and control it. In time, as the abuse increases, worry turns into anxiety and fear. Life becomes a constant walking on eggshells, which suppresses their voice and identity piece by piece strengthening a hated emotional dependency on the abuser.

Setting Emotional Boundaries

Establishing emotional boundaries is about becoming aware and taking responsibility for our emotional needs. Whether those emotional needs result from inconsistent nourishment in childhood or trauma bonding in a toxic relationship, we take responsibility for them by getting the help we need. Shame and guilt are powerful deterrents, though. They are like shackles that prevent us from cultivating healthy relationships with ourselves, others, and the world around us. It isn’t easy to find the social support we need when these two powerful feelings have hijacked our psyche. Thus, we tend to look and live outwardly by taking responsibility for other people’s feelings and circumstances, sacrificing our own needs and expectations to please others, especially toxic partners.[1]

Becoming aware of our emotional needs and setting healthy boundaries is a process toward self-improvement and healing. And we need to see this process as a journey. We begin with small boundary tasks, learning from each experience and celebrating our victories as we keep moving forward in this life journey.

Antonia's Case

Antonia got frustrated and angry every time she interacted with her abusive ex-partner and father of her child. He’d use every opportunity to criticize her and diminish her in her roles of mother and partner. She thought that the yelling and offenses would decrease if she remained quiet. Soon she found out it was a mistake.

In therapy, Antonia realized that she could set a healthy boundary with herself about how her child’s father treated her. She wanted to stop the mistreatment and disrespect every time he called. So, she wrote what she’d say to him as soon as the verbal abuse began. “You’re disrespecting me and mistreating me, and I won’t tolerate this abuse anymore. Stop it, or I’ll hang-up.” Of course, she was terrified of the consequences of such defiance. More, she anticipated that he wouldn’t give up easily and that his yelling and offenses will escalate. But she was determined to hang-up every time it happened.

The following week, Antonia came to the counseling session celebrating her first boundary victory. “He called, and I set my boundary alright when he disrespected me. As I expected, he laughed and offended me yet more, so I hung-up. Immediately, he called back screaming at me, and I hung-up again without saying a word.” Antonia described each of the five times the father of her child repeatedly called, trying to intimidate her with his abusive tactics. At the sixth time, however, he asked her not to hang-up so they could talk.

Antonia celebrated her small victory while recognizing that it wasn’t an easy experience for her. “I was agonizing each time he called back, and I had to hang-up again.”

Strategies to Set Healthy Boundaries

Antonia said it right. It’s agonizing to set a healthy boundary for the first time with someone who intimidates us. It’s equally frightening to say NO to that someone. Just because people who care about us tell us that we need to trust and love ourselves enough to say NO to our toxic partners, it doesn’t mean that it’s something easy to do. It doesn’t work that way. Our self-esteem can't get pumped up from night to morning just by deciding upon it. It takes time, work, love, and patience. It’s a journey.

Here are some strategies that can help establish healthy boundaries in difficult relationships while progressing in the life journey of self-improvement and healing:

  • Commit to journaling; it’s therapeutic and inspiring to record our journey, review our obstacles, and see our progress.

  • Identify one behavior you want to stop. Even though that behavior comes from another person, you take responsibility for stopping it. Start with something that isn’t that intimidating to you. Write it down.

  • Write down how you’re going to present it (see above how Antonia wrote it). Writing our boundary statements helps us to be clear and succinct. There’s no need for explanations when you are dealing with adults. When establishing boundaries with a child, we must accompany our boundary statement with an explanation since children are still learning the proper ways of interacting with others.

  • Anticipate resistance and write down a reaffirmation of your boundary statement. “I already said that I feel uncomfortable with…” No explanation is needed, just a reaffirmation of what you stated.

  • Set a consequence for noncompliance. Something you can do at the moment. Saying “Stop or else,” for example, opens many doors for interpretation and assumptions. Antonia said, “Stop it, or I’ll hang-up,” and it worked because she was able to execute it at the moment as many times as it was needed.

  • Write down that you’ll be firm in setting your healthy boundary. You don’t need to be or look aggressive to be firm. Just by sticking to your guns – reaffirming your boundary statement – you’re firm.

  • Resistance to our healthy boundaries is expected. Be patient.

  • Journal about your experience. Celebrate your victories. Be self-compassionate and patient in setbacks.

Setting healthy boundaries with toxic partners could be painful and triggering. You need to proceed with caution, starting with a small boundary to tiptoe the waters. Sometimes, the emotional pain of rejection would motivate a partner to take responsibility for their abusive behaviors. Some other times, trying to set a boundary in a highly toxic relationship will provoke more disagreements and conflict.

In Short

Setting healthy boundaries is about saying YES to your needs and expectations and saying NO more often to people’s requests. But this isn’t an easy task unless you’ve been working on this for a while. One source of inspiration to stick to your guns in the meantime is imagining how different your life could be once you’ve established yourself (presence, identity) in your functional and relational circles through your healthy boundaries.

[1] This paragraph contains statements that are both evidence-based and personal experience.