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How to Establish Healthy Boundaries in Your Relationship

Maintain a sense of identity while avoiding resentment by building healthy personal boundaries.

by Anuradha Varanasi
December 28, 2020 | Love
a couple in a relationship. rewire pbs love personal boundaries
Credit: // Adobe

As children, we're often disciplined and taught about right versus wrong through positive reinforcement.

This usually involves pleasing parents and teachers to earn praise, encouragement, or even small gifts and rewards. 

As adults, we might adopt people-pleasing as a coping mechanism to either avoid getting into trouble or as an effort to earn someone's approval. 

But constantly putting other people's needs before our own can get exhausting, to say the least. At worst, not establishing your personal boundaries can lead to resentment in relationships that were previously cherished.

If left ignored, that resentment and anger can permanently scar and even end relationships.

"If boundaries are in place and honored, then it frees people up psychologically to be more open and curious," said Jenn Kennedy, a marriage and family therapist based in Santa Barbara. 

"They don't have to be so guarded because they can trust the other. This comes up in dating situations a lot. If one partner can accept a 'no' then, in the future, they can know that their 'yes' is … not done out of pressure or guilt."

Unfortunately, enforcing personal boundaries is not as simple as putting up a "Private Property: Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted" sign.

"Although boundaries are intangible, they are real and essential to our well-being. They are the distinctions we make between ourselves and others," said Deborah Hecker, a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist who specializes in relationships.

What are personal boundaries? 

As we all continue to grapple with the stress of surviving during a pandemic, the topic of establishing boundaries with our family, friends, colleagues and significant other is often front of mind. 

Boundaries, Hecker says, allow us to know and understand ourselves — including our feelings, values, opinions and beliefs — as separate and unique from others, while still connecting with them.  

Without a strong sense of self, she explains, we can easily feel like our boundaries are being crossed. And resentment happens when we don't enforce our boundaries or stand up for ourselves.

Yet, many of us lack the ability to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy boundaries.

"Setting boundaries is like building a muscle — the more you do it, the easier it gets and better it feels," Kennedy said.

The 3 types of boundaries

According to Hecker, boundaries can be porous, allowing us to connect with others. They can also be rigid, like a wall, making the exchange of experiences and emotions with others difficult or even impossible.

Healthy boundaries allow us to be both separate and connected.

Therapists have identified the following common characteristics of porous, rigid and healthy boundaries:

Porous: Struggling to say "no" to others, even if you are spread too thin; oversharing personal information; getting far too involved in trying to solve others' problems; relying heavily on external validation or other people's opinions.

Rigid: Going to great lengths to avoid close relationships; shying away from asking for help; appearing aloof or detached, even with a significant other; taking great measures to avoid even the slight possibility of rejection.

Healthy: Being able to say "no" while simultaneously respecting the right of others to say "no"; deftly navigating between porous and rigid boundaries; being open and choosing who you know is right for you while keeping those who are not away.

"Simply put, the antidote to having porous boundaries is a strong sense of self, self-awareness and self-esteem. This means that it is critical to know our own limits," Hecker said.

"We are responsible only for our own happiness, behavior, choices and feelings. We are not responsible for fixing others or saving them."

Connect to your feelings to maintain healthy boundaries

It's not uncommon to understand the pitfalls of people-pleasing or having rigid boundaries, but still struggle to actually develop and maintain healthy boundaries. 

If this is true for you, therapists recommend checking in with yourself. Practice stepping back and becoming aware of your feelings.

After all, our feelings help us to survive, to look out for environmental dangers, and to satisfy our needs. 

Illustration of heart and brain doing exercise and sweating. Rewire PBS Love Healthy Boundaries
"Setting boundaries is like building a muscle — the more you do it, the easier it gets and better it feels," Kennedy said.  |  Credit: Baluchis // Adobe

"They also motivate us to take action accordingly. Feelings should guide us toward emotional health," Hecker said.

"We must trust our feelings so we can rely on them to make decisions about others. Being disconnected from feelings is dangerous and can cause low self-esteem, depression and anxiety."

Think about what you would want or need in a particular situation if there was no one to please. By doing that, you can avoid saying "yes" because of the fear of losing someone or disappointing them.

Suzanne Bartle-Haring, professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University, says that those who have difficulties maintaining healthy boundaries tend to be more emotionally reactive. 

"We feel that our response needs to be immediate. That usually means it is based on the emotion we currently feel," she said.

"So, when we expect more from our partners than they can or even should be giving us, we get resentful and then lash out. It is the lashing out that damages the relationship."

Maintaining your own distinct identity that is separate from your relationships can result in having more satisfying relationships.

"Once you can manage your own identity, then you start to see where you start and end, and where others start and end," Bartle-Haring said.

Anuradha Varanasi
Anuradha Varanasi is a freelance journalist and science writer based in New York City. She writes on health and climate change and enjoys long walks.
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