No man is an island, entire of itself.
This insight by poet John Donne captures the interconnectedness of humanity. While we are part of the human collective (and perhaps part of a couple), we are also independent beings. As such, we must continue to protect, develop and preserve our core selves.
What Healthy Boundaries Are
We don’t need whole oceans separating us from others. But we do need some space, even in an intimate partnership. Creating boundaries in your relationship is not the same as creating barriers in your relationship. The intent is not to keep your partner out, but to keep yourself in—that is, to keep your identity intact. This sometimes requires us to step back and set limitations on how we interact with our significant other.
What Healthy Boundaries Are Not
Having good boundaries doesn’t mean shutting people out. It doesn’t mean rejecting all input from others. And in a long-term relationship, it doesn’t mean resisting the natural progression of merging lives with the person you love.
Strong boundaries are not the same as rigid boundaries. Relationships require flexibility, compromise and consideration. Your partner should have a say in decisions impacting both of you. However, you should never feel pressured to discard parts of your essential self—your most cherished values, personal attributes and goals.
Signs of Poor Boundaries in a Relationship
- Not having a clear sense of self (who you are, what you want in life, etc.) apart from your partner
- Allowing your significant other to make major decisions for you
- Adopting different personality traits or mannerisms in an attempt to please your partner
- Letting your partner deny you sufficient time alone or with your friends and family
- Engaging in sexual activities you are not comfortable with (under pressure from your partner)
- Dramatically altering your hobbies and interests simply to match your partner’s
- Financially supporting a chronically-irresponsible partner
- Tolerating physical or emotional abuse
- Allowing your partner to define who your friends are
- Acting contrary to your own values
- Significantly altering your physical appearance to meet your partner’s (possibly unrealistic) expectations
- Allowing yourself to be manipulated, controlled or coerced by your partner
Setting Boundaries With Your Partner
If your boundaries have been lacking, communicate with your partner about any needed adjustments. If you think your partner has consciously and maliciously taken advantage of your poor boundaries, the relationship may be fundamentally unhealthy. But if your partner has merely slipped into a pattern that you have been enabling, take responsibility for your role in allowing that to happen. Frame the conversation as, “In the past, I haven’t done the best job of setting boundaries for myself. Going forward, I will be setting better boundaries, such as _________. I think these changes will have a positive impact on our relationship and help me a better partner.”
Why Boundaries Matter
Without a clear sense of self, you are vulnerable to being defined entirely by others. Your personality and interests should be apparent to your partner from the start of the relationship. That way, you never have to hide your true self from your partner.
Being in an intimate relationship is a wonderful opportunity for personal growth. In a long-term relationship, some merging of interests, activities and even personalities is natural. But such changes should be gradual and incorporate only desirable behaviors and activities. And these changes should be internally—not externally—motivated.
Maintaining boundaries is a relationship survival skill that keeps us from resenting our partners—or becoming unhealthily dependent on them. Good boundaries help preserve the best parts of yourself while accommodating the important addition of a significant other in your life.