One of the most misunderstood and important tools to develop healthy relationships is your ability to set boundaries.

Brene Brown famously said:

“The most generous people are the most boundaried.”

She’s right because setting boundaries helps you to take more responsibility for your life and therefore feel more in control which increases your confidence, energy and enthusiasm for life. Boundaries help you to become more open and trusting with yourself and others, which in turn improves the quality and intimacy of your relationships.

But what are boundaries exactly? My definition, which extends to both romantic and plutonic relationships is:

Your ability to understand, communicate and make a stand for how you want to be treated in your relationships.

To have boundaries is to know where you end and someone else begins. It’s what you fall back on when someone steps so far into your world that you cease being yourself. It’s your ability to communicate with them in a way that both describes how you want to be treated, and empowers others to treat you that way.

There seems to be a common misunderstanding that boundaries are restrictive, selfish and oppressive in relationships. In reality, the opposite is true as it’s only from understanding, and communicating your boundaries that you can create safe, trusting and intimate relationships.

Here’s a quick test to see if you lack boundaries in your relationship. If you say yes to more then two on this list then we need to talk!

This is what unhealthy boundaries look like:

  • I never say “no” to my partner or share my needs.
  • I don’t feel as if my partner respects me.
  • I feel incomplete without my partner.
  • I need my partner to make me happy.
  • I’m responsible for how my partner feels.
  • I can’t be fully honest with my partner.
  • There are things I don’t like in my relationship, but I don’t like to mention them.
  • I need to anticipate my partner’s needs.
  • I feel persistent resentments towards my partner.

Note: If you scored two or more, then don’t worry. We all have boundary issues at times. The key is being aware of it, and knowing what to do next.

All of these statements either demonstrate where the line between you and your partner is blurred, or where there is a lack of safety that stops you from being yourself in your relationship. Lacking boundaries can also be accompanied by a feeling of shame, guilt and anxiety. You feel this way because you think you’re a bad person for being selfish and meeting your own needs first, or because you’re not meeting someone else’s needs before your own.

The result of a lack of boundaries is that you get easily tired and burnout. You become resentful of your partner and are afraid of speaking up. You avoid difficult conversations as you become passive aggressive which leads to a lot of blaming in the relationship making you feel like a victim.

I see couples, often together for many years, who have little or no healthy boundaries in their relationship and, as a result, have silently bought into a co-dependent pact that says:

“I’ll let you treat me like X, if you let me behave like Y.”

Unhealthy boundaries are created to enable both partners to be treated in a way that allows them to get something they value. You might allow your partner to dismiss your feelings and needs because you value a life of no arguments and disagreements. Whatever it is, there is a silent agreement that this is how you are going to treat each other.

A lack of boundaries allows you to be used or manipulated. It starts with a lack of awareness of your core needs and an inability to communicate them to your partner in a way that empowers them to be met. Healthy boundaries, however, are the agreements you put in place that says:

“If you want to be with me, this is how I want to be treated.”

This can be really hard to do though for various reasons, such as:

  • We don’t understand our needs so can’t communicate them.
  • When we do communicate our needs, we think we’re being selfish or unreasonable.
  • We don’t value ourselves enough to make a stand for our needs.
  • We dislike the uncomfortable feelings in ourselves and our partners that come with making a stand, so we avoid them.
  • We are afraid of being rejected and abandoned.
  • We think our partner’s needs are more important than ours.
  • We’re used to not having our boundaries met as children so put up with it as adults.

Setting boundaries is tough, there’s no getting away from it, but once you notice this behavior in your relationship you can begin to do something about it. Take the quick test above and see where you’re at in your relationship.