Boundaries in relationships; having them is more important than our parents ever realised, here’s how we can set them and keep them

We've sought expert advice on bringing boundaries into your life

Two pairs of feet stood either side of a red boundary line
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Boundaries in every type of relationship are important, and a lot of people weren't taught what they are or how to implement them. We ask the experts
for their advice on introducing this important part of your well-being.

Many people aren't aware of the concept of matrescence, despite it being something many will experience, or witness in others at some point in their lives. Similarly, understanding and finding the words to explain the mental load to their partner is something large numbers will struggle with. Setting boundaries in relationships can be equally challenging, as a lot of people will attest to not being taught to do this by their parents, or having it modelled for them in childhood.

In this digital age, it's easy to allow technology into our personal space at the touch of a button, making boundaries even more difficult to maintain. On the other hand, the age of the internet offers more access than ever before to expert minds and research. To be kind to ourselves can occasionally mean upsetting another, and learning to make peace with that when equipped to put up boundaries, can be hard. Dr Limor Gottlieb, Relationship Psychologist, told us "Many people are scared of communicating their feelings and needs to others because they’re thinking it could create conflict and ruin their relationship, but setting boundaries is about creating a healthier relationship. Some conflict in intimate relationships is actually necessary and can bring couples closer together. When you communicate your boundaries make it clear to those around you that you're committed to the relationship."

With further expert help from Life Coach and Boundaries expert Michelle Elman, this article shares advice about the boundaries that exist across relationships and how to identify your boundaries. The experts identify how to set boundaries with your partner and friends, and the specific benefits of having boundaries in your life.

 Boundaries in relationships

As suggested, the term "boundary" is often used, but can sometimes be poorly understood. Boundaries are often not properly-executed due to not witnessing parents or caregivers implement them themselves. Research tells us that imagining a physical boundary as a barrier between two things is not that different to how psychological boundaries work. 

To imagine what a psychological boundary might look like, envisage a barrier around yourself that isn't too rigid, and can be moved when you choose. It will protect you, while maintaining your chosen level of connection to others. It acts as a structure to limit the energy you give others or situations, presenting you with the freedom of choice over obligation, or perceived expectations of others. Your boundary has a gate and you are the keyholder - nobody is getting in or out without your express permission. 

Woman holding a boundary in front of her face

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Further advice relating to setting boundaries suggests they're applicable to romantic partners, family, friendships, and the workplace. Maintaining them can actually strengthen relationships and banish unhealthy ones, improving overall health and well-being.

Types of boundaries

  1. Emotional boundaries: These take into account the actions of others in respecting your emotional well-being and internal comfort. This barrier prevents the feelings of others overwhelming you, and offers understanding that you’re not responsible for how others react to decisions that promote your personal happiness. 
  2. Physical boundaries: Physical boundaries clearly show others your need for personal space, and how much physical touch you feel comfortable with. This isn't limited to those close to you, but is also required when dealing with strangers and colleagues. Examples include making it clear if hugs make you uncomfortable, or preventing others disturbing your living or office space. 
  3. Intellectual boundaries: An intellectual boundary protects personal thoughts and opinions. This can include respecting that someone's opinion is different to yours and vice versa, agreeing that everyone has a right to a belief. 
  4. Sexual boundaries: Sexual boundaries involve ensuring explicit consent is given before engaging in sexual activity, and checking parties involved in the act are comfortable throughout. Regularly communicating preferences and re-setting expectations about frequency of sexual contact should be an ongoing part of maintenance of sexual boundaries. 
  5. Time boundaries: This relates to others being respectful of your time, and you of theirs. This can involve setting limits for how often you see friends and family, and reassessing outside familial obligations if they become overwhelming.  
  6. Financial and material boundaries: What you do with your personal belongings is your choice, and you shouldn't feel guilty for not loaning somebody money, or not wanting them to use your things. Somebody perpetually asking for money can cause building resentment. A material boundary can be in place by you letting something be borrowed, but firmly stating when it has to be returned. 
  7. Communication boundaries: Boundaries relating to communication seek to manage conflict and arguments. This can include setting rules relating to name calling, and stipulating that past arguments shouldn't be revisited or weaponised. 

Two people having coffee and having a discussion

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How to set boundaries with your partner

It's been suggested there are four main ways to set and respect boundaries with your partner. The first is to use clear communication - identifying as a couple the most important aspects of your life and relationship. What is non-negotiable, and where can you both be flexible? 

Second, on the list is to set clear consequences. Once the initial boundaries are set, you and your partner are responsible for ensuring their success. If either disrespects a boundary, make the consequences known. This could mean taking a time out if an argument gets heated when you've agreed on no shouting during arguments. Following through on a consequence is necessary to ensure boundaries remain respected.

Next, you must both take responsibility. All actions and words have consequences, whether positive or negative. If you've decided on more equal delegation of household chores for example, and your partner still doesn't take their fair share, they aren't taking responsibility for the boundaries you've placed on your time and energy. Tackle the issue with respectful, non-critical communication, and understand that mistakes can happen - especially when healthy boundaries have been newly implemented.

