Updated: Oct 18, 2022
Relationships are extremely important to our well-being as humans. But relationships are complex. No one is born knowing how to have healthy relationships, and most of us were never taught as children.
As adults, you can learn relational skills, heal from old wounds, and start to create relationships that lift you up. Learning how to set and enforce healthy boundaries with others is a key relational skill that will dramatically improve your relationships and your sense of self-worth.
A boundary is a point at which you can no longer tolerate something the other person does and still feel good about yourself and at ease in the relationship. When a boundary is violated, the result is a consequence that teaches the other person that the behavior is not acceptable. Setting a boundary is not just telling your partner how you feel about something. Boundaries have consequences. When they don’t, you teach people the behavior is acceptable.
Often, when a boundary is crossed, people get angry but don’t know what to do beyond that. They end up repeating what they need and being disappointed. Without any consequences—yelling doesn’t count—you are giving the person permission to continue to do the undesired behavior. Essentially, there are no real consequences for them.
In addition, you’re giving your power to the other person and falsely believing there’s nothing you can do. That belief is a self-esteem killer. We teach people how to treat us.
Consequences are a way to make sure the other person can’t continue to treat you in a way that you find unacceptable. The consequences I am referring to are not a punishment. They are an act of self-love and self-care.
If you want to be in a relationship with someone, but they are not respecting certain boundaries, you have a couple of choices. You can continue in the same pattern as before, but you’ll stay stuck and hurt if you do. Or you can begin to take action, and that person will either change the behavior, or it will become clear that they are not able to meet your needs. In that case, you know for certain that person isn’t your forever, and you can find someone who is.
The following tips will guide you in setting boundaries and enforcing consequences, so you can create the relationships you long for:
1. Feel your feelings. To know what your boundaries are, you need to feel your feelings, trust them, and use them as a guide.
For example, anger indicates that a boundary has been crossed. Another example is anxiety, which indicates that you are not comfortable with something. Joy and love, for example, indicate that your boundaries are being respected. Strengthening your mind-body connection will support you in feeling your feelings, trusting them, and using them to guide you.
2. Take action. When you set a boundary, it should be clear that you’re communicating what you need in order to be in the relationship. You’re communicating that when the boundary is crossed, you no longer feel safe, loved, and respected, and you have to take action to take care of yourself.
This may mean taking time away from your partner, limiting the amount of time with them, lessening what topics you’re willing to engage in, or, at its most extreme, ending the relationship. What you need to do to take care of yourself depends on the boundary and its meaning for you.
3. Take ownership. Boundaries are yours to set and hold. You decide what you need and what you want to do if you’re not being treated the way you want to be.
No one else can decide what is acceptable to you besides you. If someone isn’t respecting your boundaries, you don’t have to wait helplessly until they do. You can take action to take care of yourself. You have more power than you realize, but you have to stop blaming others and start taking ownership of your life.
We, as humans, will do a lot to hold onto our attachments. It’s not easy to let people go. It’s scary to set boundaries and risk that people will leave.
Rather than accepting that someone doesn’t respect what you need and moving on, people will often soften their boundaries to stay in the relationship. This will allow the relationship to continue, but it will not be a fulfilling relationship. If you’ve set consequences for violating your boundaries and the behavior hasn’t stopped, you may have to accept that the relationship isn’t going to work for you.
Boundaries are a skill worth learning and practicing, and a journey of self-discovery and growth worth pursuing.