The word “boundaries” in a romantic partnership can trigger negative connotations, conjuring up images of angry and controlling partners. However, there is a different way to look at this idea. Boundaries are the rules and agreements that make it possible to remain in a relationship, preserving trust and harmony for the long haul. Some boundaries may be rigid—no extramarital sex, for example—while some may be more flexible—for instance, no spending time alone with the opposite gender, unless it’s for work.
For many couples, boundaries are modeled upon social or religious norms, or upon other relationships that they respect, such as the relationships of parents or friends. Other times, one person will feel the need for a specific boundary as a reaction to a prior relationship violation (i.e., their last partner cheated). These parameters are helpful and necessary to ensure feelings of safety, and should be developed according to each couple’s unique needs and desires.
Here are a few examples of relationship boundaries…
- Openness about communication with a member of the opposite gender (or same gender, if in a same-sex relationship)
- No snooping behind the other partner’s back
- If spending time with an opposite gender, do so in a public place
- In the case of a prior infidelity, completely avoid putting oneself back in a similar situation
- No secrecy regarding relationships with others, including ethically open relationships
- Be willing to talk about situations that provoke anxiety in either partner
- Transparency about one’s whereabouts and social gatherings
- Always invite each other to outings with members of the opposite gender
The tough part about boundaries
While there are numerous benefits to having relationship rules in place that ensure communication, expectation, and mutual respect, the existence of boundaries can also feel stressful. At times, one partner may express a strong preference for a certain boundary, such as no texting members of the opposite gender, while the other may experience this as an overly intense rule, and a form of being controlled. Couples may get stuck in gridlock over such discussions. Here’s how you and your partner could work through these often challenging boundary-setting discussions:
Tip #1: Maintain mutual respect – When discussing the topic of boundaries, remember that they are a necessary and helpful part of a committed relationship. Keep in mind that your partner’s preferences are based on legitimate values, and, quite possibly, based on valid fears. Try to respect where your partner is coming from, and ask questions to make sure you understand the meaning behind their perspective. Do not attempt to change your partner’s feelings to match your own.
Tip #2: Be willing to compromise – Like most aspects of a committed relationship, it helps to be willing to flex your position on boundaries. This is easier to do when we understand and validate the underlying meaning behind what each other is asking for. Practice talking through options when discussing a potential boundary, and see if there is room for flexibility.
Tip #3: Honor your partner’s need for safety – One reality of life and love is the fact that we each experience insecurity. This can manifest as anxiety about how our partner sees us, or worry that our relationship will not stand the test of time. Anxiety about our relationship is often based on real experience, for example, growing up with divorced parents, or experiencing a break up ourselves. Whenever our partner is struggling with fear, the best response is to slow down, validate, and let them know you understand and care. Asking, “What can I do to help you feel safe?” is a great way to comfort.
Tip #4: Be willing to revisit the topic of boundaries repeatedly — As partners grow and change, so may our needs for safety and security. We may experience an increase in trust that makes it possible to flex our boundaries. For example, a couple in recovery from infidelity may experience a need for intense transparency in the immediate aftermath of the betrayal. This could include agreeing to GPS tracking so that the betrayed partner can see where the other is at any time. As their healing progresses, this need for tracking may very well become unnecessary.
Boundaries can help shape healthy, sustainable relationships.
When we are secure in our love, we are committed to helping our partner feel safe by avoiding triggers, and to helping them feel sure of our accessibility and responsiveness. Boundaries help create healthy, sustainable relationships, and also foster a sense of relaxation and freedom along the way.
Need a bit more help?
Creating relationship boundaries can feel like an overwhelming process. If you are hitting gridlock, a therapist can help to curate safety along the way.
If you are ready to schedule an appointment and live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas, we can help. Contact us to get started. We offer both virtual sessions and in-person appointments.