How, Though? is a column devoted to helping you manage all the daunting complications of being alive.
I am not a person who sets boundaries with my friends and family—at least, not verbal ones. Whatever—I’m a clichéd millennial who hates conflict. Ironically, I also hate when my friends and family don’t respect the boundaries I’ve set in my head but have never actually communicated…which isn’t entirely fair to them.
There is one type of relationship where I don’t have an aversion to boundaries—the romantic kind. I’ve decided that this is because, cursed with an attraction to men, I resent them and everything they get away with far more than I hate conflict. I can easily tell a guy that if he would like to see me on a given night, he should make that clear before 8pm. I had a much harder time telling my mom to stop calling me at 10pm every Saturday night while I was in college. (By “much harder time,” I mean I never told her and, after ignoring enough of her calls followed by “I’m [insert wholesome activity]. Call you tomorrow!” texts, she got the hint.)
After speaking to marriage and family therapist Dr. Racine R. Henry, Ph.D., LMFT, about how to make your needs clear in non-romantic personal relationships, I learned that I was being passive-aggressive by ignoring my mom’s calls instead of communicating that I needed her to choose a different time to catch up. Dr. Henry also gave me a number of tips when it comes to setting boundaries with your friends and family. For the sake of being a better adult person, I’m planning to use them.
What Are Boundaries?
In order to know when to set a boundary, you have to understand what a boundary is. “A boundary is a line of respect. It's a certain limitation that you put on certain behaviors that are unpleasant or unwanted,” says Dr. Henry. “It's a way to verbally and nonverbally communicate how you want to be treated.” You know when someone does or says something that upsets you. That might be the perfect time to think about whether or not establishing a boundary with them will prevent this from happening again.
Boundaries Are Important in All Relationships
I have a friend who used to relentlessly send me blocks of texts about the most mundane things throughout the workday. I often didn’t have the time or energy to reply thoughtfully, nor did I have the heart to tell her I found her messages annoying and distracting. Instead, I tried to reply to her a few times a week in detail so that she wouldn’t think I was ignoring her, but sparingly enough so that she would get the hint. This is a good example of a time when I could have— should have—implemented a boundary. Instead, I regrettably kept this up until she got a full-time job and couldn’t keep up with it herself.
We may think of boundaries only in terms of our intimate relationships, but they can be beneficial to have with the many different types of people we’re acquainted with. According to Dr. Henry, when you set boundaries with someone, “The person is acknowledging that they can't just do whatever they want and that there are requirements for your relationship, whether that's a coworker, a friend, or a casual acquaintance.”
Set Your Boundaries in Your Head First
Before you approach the person you plan on setting a boundary with, you need to have a clear idea of why you’re setting this boundary, both for yourself and so that you can explain it to the person you’re setting it with. Upholding a boundary isn’t solely dependent on the person you’re setting it with. If they break the boundary, it’s important to stand your ground and implement conditions (more on this later!). Ask yourself if and how you’ll be able to stick to the particular boundary you plan to set. (Not sleeping with your ex, for example, can be easier said than done.) “You have to be able to back it up and enact whatever action is necessary to keep that boundary in place,” says Dr. Henry. There’s no use in setting a boundary you don’t plan to stick to.
Then, take time to really think about the person you want to approach: their personality, your relationship, and anything else that may be relevant. Are they a good listener? If not, you may need to be extremely concise and clear, setting up strict rules and leaving little room for ambiguity. Are they someone who doesn’t take constructive criticism well? If so, you may want to be extra aware of your tone.
How Do You Have a Conversation About Boundaries?
If you, like me, think you can set boundaries by ignoring texts or otherwise hinting that you’re mildly annoyed, I hate to tell you that this, but it will never work as well as growing up and using your words.
It may seem obvious that conversations about personal boundaries should happen in person, but according to Dr. Henry, that’s not necessarily the case. “It depends on your comfort level,” she says. “You're the one setting the boundary—you get to decide when that conversation happens and where and how it looks.” Dr. Henry says that if you’re prioritizing clarity or feeling super unsettled by having this conversation face-to-face, having it over email or text may even be best. “The benefit of writing it is, you get to be very certain about what you want to say and how you want to say it,” she says.
Explain to the person why you’re setting the boundary, and how their behavior(s) have upset you in the past. Discuss the boundary as something that will help improve your relationship, rather than push the two of you apart.
Be Prepared for Their Reaction
You’ll have to confront the possibility that your friend, family member, or whoever it is may not take your attempt to set a boundary well. According to Dr. Henry, this is quite common. “Up until that point, they're used to being able to have a certain amount of leverage with [you]—a certain kind of lenience. The minute you start to change that tide and say, This isn't okay with me, you should expect some resistance and pushback,” she says. “You should expect there to be some conflict and tension around whatever it is you want to change.” If you find yourself in this situation, Dr. Henry advises you to maintain the boundary anyway and have a series of conversations with this person about what this boundary means to you. “It doesn’t have to be, It's my way or the highway, but, Here's what emotional injury you were causing me before; here's why I need this to be different in order to remain in this relationship with you,” she says.
Don’t lose hope! It’s not unheard of that the person you’re confronting might actually welcome the boundary. “There are instances where, because it's a friend, someone who cares about you, who really wasn't aware how they were hurting you, you setting that boundary is welcomed, because they're more interested and invested in making you feel good and helping you maintain that relationship with them versus getting their way,” says Dr. Henry.
Maintaining Your Boundaries
I wish the hard work was over after you set a boundary, but don’t hate me when I tell you that maintaining that boundary will likely be just as hard. Maintaining a boundary means not only sticking to what you said you would do, but holding the other person accountable as well. If you’re having trouble maintaining a boundary, Dr. Henry advises you to “put yourself and your own feelings first in terms of why you're setting a boundary and why it's important to you. The other person may not like it, they may not agree to it, but they have to respect it.” If they don’t, you can implement consequences. For example, “You have shown that you cannot respect my conditions for this relationship, so I won’t be able to see you outside of work.”
Intention is huge when it comes to setting boundaries, and it can be easy to fall back on old behavior if you forget why you implemented the boundary to begin with. According to Dr. Henry, asking yourself a series of questions might help you stick to it: “Why is this value so significant that I need to uphold it by setting this boundary? How can I communicate that with this person without jeopardizing the relationship, or does this boundary mean this relationship will have to change in a way that will benefit the both of us and make me feel like more of an equal participant or more respected?”
Basically: If none of this works, it may be worth asking yourself if keeping up this relationship is worth it. In any case, you’ll be proud of yourself for looking out for your needs. Good luck!