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What are Boundaries in a Relationship?

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When I first became a stepmom, I didn’t know what a personal boundary was. When my stepdaughter’s mom moved in with us, I kept receiving the advice to set very clear boundaries, but I was completely lost. What are boundaries in a relationship? How do you decide what that personal boundary should be? What if the other person doesn’t like or respect your wishes?

I didn’t know much about boundaries, but I knew it felt selfish to verbalize my needs, particularly in times when the other person’s inclination was contrary to those needs.

I worried about what others would think about my boundaries, about the potential conflict that could arise as a result of setting boundaries, and about what would happen when someone inevitably violated them.

I let that fear and general lack of knowledge around boundaries keep me from setting them for far too long, and because I recognize just how valuable and crucial they are for healthy relationships, I want to share the basics of boundaries with anyone else who may be in the same confused but curious state I was in.

What is a personal boundary?

A personal boundary is how you will take back control in a situation you don’t currently have control over, whose outcome will impact you.

Simply stated, your personal boundary declares your preference and should there be a different decision made, what you will do instead to keep the decision from impacting you.

It is important to recognize when you define personal boundaries, it is all about you. Your personal boundary is what you will do to ensure you have peace. Setting and enforcing personal boundaries will require a great deal of self-awareness.

What are boundaries in a relationship?

Boundaries in a relationship are your means for maintaining peace and harmony by recognizing that you’re unable to control or change other people, only yourself. If someone makes a choice that will impact you in a way you’re uncomfortable with, you have the right to set a boundary and choose to protect yourself from that impact.

We need to set boundaries in all relationships: romantic partnerships, family relationships, friendships, and professional relationships.

Because a boundary is a way of declaring what you are and are not comfortable with, the other person in the relationship does not have the ability to influence or change your boundary. They have a right to their own boundaries, but no one except you has a say about yours.

Examples of boundaries in a relationship

In some cases, a boundary is simply the natural response to someone’s inability to respect your wishes.

For example, when we were growing up, my brother loved to collect things. He would fill his pockets with rocks, gum, coins, anything he could get his hands on. But, he would often forget to empty his pockets before dropping his pants in the dirty clothes hamper.

My mom asked him to clean out his pockets before bringing her his dirty laundry to be washed repeatedly with no real change in behavior, until one day, she recognized that continuing to state a preference and receiving noncompliance was costing her her peace (in the form of cleaning out the washer, washing clothes loads multiple times to get it clean from whatever was in the pocket, etc.).

It was then that she stated her boundary. “I’m happy to wash your laundry if you can clean out your pockets. Should you choose not to, I will no longer be available to wash your clothes.”

In other cases, a boundary is the best alternative to your preferred outcome.

For example, I have an introvert personality, and being around all but a select few people depletes my energy supply quickly. My best friend, on the other hand, is very extroverted. She loves having a lot of people over and hanging out as a group; whereas, I prefer more intimate chats. It’s less draining for me.

Occasionally, a boundary I will have to set is “I’d prefer to hang out just the two of us tonight because it has been an exhausting day for this introvert, so if you plan to invite multiple friends over to hang out, I’ll choose to stay home and get together another time.”

My top choice would be to get together with my best friend just the two of us, but it is not my decision to make and I can’t control or change other people. So, I’ll set a boundary to protect my peace above all else.

I am self-aware enough to know that if I’m already energetically drained from a day at work, I will get cranky and/or very exhausted very quickly being around a group of people. That’s not fun for anyone involved, so I opt for my best alternative to my preference based on my needs.

It’s a process

As a recovering people-pleaser who used to never say “no,” becoming a more boundaried person didn’t happen overnight, but it has been worth the time and energy required to master this skill.

Consider starting with a smaller boundary with someone you trust. Keep practicing and getting more comfortable enforcing your boundaries. The more protected and peaceful you feel as you set more boundaries, the easier it will get.

If you choose to not set boundaries, you are choosing discomfort. You are choosing to not have your needs met. To take a backseat in your own life.

Sweet friend, you deserve to take up space. You have a voice. Do not let your stepmom status become somehow unequal. You are an equal member of your family, and you deserve to have your needs met.

Setting boundaries can feel uncomfortable. But if you’re going to be uncomfortable either way, wouldn’t you rather have your needs met?

If you think you could benefit from individualized support, apply now to find out if coaching would be a good fit for you!

P.S. In case you need permission like I did, it’s okay to say “No.”

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