Wondering how to set emotional boundaries in a relationship? We all know we should have them. And yet, for many couples, they remain an elusive to-do.
Maybe you’ve got boundaries that resemble a castle moat, and no one but the most persevering of intruders can get through.
Or maybe your emotional boundaries are missing altogether, and you simply blend into whoever you happen to be around. It can be tricky to figure out exactly how to set emotional boundaries in a relationship.
In this post, I’ll show you strategies I’ve helped couples use with great success again and again.
Note: I now offer online, video-based courses to help you learn skills scientifically proven to improve relationships. In my course “How to Get Unstuck,” I teach you how to identify and shift negative relationship patterns to healthier ones. In my course “How to Heal,” I help you repair past hurts so you and your partner can move forward with a clean slate.
Each course is about the price of a typical couples therapy session with an expert but includes information that typically takes a few months of couples therapy to work through. And whether you take these courses alone or with your partner, you’ll get the skills to set the emotional boundaries that will help your relationship thrive.
How to Set Emotional Boundaries in a Relationship
These 8 strategies can help you find the happy medium. You’ll discover how to set boundaries that allow you to connect with your partner while still maintaining your individuality.
Let’s dive in!
1. Differentiation Is Key
Central to any conversation around emotional boundaries in a relationship is the idea of differentiation. Essentially, differentiation means finding a way to securely relate to your partner without losing yourself.
Learn to Be Authentic With Your Feelings
Many call Dr. Ellyn Bader the queen of differentiation. As she explains, too often couples take one of two paths to avoid conflict in their relationship:
- The first path is to become as similar to your partner as possible – to immerse yourself in the other person. Primarily, this stems from a fear that if you express your own opinions or your own wants and needs, your partner will leave you.
- The second path is to hold your partner at arm’s length and miss out on cultivating a deeper connection. This comes from a fear that if you allow yourself to be open and vulnerable, to relate and empathize with your partner, you’ll lose your sense of self altogether.
Of course, the ideal level of differentiation in relationships lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. To find this middle ground, learn to be authentic with your feelings, wants and needs. Authenticity lets you preserve your sense of self while still connecting with your partner.
You Don’t Need to See Eye-to-Eye on Everything
One example of healthy differentiation is acknowledging that it’s ok for your partner to hold different opinions than you.
Instead of getting angry or trying desperately to persuade your spouse to change their opinion, healthy emotional boundaries let you remain curious about your partner. You’re able to recognize that as two different individuals, you’re allowed to hold different views.
Cultivating differentiation in your relationship and remaining curious about your partner lets you continue to value and explore one another. In fact, healthy differentiation can not only lead to more flexibility in your relationship but also more intimacy. So think about that: Emotional boundaries can actually bring you and your partner closer together.
2. Use a “Mosquito Net” to Set Emotional Boundaries
Think of your emotional boundaries like a mosquito net. Not the most romantic analogy, I know, but bear with me here.
Just as your skin provides a physical boundary to keep your body safe, emotional boundaries keep your mind and emotions healthy. And while your skin is automatically and naturally in place, emotional boundaries are something you need to actively pursue, cultivate, and re-adjust.
This can be tricky. Healthy emotional boundaries:
- Keep out the things that can hurt you and aren’t yours to take on.
- Allow you to let in the feedback that matters–especially from the person you share your most intimate relationship with.
How to Use the Mosquito Net
Mosquito nets protect you from little pests that don’t merit your full attention, but they don’t insulate you from things that are worth noticing. After all, they’re not called “lion nets.” In the same way, healthy emotional boundaries help you ignore the little emotional pests while still allowing space for the things that matter.
Here’s an example:
You’re driving down the highway, going the speed limit (ok, maybe 5 miles over), when another driver roars up behind you, rides your bumper, and flips you off. That’s a mosquito.
That other driver’s attitude really has nothing to do with you. And if you launch into reciprocal road rage it’s only going to make your day (and your passenger’s day) miserable.
However, with healthy emotional boundaries in place, you’re able to keep that particular mosquito out and not let it ruin your day.
Now let’s put this in terms of your relationship. Imagine you walk into your kitchen and your partner says to you, “Yikes, the dishes are piling up!”
Before you respond, you pull out your trusty mosquito net and check your emotional boundaries. Because your mosquito net is on, you recognize that your partner didn’t say, “You’re lazy! You’re a bad wife!” They simply noted the dishes weren’t done.
Don’t Use a Cement Wall
Here’s the part where emotional boundaries get a little tricky. The analogy we’re using is a net, not a cement wall – and that’s a crucial distinction.
In a marriage, if something is bothering your spouse, you need to let that comment in and evaluate it.
For example, if your partner says to you, “All of our relationship problems are your fault!” you can be curious about the parts that are your responsibility, but you can also recognize that it’s not entirely your fault.
If your boundaries are a wall, you might shoot back and tell your spouse, “Our problems aren’t my fault – they’re your fault!”
