How to Set Boundaries: What Works in Relationships
This guide will help you to consider ideas that may help your boundaries be better received by others. This work was based upon my experiences with emotionally focused therapy and what my clients have demonstrated as effective in their relationships. Please do not feel that you must do all or any of the items listed as this is just for informational purposes. I personally would not be able to do all the following in a given situation, especially if tension was high. Take what is useful for you and consult with a professional.
At a minimum, setting a boundary includes internally identifying the behavior that you do not want and having a plan for how to respond if your boundaries are not respected. However, if you want to set better boundaries that people are more likely to respond to, then you should consider the following.
1. Describe Primary Emotions
People usually do a much better job responding when they realize the hurt and pain you have experienced. Basically, primary emotions are softer/deeper emotions such as hurt, sad, alone, scared, etc.
If you just stay with those obvious, protective emotions like anger or frustration, then it may be too difficult for the other person to respond to anything else. This is because anger or frustration is often experienced as threatening. When someone feels threatened, their ability to listen may shut off or they may go into self-preservation mode.
Yes, it is a risk to use primary emotions. How awful would it be to talk about how alone you are and to have your partner respond in a way that confirms your aloneness? It happens all the time and we help people with this process in therapy.
- Example: “I end up feeling hurt and alone.”
2. Describe the Behavior that is Impacting You
People are usually experts at describing what the other person has done wrong. However, the trick here is to keep your description short (one sentence) and behavioral.
If there are multiple things impacting you, then try to identify one thing they all have in common. Let’s say they didn’t pick up the kids, put up their laundry, or help with cooking. This might be summed up as not following through.
If you start to pivot into talking about their emotional response as being wrong, then you may need to look a bit further. What are they doing when they are feeling that way or what tells you they are feeling that way in the first place? Their emotion is not hurting you; It is how they express the emotion that is hurting you.
- Example: “You do not follow through.”
3. Take Ownership for Your Behaviors and How You are Impacting the Other Person
Consider how important it is for you to feel that someone has understood how they have hurt or impacted you. This is likely also true for the person you are talking to.
What you are doing here is helping the other person feel heard so that they are less likely to defend their actions by describing your behaviors or how you are wrong. The trick is adding as much detail as possible.
- Example: “I get angry and complain. Eventually, I yell at you and then retreat to the bedroom. I can imagine that you must also be feeling hurt and like you can’t do anything to please me when I get like that.”
4. Illuminate the Boundary and Describe the Result of Breaking it.
Boundaries are all about you, not the other person. This means boundaries are not about punishing other people for doing something wrong, they are about protecting yourself when something is wrong.
Here, consider using a single sentence that includes the words “If” and “then.” If you do not know what to select as the result, then you can buy yourself some time by saying something like “then I plan to take some time to consider what to do next.” You can also use modifiers, such as “then I will consider ___.”
When in doubt, leave yourself some space. You don’t want to set a boundary that you cannot uphold. This makes it harder to implement future boundaries.
Example: “If you continue with not following through, then I am going to consider hiring someone to help with the chores.”
5. Identify What You Want
It is easy to talk about what you don’t want. It is challenging to describe coherently and in behavioral terms what you do want.
This helps you and the other person to know what should ideally be done.
- Example: “I want you to call or message me if you need help so we can work together to find alternate options.”
6. Ask for Feedback and Adjust if Needed
Here you can ask them what they think about the boundary. As with the prior example, they might say that you can’t afford to hire someone to help you. However, the trick is listening deeply. Are they actually saying they do not think it is affordable (you might need to consider some other ideas) or are they saying the conversation is too much or too difficult (you might need to give them some space)?
There are an infinite number of responses here, so just check in with yourself and how you are feeling about the conversation.
- Example: “What do you think? Hmm, I need some more time to think about that. Can we talk more tomorrow?”
- Consolidated Example: “I end up feeling hurt and alone when you do not follow through. When I feel this way, I get angry and complain. Eventually, I yell at you and then retreat to the bedroom. I can imagine that you must also be feeling hurt and like you can’t do anything to please me when I get like that. However, if you continue with not following through, then I am going to consider hiring someone to help with the chores. I want you to feel comfortable calling or messaging me if you need help so we can work together to find alternate options. What do you think? Hmm, I need some more time to think about that. Can we talk more tomorrow?”
Boundaries are incredibly difficult to set and maintain!
Even if you did everything discussed here, the boundary may still be received negatively. Basically, systems (including relationships) resist change. Boundaries represent a change to the system, and this is often perceived as threatening. Also, we can get stuck in systems where we trigger the response we do not want unknowingly.
Boundaries can help with the immediate issues or help you get things working well enough. However, behavioral change is probably not going to reorganize the system. In other words, the underlying problems are still there. If you want help with this or any aspect of boundary setting, then please contact us or a mental health professional.
I would be personally happy to talk with you further about your specific circumstances and help you through these types of conversations. You can find my information on my therapist page.