What are boundaries?
Boundaries mark the limits of something. Your personal boundaries are the limits you set for yourself to show what makes you feel comfortable and safe. These limits can be emotional, physical, or digital. All healthy relationships have boundaries and can apply to any kind of relationship you have: a friend, family member, partner, or anyone else in your life.
To understand your own limits: pay attention to when you feel hurt, guilty, ashamed, or disrespected around a friend or partner. If you have feelings like these, it may be a flag that your boundaries were crossed.
Keep in mind that while all healthy relationships have boundaries, boundaries across relationships may look, feel, or be different depending on the person and their relationship to you. What works for one relationship may not work for another.
Types of boundaries
Emotional boundaries are about your feelings, moods, and sense of trust and security.
Some questions to ask yourself to find your emotional boundaries:
- How do I feel around this person? Are there certain times they drain my energy?
- Are my moods affected when I'm around them? When?
- Do certain words or actions make me feel nervous and uncomfortable?
Examples of emotional boundaries:
- I need to feel that my partner supports decisions I make about my life.
- My friends can’t call me names or make fun of me.
- I need to be able to spend time apart from my partner without feeling guilty.
Physical boundaries are about your body, privacy, and personal space.
Some questions to ask yourself to find your physical boundaries:
- What kind of physical contact am I okay with? What are my feelings about hugging, kissing, or holding hands?
- Do I need privacy such as when I feel tired or sick?
- Am I comfortable telling friends when I need to take care of my body, like eating or resting?
Examples of physical boundaries:
- I’m okay with kissing with my partner, but not in public.
Digital boundaries are about your phone, computer, or online activities.
Some questions to ask yourself to find your digital boundaries:
- How often do I want to call, text, message, or game with someone?
- Is it okay for other people to post about me on social media? Do I want them to post pictures of me or talk about our relationship?
- Am I comfortable with other people looking at or using my phone?
Examples of digital boundaries:
- I like texting with my friends, but I silence my notifications after 10 p.m.
- It's okay for my partner to post pictures of us online, but not share too many details about our relationship on social media.
- My passwords are private and my friends or partner can't log into my accounts.
How to set boundaries
The best way to set clear boundaries? Honesty and open communication. Everyone should feel comfortable expressing their needs, wants, fears, hopes, and limits with a friend or partner. Healthy relationships mean partners can share the truth about how certain situations or behaviors make them feel.
It sounds easy, but it can be complicated. And not being able to communicate well can quickly lead to misunderstanding and ultimately resentment.
Ready to respect yourself and your limits? Here are some tips to help you set boundaries in your relationships:
How to start the conversation
If you’re wondering how to talk about boundaries with your partner or friend, there’s just one way to start: whenever and however you like! Communicating is key to any successful relationship and setting clear boundaries is a big part of that.
If you already know what boundaries you need respected, discuss them up front with your friend or partner directly. Start with “It’s important to me when…” or “I need you to know I feel strongly about…” If your friend or partner acts in a way that you don’t like, you can address your boundaries in the moment. It may feel uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. A simple “I didn’t like when …” or “I would prefer next time if…” can be all you need to get the conversation started.
If you’re curious about someone’s boundaries, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Start with questions such as:
- “Are you ok when…”
- “How could we let each other know if something isn’t going well?”
- “What are some of your boundaries that are important for me to know?”
Once your boundaries are clear and you have a sense of your friend or partner’s limits, that’s a strong start. But once boundaries are set, they also need to be respected. If they aren’t being respected or you’re afraid of setting boundaries because of how someone will react, that’s an unhealthy relationship warning sign. Check in with your friend or partner occasionally as boundaries can change over time.
More of a visual learner? Check out this video! RESPECTfully – Control Sequel
My friend can’t call me names or make fun of me.
If a friend makes fun of me, I tell them it was hurtful, and take a break from hanging out with them.
It’s not okay to touch my body, hair, clothes, or belongings without asking.
If someone touches me without permission, I take a step back and say I don’t want to be touched and tell them I need space. If I feel unsafe, I tell someone I trust.
I want to text with my friends, but I silence my notifications after 10 p.m.
If my friend sends me a message late at night, I don't respond until the morning and/or I set my phone to “Do not disturb”
Check in often
Your boundaries may shift with time. You may be comfortable with something now but change your mind in the future. When that happens, discuss your changing needs with your friend or partner. Check in with them about their own boundaries, too. Make changes to your relationship together with mutual respect.
What to do when boundaries aren't respected
If a friend or partner isn’t respecting your boundaries:
If your boundaries are being ignored, minimized, or disrespected, it may be time to move on. You get to decide if a relationship is no longer good for you. It’s important to leave the relationship in a respectful and safe way. If you feel like your relationship is unhealthy in any way, find out about addressing your unhealthy relationship.
If someone else needs to end your relationship because their boundaries were crossed:
Respect their decision to move on. It's important not to make the other person feel bad or unsafe in any way. Everyone gets to decide for themselves what is best for them. And anyone should be able to end a relationship without fear of retaliation.
If this happens to you, it will hurt and you may be upset, but give the other person time and space. Use this as a time to reflect: were you not compatible because their boundaries are different from your own? Are there any behaviors you need to address? It can help to talk to a trusted adult or reach out to an advocate: you can call the 24/7 National Dating Abuse Helpline at 1-866-331-9474 or text loveis to 22522.
If you see signs of unhealthy behavior in a friend's relationship:
If you suspect that someone you care about may be in an unhealthy or abusive relationship of any kind, learn how you can help support them.
How to respect other people’s boundaries
Everyone has their own boundaries. Your friend or partner's limits might not be the same as yours. Here are some tips on how to understand and respect their limits:
- Never assume or guess someone else’s feelings. Ask them! Check in about how the other person is feeling about your friendship or romantic relationship.
- Take responsibility for your actions. If you cross someone's boundary, apologize and own your mistake. Make a plan for how you can respect their limits in the future, and hold yourself accountable.