Sometimes, boundaries in relationships feel like a no-brainer. When you and your partner really click in most ways, it’s easy to think that you’re on the same page about everything – only to find out down the road that you don’t follow quite the same rules after all.
No matter where you are in your relationship, it’s always a good idea to have a proactive conversation about setting boundaries in different areas of your life together. Here are three kinds of boundaries that we especially recommend discussing, along with questions to ask each other and scenarios that might come up.
How to set social boundaries
Yes, your relationship is about you and your partner – but it’s also about everyone else in your lives. "Open communication can be really helpful when it comes to setting social boundaries with partner," says Cassidy Litvack, a therapist in New York City who frequently works with clients on relationship issues.
To get on the same page about how you expect each other to navigate this wider social network, make an ongoing effort to talk through these points and see what you learn about each other:
- What do you each need in social situations? Maybe you get anxious at parties, and maybe your partner feels insecure whenever work comes up in conversation. Share these details with each other and make a plan for supporting each other!
- How do you navigate flirting? Whatever your feelings about flirting, it’s crucial you each know what crossing the line means in your specific relationship. If you have a plan for what to do when one of you feels attracted to someone else, it won’t feel like such a big deal when it happens.
- What kind of socializing do you do together, and apart? One of you might have some friends who you prefer seeing without your partner—and that’s fine! Work together to figure out which social situations you’ll want to be in together and in which you might rather fly solo.
If your partner is more social, or likes to spend more time with friends, try to validate their needs, while also setting your own boundary. Litvack suggests wording along the lines of "I can understand it’s important for you to see your friends. And it’s important for me to rest at home tonight."
Doing this helps avoid friction which can come if one person’s needs are seen as more important or “right."
How to set emotional boundaries
This is – you guessed it! – a big one. It might seem obvious, but different people have very different ideas of what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to emotional boundaries.
It’s common for couples to hurt each other completely without meaning to, simply because they don’t have a clear sense of what is and isn’t okay with their partner.
So in order to set proper emotional boundaries, make sure to work through the following together:
- What does it mean to fight fair? For instance, maybe one of you grew up in a family where raised voices were normal, while the other seizes up at the first sign of yelling.
- How do you each express affection? You might feel lonely without lots of physical affection, while your partner needs a little space to feel secure. Or maybe words of affection is your #1 love language, but you cringe when your S.O. calls you "babe." What can a happy medium look like for expressing affection to each other?
- What are your verbal triggers? All of us have certain language that we’re especially sensitive to, usually related to our own fears and insecurities. For example, if you worry about being considered immature, it might be especially hurtful to you to be told to “grow up.” Make sure your partner knows which buttons not to press, and vice versa!
How to set logistical boundaries
It’s easy to underestimate the role of simple logistics in your relationship, but the nitty-gritty of your day-to-day lives determines so much about your connection with each other.
Getting on the same page about these seemingly simple points can clear up boundary mismatches before they become a problem.
- How much time do you spend together? This is the most basic question of all, but it can be one of the trickiest. One of you might be committed to a career that requires long hours, or you might want to set aside a lot of time to spend with family. Talking out all the demands on each of your schedules can help you set priorities and be mindful about making time for each other.
- How do you share physical space? Whether you live together or not, deciding where to be when can be a huge stumbling block. If you don’t live together, whose place do you spend more time at? If you do live together, how do you use the different spaces in your home? Do you spend time doing things solo (like reading or working) while you’re in the same space?
- How do you keep in touch? Especially if you spend much time apart, figuring out how often to text or call is a key part of your relationship. One person might expect to keep in touch throughout the day, while another could be more comfortable with just a quick check-in or two. Being open about your habits will help you avoid hurt feelings when your preferences don’t naturally align.
Give yourself extra support when having boundary-setting conversations
Boundaries can be difficult to set, especially with our loves ones, Litvack points out. For some, they may even feel harsh or insensitive to others’ needs. So if you find yourself struggling to set a boundary, it may be helpful to employ self-validation and positive self-talk.
Litvack suggests giving yourself encouraging reminders, such as “Even though this is difficult, my need for this makes sense and is reasonable," or “I may feel anxious initially during this conversation, but ultimately I’ll be really glad I made this choice.”
Don't be afraid to explore the boundaries as time goes on, too; after all, boundaries can shift if we want them to. Of course, adds Litvack, there are emotional, social and physical boundaries that, for safety and comfort reasons and due to our unique histories, do not shift. Having a partner who can honor and respect these limits is important.
At the end of the day, boundaries are about respect – both for yourself and your partner. It can be incredibly empowering to listen to yourself about what you need in a relationship, and to have that need validated by the person who makes your world go round. Plus, understanding each other's needs will strengthen your connection and prevent long-term resentment that can form your needs aren't met.
And remember, if these conversations feel a little heavy for you and your partner to handle on your own, couples counseling can also be a great resource for navigating boundaries – and set yourself up for harmony going forward.