What are boundaries?
Licensed therapist and boundary expert Nedra Glover Tawwab defines boundaries as the “expectations and needs that help you feel safe and comfortable in your relationships” and refers to boundary-setting as the “gateway to healthy relationships.” Knowing yourself and your boundaries and being able to communicate those is an important part of any relationship, whether that is with friends, family, or romantic/sexual partners.
Setting boundaries, while sometimes challenging, can help us to explain what is acceptable or unacceptable in our relationships and assist us in becoming better communicators with the people in our lives.
Some examples of boundaries you might set in a romantic and/or sexual relationship could include:
- “I am comfortable kissing you in private but not in front of other people.”
- “I enjoy spending time with you but sometimes I want one on one time with other friends.”
- “Sometimes I need time alone.”
- “I want oral sex but not anal sex.”
Levels of Boundaries
There are three levels of boundaries: porous, rigid, and healthy.
People with porous boundaries often feel uncomfortable setting limits with others, or may say yes to things that they don’t actually want to do. This can lead to feeling burnt out, overextended, anxious, etc. Porous boundaries might look like:
- Oversharing information with someone you’ve just met
- Feeling like you can’t say “no” to others’ requests
- Basing your self-worth on the opinions of others
- Feeling like you always need to be a “people-pleaser”
- Feeling complacent or accepting of mistreatment from others
People with rigid boundaries, on the other hand, often seek safety or control in relationships by putting up walls and avoiding intimacy. They may struggle with flexibility and getting close to others, often as a measure of self-protection. Rigid boundaries might look like:
- Avoiding close, intimate relationships
- Never sharing personal information with others
- Being unlikely or feeling unable to ask for help from others
- Fearing situations in which you are emotionally vulnerable
- Cutting people out of your life after small disagreements
Healthy boundaries can be set when we have an awareness of our physical, emotional, mental, and social needs, and have the tools to express them. Signs of healthy boundary setting include:
- Being able to confidently express your views and values
- Not changing your opinion simply because someone you care about disagrees
- Being able to be vulnerable with people who have earned your trust
- Feeling comfortable saying “no” or receiving a “no” from others
People often have a mix of boundary levels depending on the setting or relationship. What feels “healthy” or “normal” when it comes to boundaries can also be heavily dependent upon the culture in which a person is raised, which is one reason clear communication about needs and boundaries is so important.
Interested to learn what level of boundaries you have? Take this brief quiz.
Adapted from “Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself” by Nedra Glover Tawwab
Types of Boundaries: A Self-Reflection
Boundaries and expectations can vary from person to person and culture to culture. Having a conversation about physical, sexual, emotional, and digital boundaries can help people feel safer and happier in a romantic relationship—whether casual hook up(s) or long time dating partner(s).
A good place to start when it comes to boundary setting is reflecting on what you want. Here are some questions to get you started:
Sexual/ Physical Boundaries
- Are you interested in engaging in sexual activity? What type? How soon and often?
- What are you comfortable with in a public setting? (eg. Do you like holding hands, kissing in places where others can see?)
- What words or actions from a partner(s) help you to feel most comfortable? What is it important for you to communicate?
- Are there parts of your body that are off limits? What about for your partner(s)? Are there things that are triggering to you or your partner(s)?
- What’s important to you in terms of sexual health? Have you been tested? Has your partner(s)?
- What are your preferences in terms of protection/barrier methods (if relevant)? Contraception (if relevant)?
- Do you expect knowledge of your partners’ sexual history? What feels important to share about yours?
Interested in thinking more about your sexual desires and boundaries? Check out this “Yes, No, Maybe” Sexual Inventory or this worksheet that you can complete with a partner or partners to better understand each others’ sexual needs and boundaries.
- How much time do you hope to spend with your partner(s) (alone or with friends)? Where is it important for you to have your own space?
- When you are upset, how do you act? How is it helpful for your partner(s) to respond?
- What makes you feel loved and supported in a relationship?
- What kinds of things feel hurtful to you emotionally? How can you let your partner(s) know?
- What type of relationship are you looking for/hoping for (exclusive, open, casual, serious, romantic, sexual etc.)?
- Who do you talk to about your relationship? Are you comfortable with your partner(s) sharing about your relationship and with whom?
- Are there things that you do or do not want your partner to communicate about your identity (in some or all settings)?
- How often do you want to communicate with your partner(s) electronically? What are your expectations about a response?
- How does technology contribute positively to your relationship? Are there places where it can cause you to feel worse about the relationship or insecure about it?
- Is it okay to post about your relationship(s)? If so, does your partner(s) want you to check in with them about it first? What do you prefer?
- Is it okay to snap or post pictures/videos of your partner(s)? Do you prefer them to ask first?
- Consider your boundaries around things like password sharing, sexting, or apps that allow you to know a person’s location.
For more information about healthy relationships, boundaries, and how to communicate them, visit loveisrespect.org.