The Importance of Boundaries in Romantic Relationships

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You may not give much thought to the existence of boundaries in your daily life, but they are everywhere. For example, when you are driving on a two lane road, you stay to the right of the center line, especially if there is a car coming from the opposite direction. You are entitled by law to drive in your lane but not on the other side of the road.

If you are a homeowner, you may have a fence that rests on the dividing line between your property and your neighbor’s. The fence acts as a physical reminder of where the different properties start and stop. At work, you might have cubicle walls or an office that define your work space from that of your colleagues. The computer and desk may not technically belong to you but those are typically seen as your space.

Relationships need boundaries

All healthy relationships have boundaries. In fact, a relationship cannot be healthy if clear boundaries are not in place and respected. Here’s a visual example of how it works: Imagine that you and your partner are facing each other. On the ground between you is a clearly marked line that stretches to the left and right as far as you can see in either direction. This line is like a property line: everything on your side of the line belongs to you; everything on the other side of the line belongs to your partner.

Boundaries define ownership and responsibility

In a romantic relationship the “things” that belong to you are not as tangible as grass, trees and a house that characterize neighbor relationships. In a romantic relationship, the boundary line helps define where you and your partner start and stop. It creates natural limits. These limits work to your benefit when each partner understand them and agrees to abide by them.

Another way of saying this: boundaries distinguish what is your responsibility in the relationship from that of your partner’s. What is each person in the relationship responsible for? Their individual:

  • bodies
  • words
  • emotions
  • attitudes
  • values
  • preferences

That means, for example, if you don’t want to be touched because it feels bad, you have the right to say no. If you say unkind words to your partner, you take responsibility for those words and apologize. If your partner asks you why you are quiet, you have a responsibility to try and help them understand what you are feeling instead of letting them guess.

Boundaries eliminate blame

The presence of healthy boundaries in romantic relationships greatly reduces the tendency to blame your partner. Blame is almost always a maneuver to deflect ownership of a problem. When you take responsibility for your part in the misunderstanding, conflict, or harsh treatment and your partner is willing to take responsibility for their part, resolution of the problem becomes much easier. This is exactly what many therapists do in couples’ counseling: attempt to help each partner honestly own their part in the problems they are having and work toward healing.

So, clear boundary lines help you determine where you start and where you stop. They help define which responsibilities in a relationship are yours, and which ones belong to your partner.

Healthy boundaries are your way of saying, “I’ll do everything I can to take full responsibility for what’s mine.”

When these lines of responsibility are clear and respected by each person, emotional intimacy has a strong foundation to grow upon. But when boundary lines aren’t understood or honored, problems arise.

Common Boundary Violations

When your partner oversteps your boundaries, it’s usually accidental – but it’s often destructive just the same. Much is left unsaid, feelings are hurt, emotional distance widens and the result can be an unsatisfying relationship that has largely broken down. Boundaries need to be respected in order to work.

Here are some behaviors that can signal boundary problems in a romantic relationship:

  • Saying “yes” to your partner, when in fact you’d rather say “no” – this is usually done to please the other person or to avoid conflict
  • Saying “no” when it might be perfectly appropriate to say “yes” – this is often done to keep a partner at arm’s length, or punish him or her. Good boundaries require honesty. Neither of these behaviors are honest ways to communicate.
  • Making your partner read your mind instead of saying specifically what you’re thinking or feeling
  • Trying to control your partner’s thoughts or behavior through aggressive or subtle manipulation

Establishing healthy boundaries that will enhance your relationship

Here are some tips that can help you establish and maintain healthy boundaries:

  • Communicate your thoughts and feeling honestly and clearly. Whenever possible, be honest but respectful in sharing your thoughts and feelings with your partner. Sometimes it’s difficult to sort out what you are thinking or feeling at any given moment. It’s fine to ask for some time to sort this out, but don’t use this as a tactic to avoid a future discussion.
  • Ask your partner what they are feeling versus guessing. Each of you has your own thoughts and feelings, and each person is responsible for putting them into words in order to be understood. This way, your partner doesn’t need to guess.
  • Take responsibility for your choices. Instead of blaming your partner for how you feel or for what’s happening, ask yourself how your choices – purposeful or accidental – may have contributed to the situation.
  • Express your feelings as belonging to you without blaming your partner. For example, it’s much better to say something like, “I feel hurt and misunderstood in this conversation” than to say, “You made me feel hurt because of the way you talked to me.” The former is simply expressing an emotion; the latter is blaming your partner for the hurt feelings.

Healthy boundaries take practice, especially if you’ve come from a family where boundaries were unclear or barely recognized. With practice you and your partner will be better able to identify where the boundary line should be in your relationship. As a result, your bond will only grow stronger and more secure over time.

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