Choose What to Address and What to Let Go
If your boundaries are missing completely you might think, “My partner is right. All of our problems are my fault!”
With a “mosquito net,” you can hear a comment from your partner and be curious about it, try to understand it better, and grow from it. All while also being able to recognize when something really isn’t yours to take on, and brushing those things off.
The goal is to set healthy emotional boundaries by deciding which problems to let go of and which to address in your relationship.
3. I Want To and I’m Willing
Time and time again, I see couples who thought that by saying “yes” and crossing their own boundaries, they were protecting their relationships. But in the long run, this only leads to resentment and a loss of self.
The strongest, most resilient relationships are where both partners feel secure in standing by their boundaries and continuing to work toward a joint solution.
But when you’re faced with a decision, it can sometimes be hard to differentiate between when something does or does not cross a boundary for you.
A Strategy to Help Clarify Emotional Boundaries
To help my clients learn to maintain their boundaries when faced with a decision (such as when to say “Yes” and when to say “Let’s talk about that more”), I teach them about these three possible decision outcomes:
- I want to, and I’m willing. This one is the easy “Yes!” For example, when your boss asks if you want a promotion and a raise—or your partner asks if you want to take a vacation—you want to do it, and you’re willing to.
- I don’t want to, but I’m willing. I’m sure you can think of about a million things that fit in this category! Maybe (like me) you’re not a morning person. You don’t want to get up early each morning, but you’re willing to do it so you can get your kids to school on time, go to work, or whatever it may be. Saying “yes” in these instances may be more difficult than in the first option, but it doesn’t violate an emotional boundary.
- I don’t want to, and I’m not willing. When you say “yes” to things in this category, you’re crossing your own emotional boundary. In these cases, it’s on you to say, “I’m not comfortable with that because of this reason. What if we tried this instead?” (Be sure to read my article about how to negotiate tricky situations with your partner.)
So, the next question is, how do you know if you just don’t want to do something, or if you’re truly not willing? My litmus test is to ask yourself these two questions: 1. “Will I become resentful if I say yes?” and 2. “Will I be giving up too much of myself?”
Resentment: That Damn Boat!
When it comes to learning how to set emotional boundaries in a relationship, it’s critical to recognize the role of resentment in eroding your connection with your partner.
Here’s an example of when saying “yes” can lead to resentment: Early in my marriage, my spouse and I were living in Texas and both really wanted a boat to enjoy on the weekends. I wanted a nice small boat to tootle around in, and my husband wanted a pricey champion ski boat. After some discussion, I said fine – and we got the ski boat.
But I resented that decision.
Every time the boat needed maintenance, I became passive-aggressive. “That damn boat!” I’d think… and say. At the end of the day, though, that decision was on me. I should’ve kept negotiating until we reached an agreement we both could accept without resentment.
As for giving up too much of yourself, I’ve had clients tell me how they’ve sacrificed their own sense of security by taking on debt to help a family member. Or how they feel they’re sacrificing their own health by waking up constantly to feed their new baby, without their partner’s support.
Setting Boundaries Isn’t Selfish
No matter the details, emotional boundary violations are often hard to identify and can be even harder to remedy. It takes courage to stand up and say, “No, I’m not comfortable with that,” especially since our society often tells us that martyrdom is virtuous and good, and that setting boundaries is selfish.
Let me be clear: Setting healthy emotional boundaries and sticking to them is not selfish.
4. Invite, Request, or Demand
One of the most fundamental things I teach couples I work with is that there are three ways to ask things of your partner. You can phrase the things you ask for as an:
In order to set your own healthy emotional boundaries – and respect those of your partner – it’s important to know when each approach is appropriate to use.
An Invitation is the Gentlest Form of Asking
Examples of invitations could be:
- “Do you want to go for a walk together?”
- “Would you like to go out for a date night?”
- “Do you feel like having sex?”
The thing to keep in mind with invitations is that they’re supposed to be just that – inviting.
If you come to bed in the smelly clothes you just worked out in and ask your partner if they’d like to be intimate with you… that’s not really inviting.
In the same way, if you ask your partner if they’d like to join you for a walk the minute they sit down to relax… that’s also not inviting.
But putting in the effort to make your invitation truly inviting can go a long way. It shows your partner you know them, you value them, and you want to be close to them.
A Request is One Step Beyond an Invitation.
This is the approach I recommend couples use most often in their relationships: Start requests with the words, “Would you be willing…?”.
For example, a request could sound like this:
- “Would you be willing to pick the kids up from school tomorrow?” or
- “Would you be willing to sit down and talk about our sex life?”
Remember, with any request you make, your spouse is free to say “Yes” or “No, I’m not comfortable with that. Can we talk about it more?” I’ll touch on this more in the next section, but asking for what you want and then being open to your partner’s response is key to both of you maintaining your own healthy emotional boundaries in the relationship.
Making a request is a way for you to honor your own emotional boundaries. And learning to accept your spouse’s answer, or negotiate accordingly, is a way for you to also respect their boundaries.
