How to Set Boundaries in a Relationship: A Complete Guide


Last Updated: April 30, 2024

Relationship Advice

Setting boundaries in a relationship can be the key to avoiding misunderstandings and disappointment. But most of us have never been taught how to set healthy boundaries!

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll talk about what good boundaries look like and what you can do to take care of yours once they’re in place!

Step One: Look inward

The first step in setting healthy boundaries in your relationships is figuring out what yours are! Every one of us has different needs and desires in a relationship, which is why it’s important to clarify your own before communicating with your partner. Here are a few areas where you’ll want to think about your expectations:

  • Physical: Do you enjoy physical touch? Or does too much contact make you uncomfortable? Is your tolerance for physical touch different in public versus at home?
  • Emotional. What kind of relationship are you looking for? Something casual or are you hoping to build a life with someone?
  • Communication. Communication is important in every relationship, but you’ll want to clarify how much contact you want in your day-to-day life. Do you put your phone away while you’re working, for example? Would you like to schedule a quick phone call on your lunch break?
  • Intimacy. What do you want intimacy to look like in your relationship? How soon do you want to be intimate?
  • Quality Time. How do you envision quality time between yourself and a partner? Does it mean scheduling one-on-one dates? Do you prefer not to have phones out when you’re together?
  • Financial. As relationships progress, it will be important to consider things like shared expenses, travel planning, and other financial questions.
  • Family. If you are dating a partner with children or you have children yourself, family will need to be part of your conversation about boundaries. When, for instance, will you feel comfortable introducing the kids to the new partner? How will you schedule your date nights around family responsibilities?

These are just a few boundaries that you’ll want to explore as you start thinking about your wants and needs in a relationship.

Step Two: Communicate your needs (in the right way)


Remember that everyone comes to the table with their own expectations, so don’t assume that your boundaries are obvious or universal! Instead, they need to be talked about in order for your partner to enthusiastically move ahead with dating you.

Of course, you don’t want to show up to a first date with a ten-page contract. That’s a bit intense. Instead, consider your timing and bring up the conversation casually when you’re relaxed and alone. Here are a few ways to bring it up:

  • Emotional: “So, I’ve really been enjoying getting to know you, and I would like to keep seeing you. I have to ask, what kind of relationship are you interested in?”
  • Quality time: “As you know, I have a pretty busy schedule but I really want to make time to see where this goes. Would you be able to set aside one or two nights a week to be together?”
  • Communication: “If I don’t text you back during the day, it’s only because my job is intense! But I enjoy hearing from you and I’ll respond as soon as I can.”

As you can see, setting boundaries in a relationship can be done in a way that is conversational and neutral. It’s also important to remember that you don’t need to talk about every one of your boundaries at the same time. For instance, talking about your intimacy boundaries might come up before a conversation about long-term finances. It’s okay to have these conversations as they become relevant in the relationship.

Step Three: Learn how to spot red flag boundaries

One thing that can be tough in a relationship is understanding the difference between a reasonable boundary and manipulation. Healthy boundaries should foster respect and mutual satisfaction in a relationship. Unhealthy boundaries will make you feel pressured to give up your own needs or desires in order to accommodate your partner. Here are a few examples:

  • Your partner says that one of their boundaries is that they feel uncomfortable with you having friends of the opposite sex.
  • Your partner says that they need an amount of physical intimacy that makes you uncomfortable
  • Your partner demands constant communication
  • Your partner demands that you prioritize quality time with them over your other responsibilities

If something feels controlling, it’s not a healthy boundary. So, be mindful of someone who might be framing their attempts to control you as one of their boundaries.

Step Four: Know what to do when your boundaries are crossed

So, what should you do if you feel that your partner is ignoring or crossing your boundaries? Here are a few options:

  • Keep a journal. Boundary crossing can happen gradually over time, which means that we might not always be aware that it’s happening. Keeping a daily log of how you’re feeling in your relationship can be a good way to track changes and prevent yourself from brushing over or excusing boundary-crossing behavior.
  • Talk with someone you trust. Your close friends or—better yet, a therapist—will be able to help you see behaviors from a different perspective.
  • Clarify. When you feel that your boundaries are being crossed, the best thing you can do is talk about it with your partner as soon as possible. This doesn’t have to be an argument or accusation. Instead, reiterate your boundaries so that your partner understands how important they are to you and why. For example, if you feel that a new partner is demanding too much of your time, you might say something like, “I’ve been really enjoying getting to know each other and I can’t wait for our next date. Like I said, my time with friends is an important part of my life so I want to make sure I’m keeping my commitments to them. Here are the times this week that I’m free _____”
  • Set up “if ___, then ___” responses. Having your boundaries disregarded feels not only hurtful but also debilitating. This is especially true if your partner doesn’t change the behavior or doesn’t agree that they’re crossing boundaries. So, it can be helpful to think up a few responses ahead of time. Let’s say, for example, that your new partner keeps showing up late to your dates. Your response might look like: if they show up more than 20 minutes late, I will leave. Or, if they continue to call you after the time you usually go to sleep, then you’ll let them know you’ll be muting their notifications.

Step Five: Learn when it’s time to walk away


Unfortunately, having healthy boundaries can sometimes mean choosing to disengage with people who don’t respect them.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to breaking up with someone who isn’t respecting your boundaries. Instead, make sure that you follow your intuition and rely on your support system to help you get through it.

And, although it might be difficult in the moment, you can be proud of yourself for choosing to maintain your own healthy boundaries. That ability to respect yourself and your needs will pay off when you find someone who is able to honor your boundaries. And, the more practice you get with setting boundaries in a relationship, the easier it will become!