In her recent cover story for Harper’s Bazaar, Beyoncé said she has always been “intentional about setting boundaries.” We would expect no less from Queen Bey. But, for many of us, setting healthy boundaries, particularly in romantic relationships, can feel really difficult.
Psychotherapist Jessica Fern explains that women especially often struggle to know how to set boundaries in relationships. “Many women are still conditioned to not be connected to their own needs and to focus on the needs of others,” she says. “Often we think if we say no, we’ll lose the relationship.”
So how do we get better at understanding and communicating our boundaries? Let’s go back to basics.
What are boundaries?
“Boundaries are the ways we protect ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally,” says Fern. “They are also how we establish our sovereignty in relationships.”
They cover things like privacy: whether you’d be okay with your partner looking at your phone, or sharing details of your sex life with friends. We might have boundaries around receiving unsolicited advice or criticism from partners, or the kind of language they use towards us. We have physical boundaries too, ways in which we do not want to be touched. “Everyday things are saying ‘You should do that’ or ‘You shouldn't do that,’ giving advice when it's not asked, or inquiring into stuff that’s not your business,” says Fern.
In her recent book Polysecure which explores how attachment plays into relationships, she explains that “porous” boundaries can lead to us giving too much of ourselves—our time, resources, and energy—to other people. We also run the risk of not respecting their time and energy or being intrusive. When our boundaries are too rigid, she says, we struggle to let people into our lives and hold ourselves back from expressing our feelings and needs.
We focus too much on protection and give up connection
Why we need healthy relationship boundaries
Fern has worked with all kinds of couples from the strictly monogamous to those in polyamorous relationships and says we all need boundaries to be able to connect with our partners while also maintaining and respecting each other’s autonomy. But while firm boundaries are needed in a lot of cases (for example around sexual health precautions), boundaries that are too rigid can stall the connection.
“Often we go to extremes,” says Fern. “We focus too much on protection and give up connection; we have walled-off boundaries and say ‘I'm not letting anything in or anything out.’ Or we sacrifice protection to be connected, and risk other people over-influencing us, becoming enmeshed and codependent, or intruding on others. Healthy relationships are also about knowing other people's boundaries and respecting them.”
Why is it so hard to set and stick to boundaries?
Often it’s because we don’t want the emotional consequences of saying no, says Fern. “We don’t want to deal with the pushback so we engage in peacemaking or people-pleasing.” But it also comes down to fear of abandonment, and the anxiety that if we don’t do what our partner wants, they’ll go elsewhere.
But boundaries are not just about saying no to things, they are also how we communicate what we do want. This can also feel super scary!
“It’s risky,” agrees Fern. “We could get more connection and respect, but we could risk discovering that someone doesn't give a shit about our boundaries or doesn't want to make the same agreements with us. Also, many of us have asserted boundaries [in the past] and they were made fun of or dismissed so there's a lot of shame behind that.”
What if I don’t know my own boundaries?
Before we can set healthy boundaries, we must identify what our boundaries are. This can be tricky if we’re starting a new relationship or if we haven’t been in many romantic or sexual relationships.
“One of the ways to learn is by noting how it feels,” says Fern. “Often when a boundary gets crossed, I’ll feel it emotionally so it’s like ‘Okay, that was a boundary!’ And then keep that in mind moving forward.”
She suggests writing down five to ten times in your life where you felt like your boundaries were crossed. “Then ask yourself, in those situations, what was the boundary and what was the need or value underneath that boundary.” Next, write down five to ten times when you feel like your boundaries were respected and reflect on those experiences.
So then how do we go about setting boundaries in relationships?
You’ve got to be prepared to pull your partner for a chat. If your partner wants something you don’t want—for example, wanting you to join them and their mates in the pub or texting good night every night—she advises approaching it with empathy and openness rather than hostility. “Instead of leading with, ‘I don't care about that’ it's like, ‘That's not my personal priority, but I see that it has value for you and you’d feel more connected to me or supported by me.’”
If there’s something you want, such as being included in your partner’s social plans, she recommends approaching it with curiosity over defensiveness or jealousy. “Say, ‘I've noticed that there have been three events you haven't invited me to, why is that?’ So go in with pure curiosity instead of thinking you already know and interpreting it as a negative.”
It’s also not a conversation you can have only once. “I think dating should be like an ongoing job interview!” laughs Fern. While the idea of an annual review (“How have you met your targets over the last tax year?”) is pretty unromantic, checking back in to make sure you’re on the same page is always a good idea.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.
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