It’s true, one of the goals of a good relationship is to get closer — but the key to a
great relationship is having firm don’t-go-there zones. Whether they’re familial, romantic, friend-only or work, all relationships need boundaries. “Boundaries are put in place by two people to protect each other in a relationship,” says Quinn Gee, LPC, of Magnolia Mental Health in Washington, D.C. That concept sounds simple enough, but as Gee explains, “Some people have never learned boundaries or are terrible at enforcing them.”
If you suspect you fall into one of those two categories, keep reading. These steps could get you to a much healthier place in the relationships in your life.
Step 1: Assess your relationship.
Gee suggests going through the following checklist: “Are you able to tell this person intimate things without consequence? When you spend time with them, do you worry consistently that they’re going to harm or hurt you? When you leave, do you want to apologize?”
If you answered no to the first question or yes to the others, you are in a relationship with shaky — or no — boundaries.
Step 2: Do a self check-in.
Ask yourself, says Gee, “Is there reciprocity in this relationship? Am I showing up as much as they show up for me? Am I comfortable saying no as much as they do?” If you can not say no, or are the one making the bulk of the effort to sustain the relationship, it does not have good boundaries.
Step 3: Commit to change.
Accepting that a relationship needs better boundaries is great, but only if that is just the first action you take. To really make a difference, something has to change in your dynamic with the other person. And that begins with you first being able to tell yourself what boundaries need to be put in place, before you tell someone else. To do that, talk to someone who can help you learn to set and keep boundaries. “A mental health professional is unbiased and impartial to what is going on,” Gee notes.
Step 4: Make it clear what you need.
“People don’t know how to correct behavior if they don’t know what the behavior is,” Gee reminds us. So if someone is important to you, tell them how their behavior affects you and what boundaries you need established. Gee offers this script: “This makes me feel a [certain] way, can you change how you say that? Or can you not say that anymore?” Once you open up to them, the ball is now in the other person’s court to agree or disagree.
Step 5: Don’t forget your friends.
While a therapist can present an unbiased perspective, a friend can keep you in check. Turn to someone you trust and ask them to help you enforce a boundary you have in place. “Say a friend knows you are dating someone and you agree not to go to this person’s house unless you’ve been dating for a certain amount of time, and then you want to go” says Gee. Tell your friend. A good friend will help you enforce healthy boundaries by holding you accountable.
Step 6: Remember it’s okay to move on.
If the other person is not willing to make amends, you have two options to enforce boundaries: figure out and institute a consequence, like spending less time with that person, or end the relationship. “Having boundaries does not mean harm is not going to be done,” says Gee. But if you understand how important your boundaries are, Gee says, “you tend to not stay in bad relationships. You will get out quicker.”