A Demand is the Most Direct Option
Demands should be used sparingly in any relationship and are only appropriate in extreme cases.
For example, an appropriate demand could sound like:
- “I’ve noticed you drinking a fifth of vodka every night for the last six months and I need you to seek some help.” Or,
- “Now that I know about your affair, I need you to come to counseling with me.”
While your partner is still free to negotiate your demand, a refusal on their part will likely have more serious consequences than denying an invitation or request. For example, if your partner refuses to seek help for an addiction, you may choose to separate or consider divorce.
5. Ask and Detach
One thing I learned from Terry Real, the founder of Relational Life Therapy, is the idea that having healthy emotional boundaries means asking for what you want and then detaching from the outcome.
Mind you, this doesn’t mean you have to meekly accept any answer your partner gives.
What having healthy emotional boundaries means is that you:
- Ask for what you want.
- Know where your line is.
- Know what you’ll accept.
If your partner initially says no to your request, you can negotiate with them to reach a compromise.
Whatever your partner’s answer is, asking and knowing is better than simply assuming.
Treat Your ‘Asks’ as a Chance to Collect Data
I advocate that my clients treat each of their “asks” as a chance to collect data. If you ask for something that you want or need and your partner replies “Yes,” this is a piece of data you now have. Same thing if they answer “No,” or begin a negotiation.
For example, I recently worked with a client whose husband had an affair. A big emotional trigger for her was seeing her husband texting on his phone and closing it down when she approached. Whenever she saw this, her anxiety would skyrocket.
Normally, I’d consider asking to see your partner’s phone to be crossing a boundary, but in the case of an affair, transparency is key to healing. With this particular client I suggested that when she felt triggered, she should say something like, “I know you’re probably not doing anything to hurt me. I’m feeling insecure today about your texting. Would you be willing to show me your phone?”
Each time she’s courageous and vulnerable – asking her partner for what would help make her feel safe – she’s collecting data that can help her become stronger in her decision to either stay in the relationship or leave.
6. Be Curious and Don’t Assume
One type of emotional boundary breach I see often is one partner telling the other what that person is thinking or feeling, instead of asking their partner about it.
For example, I’ll often hear one partner say to the other, “Oh, that face means you’re angry,” or, “Oh, and now you’re upset!” Or I’ll see partners who feel like they don’t need to ask how the other is feeling, or what they’re thinking about, or even how their day was – they just assume they know the answer.
The fact is, not only does nobody like being told what they’re thinking or feeling, but we’re usually wrong in our assumptions.
A wrinkled forehead may mean your partner is angry, but it may also mean they’re processing what you’re saying. I tell my clients I want them to be in a relationship of “ask and tell” and not in a relationship of “guess and assume.”
It’s your responsibility to ask your partner if you’re concerned about something – or concerned about how they’re feeling. Asking and being asked lets you both set emotional boundaries in your relationship.
7. Set Boundaries With Your Sexual Partner
A particularly sticky subject is how to set healthy emotional boundaries with your sexual partner.
My rule for this is simple: Imagine your partner is there with you – having that conversation, reading that text, seeing that photo. If you wouldn’t do what you’re doing/saying/texting with your spouse right there, it’s crossing a line.
At best it’s inappropriate, at worst you’re veering into an emotional affair. Examples of crossing this particular boundary could be:
- Sending texts/emails/messages you wouldn’t want your partner to see.
- Sharing your marital struggles or negative feelings about your partner with a possible affair partner.
- Over-the-top compliments.
- Sexual innuendos.
In the case of an affair, both partners get hurt. Setting these emotional boundaries doesn’t just protect your spouse – these boundaries also protect you.
8. The Vault
In any close relationship – whether platonic or romantic – there’ll be details you share with your partner that you don’t wish to have shared with others. Brené Brown is a researcher and storyteller who speaks about vulnerability, trust, and relationships. She refers to the private details that only the two of you share as “The Vault” in a relationship; she lists it as one of the seven elements of trust.
As Brené explains, honoring “The Vault” means, “You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share. I need to know that my confidences are kept and that you’re not sharing with me any information about other people that should be confidential.”
Examples of topics that are often considered confidential in relationships are:
- Details about your sex life.
- Struggles with mental illness.
- Revelations of an affair.
Time to Set Emotional Boundaries in Your Relationship
In case you haven’t noticed, a theme through all of these boundary-setting techniques is the importance of being open and vulnerable with your partner.
If you’re wondering how to set emotional boundaries in a relationship, start with these steps:
- Ask for what you need.
- Tell your partner how you’re feeling.
- Be open to hearing about your partner’s needs and feelings.
Having these courageous conversations with your spouse can be scary, especially if you’re already struggling in your relationship. Setting strong emotional boundaries in your marriage is one of the most important things you can do, though, and is key to a flourishing relationship.
And please note, the following are extreme emotional boundary violations:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
If you are experiencing any of these problems, I urge you to reach out for help immediately by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.SAFE (7233) or visiting their website here.