In this article, you will learn the simplest way of knowing what are healthy relationship boundaries. You will also identify common barriers to these healthy boundaries alongside ways to overcome these barriers.
What are Healthy Boundaries in a Relationship?
Boundaries in a relationship are any limit you need to set to be safe.
When healthy, boundaries exist in every relationship whether they are with friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, or strangers. Every time you interact with another person, there are boundaries at play.
This is true whether your boundaries are healthy, porous, or walled off. (More on this shortly.)
The Two Parts of Healthy Boundaries
You may imagine boundaries are like a fence around a house. There are two parts to this fence: limits which are external and those which are internal. The external boundaries allow you to feel safe with others. These include setting limits on how people speak to you or treat your time.
Internal limits allow you to be a safe person for others – and yourself. Any time you have chosen not to do or say something that could be hurtful, for example, you’ve used internal limits.
Healthy External Boundaries in a Relationship
External limits in relationships are the boundaries which are most typically discussed. External boundaries that allow you to feel safe with others. Of course, since this is about your sense of genuine safety, these limits are authentic and personal.
You may need things from others to feel safe that someone else in your life doesn’t need. That’s ok! For example, maybe you hate yelling in a relationship – and so you need to set limits on this with your partner – but your best friend doesn’t mind “passionate” fighting.
Learning how to identify, set, and maintain healthy relationship boundaries requires listening to your authentic self.
Related: How to Be Your Authentic Self
Healthy Boundaries to Be a Safe Person
The second part of boundaries which are less discussed are internal ones.
These internal limits are the boundaries you set on yourself. These boundaries allow you to be safe for others. This includes forcing yourself to take a deep breath instead of saying something out of anger. Or waiting until you are done with a busy day to call your mom back so you aren’t snippy.
Internal boundaries also allow you to be safe for yourself. An example of this is setting a limit on yourself to go to bed because you have work in the morning rather than binge scrolling social media.
Healthy Boundaries are Solid Yet Flexible
Healthy boundaries in a relationship are like a flexible bubble. You decide what comes in and what stays out. You can also be firm with your limits and consistent while making exceptions when it feels right.
For instance, you can have a solid boundary around not bringing work home. But maybe, you are finishing up a project you are really excited about so you make an exception to work for a couple nights one week.
For support in visualizing your boundaries bubble, please read on.
Healthy Boundaries Visualization
In my book, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle, I provide a visualization to imagine your boundaries.
The visualization is written as follows:
Close your eyes and imagine you have a marker in any color you like. Begin to draw a circle around yourself with this marker and imagine this circle begins to grow up around you in the form of light. Breathe deeply as you allow this light to form a bubble all the way around you. In this bubble, you decide what is true for you and what is not.
Boundary Issues are Common
Ideally, your boundaries bubble is up all the way around you protecting you in every relationship at all times. Yet for most people, there are times when they may have a porous bubble in which they are taking on too much of other people’s needs, wants, energy or expectations.
Or there may be times that the bubble instead becomes a wall where a person isn’t willing to hear another person out or negotiate needs.
Going to either extreme with your boundaries – maybe being more of a people pleaser or more walled off – is completely natural. In fact, as a relationship therapist with over a decade of experience, I’ve never met one person who doesn’t struggle with boundaries at times at least in one area of their life.
Give Yourself Grace
Whether you find you have more porous boundaries or walled off boundaries at times, please have compassion for yourself.
Firstly, knowing exactly what boundaries to set and how to be firm while knowing when and how to be flexible is tricky! Honestly, this is a skill that most of us are not taught growing up. Furthermore, having healthy boundaries requires many other skills: self-awareness, the ability to cope well with emotions, and communication skills.
And on top of this, any trauma within your relationships whether growing up or as an adult can negatively impact your ability to have healthy relationship boundaries.
Your Boundary Issues Make Sense
Whether you identify more as a people pleaser, or have a hard time letting down your walls, this typically happens for a reason.
Often boundary issues arise because of wounds you may have experienced in one, or more, relationships. And boundary issues are the result of this trauma wounding you yet you trying to find a way to survive with this pain and what it means to you.
Have Compassion for How You are Surviving
The same experience may manifest as different boundary issues for different people.
For example, if a person was bullied growing up, they may decide they are a “burden.” Deep down, they fear that if they ever set a boundary with others, they will surely be rejected or abandoned because they are worth that little.
Their porous boundaries then are an attempt to maintain relationships which is a basic, human need.
Or a person may be bullied and decide that others cannot be trusted. Therefore, they build up walls and lack close, intimate relationships because no one can get to know them. This person while naturally lonely and perhaps depressed from this isolation is also just trying to cope in a world where people feel unsafe.
Setting Boundaries is Healing
Whether you have porous boundaries, walled off ones, or both at times, learning how to set healthy boundaries is an important relationship skill and trauma healing skill.
This is because setting boundaries allows you to have healing, corrective experiences with people since there are safe people in this world.
And even when others prove unsafe when you set boundaries, you are showing yourself you are a worthwhile person who can trust yourself!
Setting boundaries is one of the kindest things you can do for others because it prevents your resentment from festering. And learning to let your walls down is loving because it’s the only way you can allow in safe, close relationships with others.
Setting Boundaries is a Practice
Learning to set boundaries that are solid yet flexible while maintaining them when they’re violated is a practice. We don’t ever “master” boundary setting because we don’t ever “master” relationships.
We can absolutely develop solid, consistent boundaries while learning how to be flexible. Yet there will still be times you feel nervous about setting boundaries (or letting down your walls). This is human.
The most important thing is to practice identifying, setting, and maintaining your boundaries. If you want 100 different ways to practice identifying, setting, and maintaining your boundaries, please check out my book, Setting Boundaries: 100 Ways to Protect Yourself, Strengthen Your Relationships and Build the Life You Want…Starting Now! (Therapy Within Reach).
It’s a process you take step by step – and every win counts!
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About The Author
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist and author with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to find their voice, deepen their ability to self-love, and improve their relationships.
Her newest book, Setting Boundaries: 100 Ways to Protect Yourself, Strengthen Your Relationships and Build the Life You Want…Starting Now! (Therapy Within Reach), gives you the tools necessary to identify, set, and stay firm with your boundaries.
Her other books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many overcome people pleasing, self-neglect, and resentment to have a healthier relationship with themselves and others.
If you have any personal dating or relationship questions, Krystal is happy to provide advice using her expertise and compassion. If you feel comfortable, feel free to leave any questions in the comments of this post. Otherwise, you may send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or DM her on Instagram. Your name and any other identifying information will always be kept confidential.