Building healthy boundaries in relationships

By Prachee Dhar



Imagine a situation where you come home tired from a long day at work wanting nothing more than to sit and watch TV with your partner over a hot cup of tea. Your partner, however, has initiated sex and despite being exhausted and wanting nothing but your favourite TV show, you find yourself relenting due to an acute inability to say “no”. This is one of many ways an unhealthy boundary can manifest itself.

Every healthy relationship needs healthy boundaries. Healthy love and affection start with self-love. And self-love cannot exist without a healthy set of boundaries.

So, what are the boundaries? Boundaries are a set of guidelines that govern what you ‘do’ and ‘do not’ in your interaction with others.

Pia Mellody, an expert on boundaries and relationships, maintains that a boundary has three primary purposes:

  1. To keep people from coming into our space and violating/abusing us
  2. To keep us from getting into the space of others and violating/abusing them
  3. To give each of us a way to embody a sense of “who we are”

While it’s important to enforce your boundaries, it is also important to recognise and respect your partner’s boundaries on a healthy middle ground, wherever possible.

How are boundaries formed?

Boundaries are formed early in childhood through conditioning and modelling. Children growing up in dysfunctional families often grow up with unhealthy or entirely absent set of boundaries due to a lack of a healthy role model. For example, if your needs went unmet by your primary caregiver in childhood, you may find yourself moulding your personality to fit your caregiver’s idea of what counts as “acceptable behaviour” to obtain the love and affection you needed.

You may also find yourself being unable to enforce your boundaries effectively in adulthood because they were never tolerated in childhood and you learned, through each negative experience, that having boundaries for yourself is somehow “not okay”.

If you have boundary issues with your parents, you are more likely to experience boundary issues in your relationships. Unhealthy boundaries can lead to playing the victim i.e. needing love and affection so desperately from others that you may forego who you are in order to obtain the love you missed as a child. Paradoxically, the lack of boundaries may prevent you from obtaining the very love and affection you feel you so persistently seek.

What do unhealthy boundaries feel like? Unhealthy or absent boundaries manifest in various ways. You may find yourself:

  • Being unable to say “No” because you hate “to let people down”. For example, refusing a favour when you can’t perform it because you fear displeasing them, or refusing anything when you aren’t up for it to avoid confrontation or “upsetting your partner”.
  • Feeling responsible for and needing “to fix” other people’s problems. This can result from possibly being forced to care for an alcoholic or co-dependent parent.
  • Putting others’ needs above and to the exclusion of your own: Altruism is when you do this willingly out of love. Co-dependence is when you do it out of fear of rejection or a need for approval in return.
  • Unable to assert yourself to avoid confrontation and to “keep the peace”. If you were the “peacekeeper” in your house, you’re likely to grow up being unable to assert yourself in order to maintain harmony.
  • Feeling often overburdened and exhausted. This may arise out of being unable to say ‘no” coupled with putting others’ needs above your own to the point of exhaustion and burnout.
  • Feeling guilty about taking time out for oneself or giving into emotional manipulation by your partner (“if you cared about me, you would stay home with me instead of visiting your friends”). Guilt is important as an emotion when self-imposed and legitimate. But when used as an avenue to manipulate someone into giving you love (or allowing yourself to be manipulated by a person), it is a sure-fire sign of unhealthy or absent boundaries.

If you are feeling sad or angry about resonating with any of the above signs and symptoms, I want you to understand that, if haven’t learned healthy boundaries, you are unlikely to have been modelled on a very healthy set of boundaries. As with many things in life, boundaries are about progress rather than perfection. So be patient and kind with yourself.

How to start setting healthy boundaries?

For many of us, it is not always possible to know and express what our boundaries are. We may not even have many boundaries or we may also confuse them with what others expect of us. While it helps to build insight, a good litmus test if to ask yourself “How would my relationship change if I stopped doing what I’m doing?”. If it is a boundary issue, you are unlikely to be okay with the repercussions of not doing the action in question.

Other questions that help garner insight into what your boundaries might be are:

  • Does devoting time to myself make me feel guilty? Why?
  • When did I last say “yes” to something I didn’t want to do? Why?
  • Is “being nice” the only way to be respected by others?
  • What are five things that are absolutely essential to me without which a relationship will NOT be possible at all?
  • What are ten things I most like to do with my own time?
  • Is there anything that I absolutely refuse to tolerate? Name ten of them.

Only once you’ve clearly and unambiguously identified your boundaries, can you enforce them.

How to enforce healthy boundaries?

When enforcing healthy boundaries:

  • Be straightforward and direct and don’t give long explanations (or any explanations). Your boundaries are non-negotiable by others. They are neither “right” nor “wrong” to warrant apology or explanation.
  • Use a calm, polite tone. Just as you’d like them to respect your boundaries, respect theirs.
  • Start with tighter boundaries and loosen as needed. This will minimise the emotional backlash while maintain a healthy respect of the boundaries of others.
  • Address boundary violations clearly by using simple phrase. (“I’m not okay with that”, “I’m afraid I can not do that at this time”, “I will be unable to make it”)
  • Use “I” statements: Setting boundaries can be challenging, especially if the dynamics are being changed after years of unhealthy patterns. Using non-confrontation language through “I” statements can help minimise the escalation and expedite resolution. E.g. “Walking into a messy room is upsetting to me” instead of “You are so incredibly messy”
  • Use a support system: New boundaries may ruffle some feathers. Having a support system to rely on can be invaluable on your journey to being a healthier person.
  • Trust your intuition: It is a great tool to understand yourself. If your intuition is telling you something is off, listen to it. It’s been honed over tens of thousands of years to ensure your survival.

In summary, boundaries are not absolute or set in stone. While early childhood trauma and conditioning may have led to an undeveloped or absent set of boundaries, we can learn to recalibrate and adjust our boundaries through practice and patience to enable ourselves to live to our highest potential.

Setting boundaries takes effort and patience. You may find it difficult to enforce them at first, especially if you’re used to dynamics previously set. Keep going, however, and eventually it’ll become easier and more natural. If necessary, seek professional help.

Taking responsibility for your actions and working towards your ideal set of boundaries will give you a clearer idea of your role in the issue and will help you develop a healthier sense of your boundaries and enrich relationships that are governed by love rather than fear.