How to set boundaries in a relationship
Like a lot of health-care professionals, Dr Brian Goldman finds it extremely difficult to draw boundaries between his work and personal lives. “There’s this view that you should suck it up and do one more thing,” says the ER physician. But that “one more thing” often comes at Goldman’s expense.
“You’re exhausted and a patient or their family member looks at you with pleading eyes,” he says. “So you have this dilemma: do you say that your shift is over or do you give until you’re totally spent?”
Goldman’s work stress combined with family tension after his mother was diagnosed with dementia 20 years ago. Caring for her over more than a decade was difficult, as was dealing with his father’s grief. “When someone else is drowning you, you have to grab a life preserver and save yourself,” says Goldman.
Pushing himself too hard for too long sometimes caused Goldman to feel burnt out. “You have a choice,” he says. “Do you break or do you start adopting some healthy limits?”
Setting boundaries isn’t just important for busy professionals; everyone can benefit from managing situations that cause undue stress or pain. Here are some tips on how to set boundaries in a relationship – not only drawing the line, but staying inside it.
Identify your limits
It’s easy to become accustomed to a certain level of discomfort in our relationships. When we don’t stand up for ourselves, we can suffer from low self-esteem, which, in turn, leads to us seeing our limits as less important. But recognising that you need – and have a right to – boundaries is crucial.
“If someone’s behaviour makes you unhappy – and it could be anything from the way they speak to you to repeatedly failing to adhere to their promises – then there’s room to set limits,” says psychologist Patrick Keelan. He suggests that both your body and your mind will alert you to the need to set boundaries, whether it’s a feeling of tension or unease, a mood shift or repeated negative thoughts about a certain person or situation.
We often avoid setting limits because we prioritise the happiness and comfort of others over our own. In order to help combat this impulse, Goldman suggests framing the development of boundaries as a form of self-kindness. When faced with an overwhelming situation like the one he was in with his father, Goldman encourages reflecting on what is making you feel uncomfortable, unhappy or unappreciated. “The ever-present danger is that you don’t know where you end and the other person begins,” he says. “But you can’t empathise with others or be kind to others if you aren’t kind to yourself.”
Communication is key
Once you’ve become more aware of your needs, setting and maintaining boundaries requires clear verbal communication. There are three obstacles to enforcing boundaries in a relationship: fear, guilt and self-doubt, says psychologist Nicole McCance. We often fear that if we impose limits, the other person will reject us, or we feel bad asserting our needs. “Guilt, in particular, is a heavy thing to sit with,” says McCance. “A lot of my clients end up doing something they don’t want to do because the guilt is worse [than doing it].”
Keelan proposes setting ground rules before relationships become fraught. Start by collaboratively listing values – like mutual respect, support, loyalty and honesty – and then building the guidelines from these values. A value of mutual respect, he says, could lead to a specific rule relating to boundaries around communication, like “When we disagree, we will only refer to actions and behaviours and refrain from making negative comments about each other’s character.” If you’re struggling to reach a consensus, Keelan recommends engaging a third party, such as a therapist, to help.
In the short term, it might seem easier to avoid having these conversations, but if you harbour frustrations for too long, resentment sets in. Keelan adds that these discussions may take more than a single exchange, and shifting concerns mean that you should consider boundary setting to be an ongoing conversation.