Finally, there's nothing wrong with seeking professional help to assist in boundary setting. A professional can help you identify your boundaries if you're struggling, about your personal needs. They can also teach and establish the best tools to use for communicating your boundaries, and identify if a relationship should end if boundaries are continually disrespected or the relationship is simply not compatible.

Dr Limor Gottlieb, Relationship Psychologist, shared some ways to initiate conversations about boundary setting with your partner. She told us "It’s best to discuss sensitive issues in a calm and private setting, and it has to be at a time that your partner is able and willing to listen.

Avoid discussing sensitive issues during an argument, or while doing other things like driving. It can be in a public setting like over drinks or dinner- face to face is important to connect deeply. I recommend having pre-dinner drinks to discuss serious topics and then have a relaxed and fun dinner afterward."

She added, "You can be direct without blaming, criticising, or insulting your partner, the best way to do that is by using 'I' statements like 'I feel hurt when you say X', or 'I feel uncomfortable when you do X'". 

When discussing time and space boundaries, she continued "You could say 'I value my alone time to recharge. I need to have some evenings to myself. Can we discuss and find a balance that works for both of us?' While for financial boundaries you could say 'Let’s discuss our financial expectations and set a budget together to avoid misunderstandings and make sure we are both comfortable with our spending habits.'"

If you need to discuss your partner's involvement with family life, Dr Limor Gottlieb suggests saying "Family events are important to me, and I’d like us to attend them together, however, I also need some downtime on weekends. Can we find a compromise that works for both of us?"

For conversations about sexual contact, she advises saying "I want to be clear about my comfort level with physical intimacy. I need us to communicate and make sure we are on the same page about what feels right for both of us." 

Female friends smiling in a group

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How to set boundaries with friends

Setting boundaries with friends can be just as difficult as with any other type of relationship. Although important at any stage of life, this can be particularly important for new mums, as It's easy to worry that the relationship could be diminished by boundary setting at a time you need friends the most.

There may also be concerns relating to causing friends to feel hurt and upset. If you're setting boundaries within a very established friendship, it might be difficult for the other person to respect what you're implementing, if they're used to your relationship being a certain way. 

If you are having trouble setting a boundary within a friendship or friendship group, you might consider the following expert advice from Dr Limor Gottlieb:

  • Be specific when you express how certain actions or behaviours make you feel as this helps others understand the emotional impact.
  • When your friend responds, listen. It’s important to be open and responsive to their perspective.
  • This is called "active listening" in Psychology and it encourages open communication and understanding, which can foster empathy.
  • It may be necessary to negotiate and find compromises that respect what both of you expect from the friendship.
  • A collaborative approach is useful - maintain respect and acknowledge the difficulty your friends might find in this new way of showing camaraderie.

Michelle Elman, Life Coach and Boundaries expert, reminds us "When your boundaries are crossed, you will experience anger and resentment. Those are the emotions that signal you need to reinstate your boundaries and communicate to your friend what has upset you."

Benefits of setting boundaries

Michelle Elman, Life Coach and Boundaries expert, reiterates that setting boundaries positively impacts self esteem, and self-protection. She said "Boundaries are how we teach others to treat us and as a result when you have good boundaries, you strengthen your self esteem. 

You protect yourself against people who want to manipulate or take advantage of you and you also begin to learn what you need and want from your relationships."

By being empowered to free yourself from toxic and unsatisfying relationships, your self-esteem can take a much-needed boost. Overall, setting healthy boundaries can reduce co-dependency by introducing autonomy, and help set firm expectations all interactions with others. The self-respect boundaries bring, has the physical and psychological benefit of separating personal needs from those of others. 

For more on self-improvement, we have a guide to 30 of the best self-care ideas around - and they're all free. Feeling constantly exhausted? These could be the reasons you're so tired all the time. For those considering giving up drinking, the effects of alcohol and why you might want to cut back, have been explained by the experts.

Dr Limor Gottlieb
Dr Limor Gottlieb

Dr Limor Gottlieb is a relationship psychologist with the aim to transform our understanding of love, attraction, and human behaviour. Limor’s research focuses on the Psychology of sex and romantic relationships, spanning topics such as infidelity, intimate partner violence, and attachment styles, and is reshaping our perspective on romantic relationships.

Michelle Elman
Michelle Elman

Michelle Elman, also known as the “Queen of Boundaries”, is a five-board accredited life coach, author, broadcaster and public speaker. Michelle is often praised for her straight-talking approach and has appeared on ITV daytime show, This Morning as their resident life coach. Along with her three best-selling books, Am I Ugly, The Joy Of Being Selfish and The Selfish Romantic, Michelle’s debut children’s book, How To Say No was released in 2023, sparking the crucial conversations needed between teens and boundaries. Michelle’s popularity continues to grow with her books being sold in 13 countries, and amassing an online following of over 500k people. A firm media favourite and core industry spokesperson, Michelle is celebrated by the likes of Glamour, Stylist and Grazia, with Cosmopolitan naming The Joy of Being Selfish as being one of the best books to read on mental health.

Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.