We think of boundaries as keeping us away from our spouses, as creating distance, as thinning and weakening our bond. But boundaries—healthy boundaries—can actually strengthen our connection and bolster our relationship with our partner.
For instance, when you set a boundary that creates space for both partners to focus on their interests and desires, rather than one person having control over the other, each spouse feels heard, said Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT, a psychotherapist who specializes in couples and premarital counseling in Marion Country, Calif. “[T]heir connection is more positive than if one feels silenced.”
According to psychologist and relationship expert Susan Orenstein, Ph.D, boundaries are limits each partner sets to feel safe, respected and valued in the relationship. This prevents partners from feeling threatened. Which is critical because if they do feel threatened, instead of feeling joy and warmth or experiencing spontaneity, their mental energy will be spent on scanning for danger, she said.
“When you establish your boundaries, and are respectful of your partner’s boundaries, you can both feel safe and secure and will more likely experience love toward each other.”
Marriage and family therapist Cindy Norton views boundaries as guidelines that define how you’d like to be treated by others. “Having healthy boundaries means that you get to define what is acceptable. A common way of describing personal boundaries is where you end and others begin.”
Boundaries also help couples get on the same page, said Priscilla Rodriguez, LMFT, a relationship therapist who specializes in infidelity, sex and intimacy and military couples in San Antonio, Texas.
But, of course, not all boundaries are created equal. Below you’ll learn about five boundaries that actually help you get closer.
Setting a boundary around personal time. “I know this may sound counterintuitive, but having boundaries around time for yourself can actually help bolster your connection with your partner,” said Norton, founder of AVL Couples Therapy in Asheville, N.C. That’s because when couples spend all their time together, they start to lose themselves, including “those qualities that initially attracted their partner to them.”
Similarly, as marriage and family therapist Amy Kipp noted, “you are more interesting to your partner when you aren’t always together.” Which is what relationship expert Esther Perel speaks about in her TED talk, along with the idea that desire grows when we see our partners in their own element, engaging in activities they enjoy and are passionate about.
Plus, “The ability to do things outside of the relationship means you aren’t looking to have all of your needs met by one person,” said Kipp, a couples specialist with a private practice in San Antonio, Texas. “This takes pressure off of the relationship.”
Norton noted that time to yourself might mean anything from savoring your solitude to socializing with friends to engaging in your favorite hobby. Similarly, it’s important to know how much time each partner might need for their personal time, Rodriguez said. “Some people need a full day, whereas others need 20 minutes every day, but the only way you will know this is by talking about it with your partner.”
Setting a boundary around public and private. Orenstein, founder and director of Orenstein Solutions in Cary, N.C., stressed the importance of having an agreement about what is shared between you (i.e., what’s private) and what’s open to the public.
For instance, you and your spouse decide not to discuss the issues that come up in your relationship with other people, not even your best friends. Orenstein shared this example: “If something is bothering me about you, you will be the first to know. We won’t talk behind each other’s backs.”
Couples also might set a boundary about what they reveal in general about their relationship to loved ones, along with what they share (and don’t share) on social media about their marriage or family.
Setting a boundary about how you communicate. According to Rodriguez, “most couples do not know how their partner would like to discuss serious issues versus ‘normal talk’” (e.g., expressing something that’s bothering you versus what you’re making for dinner tonight). Which is why it can help to set a boundary around what you’ll do when one of you needs to reach out, such as putting down the phone, turning off the TV and minimizing other distractions, she said.
Norton noted that this commonly happens in couples when issues arise: One person wants to talk about the issue and resolve it right away; the other person is upset and wants space to calm down. When this request for space is ignored, the argument only escalates.
Setting a boundary about your arguments means having a plan and honoring it. According to Norton, this is complex and depends on the couple, but a brief example is:
- Identifying each person’s triggers and signs of flooding (“’flooding’ is a John Gottman term when your heart rate exceeds 100 bpm, and you are unable to think clearly, solve problems, or even comprehend or clearly process what is occurring—which isn’t productive for talking about a difficult issue)
- Asking for a break when you recognize flooding occurring (which might be anywhere from 20 minutes to 24 hours)
- Honoring this request and having each partner engage in a calming activity, such as walking the dogs, reading, running, meditating, watching a favorite show, or taking a bath
- Returning to the conversation using effective communication skills.
Setting a boundary around sexual intimacy. “Many couples argue or are passive when it comes to sex, which often leads to a sexless relationship, Rodriguez said. Which is why it’s critical to have an open discussion about what each of you is comfortable with doing and experimenting with, she said.
It might be an awkward conversation to have with all sorts of factors at play, such as trauma, she said. But these questions can help get you started: “What turns you on? What are you uncomfortable with doing sexually? Do you enjoy role play? When do you like to have sex? Is there something that you would like to try? What is your fantasy?”
Setting a boundary around support (versus responsibility). Kipp underscored the importance of knowing the difference between supporting your partner and taking responsibility for them (which isn’t helpful or healthy). “Supporting them allows them to be their own person, mistakes and all.”
She shared this example: Your partner is having a conflict with their sibling. Supporting them means listening to them and helping them brainstorm solutions. Taking responsibility for them means talking to their sibling on your own and trying to resolve the conflict.
“When we can be supportive, it strengthens the bond by allowing both people to be fully individual while, at the same time, sharing emotional connection.”
Similarly, this involves setting internal boundaries, which also are vital. That is, you know that you’re responsible for your own thoughts, feelings and actions (and not anyone else’s). For instance, when you say something hurtful, you admit your wrong-doing and apologize: I’m sorry I lashed out. That wasn’t OK.”
You also aren’t over-invested in your partner’s happiness, and you don’t ride each other’s emotional waves, said Kift, founder of Love and Life Toolbox.
It might seem surprising but boundaries are critical to a couple’s connection. As Kift said, “boundaries in relationships lead to healthier, happier partnerships and the individuals within that couple.”