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The Vital Role of Boundaries in Healthy Relationships

Sassy woman with finger in air, saying no

Setting healthy boundaries is crucial for developing and maintaining strong, fulfilling relationships. Boundaries have become a trending topic that can sometimes become confusing and complicated, but in short, boundaries define what behaviors (physical, emotional, etc.) we will and will not accept from others and how much we are willing to give or sacrifice within our relationships. Placing and holding boundaries can be a very uncomfortable practice and can sometimes feel like we are causing others pain or harming our relationships. However, without necessary boundaries, relationships can become deeply imbalanced and dysfunctional.

There are many reasons people avoid setting boundaries in the first place. Our society glamorizes self-sacrificial individuals who give and give to others to the point of neglecting themselves. Even our language and connotations describe the cultural allure of this behavioral characteristic. The word, “selfless” is often bestowed as a compliment and “selfish” as an insult and a character flaw. The desire to be viewed in a positive light by others can breed behaviors that encourage us to set aside our needs and wants, and allow others to cross our boundaries. 

Many people believe being a good partner, parent, or friend means dropping everything for the other person, and that sharing a limit is unloving and will be painful to the recipient. Paradoxically, this path of self-sacrifice often leads to burnout and resentment toward that person you're trying so hard to show love to (not to mention possible resentment toward yourself). We cannot truly connect and be authentic in relationships if we are without a self and depleted of our resources. As the saying goes, "You can't pour from an empty cup." If we are constantly abandoning our own needs for others, we eventually run dry and lose our sense of self. And without a sense of self, genuine connection is not possible.  Maintaining healthy boundaries, therefore, is a loving thing to do.

Additionally, resentment (which results from over-extending ourselves) leads to distance rather than closeness in relationships. And what's more, the less we show care and respect for ourselves, the less likely others will too. Therefore, we can actually push people away by not respecting our own needs. A valuable question to ask yourself before doing or giving something to someone else is: "Can I do this without resentment?" and “Do I see the value in this?” If the answer is no to either question, that is a sign you probably need to set a boundary.

Once we realize the beauty of boundaries, we do not strive for close and connected relationships with others despite our boundaries, we understand that truly close and connected relationships with others are only possible because of our solid boundaries. As Brené Brown states, "Boundaries are not separation or division. They are respect." Each time we let a person know what we are and aren't okay with, what that person does with that information tells us something about how much they respect us. And that is valuable information. Check out this short video on how to identify red flags vs. green flags in your relationships.

To be clear, boundary-setting is not about closing oneself off from relationships and acting without regard for other people. Most healthy relationships do in fact involve some sacrifice for the greater good. For example, helping a friend move apartments may be a physically draining and unenjoyable task, but if you highly value that friendship and experience a sense of equality within it, then you will likely have the capacity to extend yourself from time to time without it leading to resentment. Conversely, if a different friend who frequently asks you for favors without returning the same level of generosity asked of you the same thing, you likely would not be able to say yes without begrudging and building resentment toward them.

Boundary-setting allows for interdependence in relationships, as opposed to codependence or excessive independence. Codependence is when two people derive their self-esteem and identity from a relationship. Independence is walling yourself off. Interdependence is maintaining your sense of self while being open, vulnerable, and leaning on your relationships at times. Check out this article for more on codependency vs. interdependency.

Setting boundaries involves saying no when you need to, not just habitually deferring to others. This often means tolerating someone's temporary disappointment, which can be challenging. That disappointment stings, but it's better than the resentment that comes from a lack of boundaries. Additionally, as we practice setting our own boundaries, we learn to respect other people’s boundaries more easily and see them less as personal hits and more as expressed authenticity and vulnerability (which inspire deeper connection).

A necessary step before we can set healthy boundaries with others is to first be able to identify for ourselves what our authentic boundaries even are. This often requires deep self-examination, which can be aided by support like therapy. Then, once we know what our boundaries are, we must communicate them. Perhaps in a perfect world, everyone would be able to guess exactly what another person needs or wants, but that is not our reality.  As stated in an article from Very Well Health, "when you set boundaries, you're communicating to others how you want and expect to be treated." It's hard but vital work for you and your connections. Boundaries allow us to show up as our full selves - and that is where true intimacy is possible.


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