The Truth about Boundaries


Boundaries are important for the health of your relationships. But for so long, women have been taught saying no, setting limits, or declining a request is impolite or even mean. They fear that their relationships will suffer if they do not make everyone around them happy or at least try. Yet, I have gained more respect from others for standing up for myself.  Learning what I don’t want has helped me get more clear about what I do want. I have learned to express my needs respectfully to family, friends, and colleagues instead of suffering in silence. 

So often I’ve sat and listened as people passionately complain about what they deem mistreatment or a lack of support. At the same time, they are terrified to say anything and rock the boat. What they don’t realize is that often it’s far more dangerous, with the exception of abusive relationships, to let resentment fill up inside the boat threatening to drown them both. 

No matter how long you and your partner have been together, they are not mind readers. They don’t always know when you feel overwhelmed, lonely, or underappreciated unless you tell them. They might not know how much your soul craves solitude or how huge of a difference it makes to your morning if they unload the dishwasher. 

These “little” things can become big things that threaten the relationship when you try to ignore them.  I see this often in couple relationships. In my Gottman training, one of the things that stands out the most is identifying and expressing one’s needs. Just think about how much frustration and resentment could be avoided if everyone said what they needed rather than pulling away or becoming passive-aggressive

FEELING SAFE BEFORE SETTING BOUNDARIES

Abusive relationships cause you to feel unsafe (see our resources here). Outside of this, there are other situations that can reduce your sense of emotional safety. They include being sleep deprived from a new baby, a lack of certainty during a pandemic, or increased conflict. When you don’t feel safe, it’s difficult to set and hold boundaries.  

Embodying safety is essential to your boundary work. 

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”

Brene Brown

Disappointing others may feel unsafe for those who are prone to people-pleasing. It can be a trauma response from an abusive upbringing or as a way to get love in a family where you experienced emotional neglect and/or invalidation. 

Practicing self-compassion and working with a therapist can strengthen your relationship. They also provide reparative, healing experiences that can assist you in setting and holding boundaries. 

DEMANDING YOU CHANGE BACK

I remember reading about the “change back” reaction in Harriet Lerner’s classic book, “The Dance of Anger.” Changing can create anxiety for those in our lives. Understand that they are not reacting because the changes you are making are bad or wrong. Rather they are uncomfortable because you invite them into a new and unknown dance. So hold your ground as you bravely walk in uncharted territory. Don’t be surprised if you get your toes stepped on, so to speak.  

You can validate another person’s anxiety or other emotions that can arise such as hurt, frustration, or disappointment, but you don’t have to own them. Pull them closer to help regain balance and affirm your love for them while recognizing that it’s not your job to hold them up. They might fall down as they find their way again in this new, healthier dance. They might refuse to get back up, but that’s not on you.  

Healthy boundaries can dramatically improve your relationships and overall wellbeing. You must stay true to your new/true self and be prepared to let go of those who refuse to get back up.

SETTING A BOUNDARY AND AN EXAMPLE

In some cases, you won’t disappoint them. 

One day I told my sister-in-law I had important plans with myself and couldn’t attend an event for my niece. I said I would do something special with my niece another time. My sister-in-law was so understanding.  In fact, she said it was good for my niece to know the world didn’t revolve around her and that self-care is important.  Instead of hurting her or seeming selfish, I could see that I was actually sending her and her mom a powerful message. As a woman, it is not our job to sacrifice ourselves for others. 

I’ve heard similar reports of clients who have come back after communication coaching sessions. Yes, they feared their partner’s or relative’s reaction. However, they were in control of when and how to bring up the issue because they did not let built-up resentment poison the conversation. As a result, love and mutual respect permeated. The look and feeling of relief was palpable as they shared how the conversation went so much better than expected.

Confidence and increased connection come from setting boundaries. I believe maintaining boundaries is one of the most essential ways you can protect your peace and model safety and self-love to others.

The NEW Gottman Relationship Adviser takes the guesswork out of improving your relationship. Measure your relationship health with a research-based self-assessment, then receive a tailored digital plan proven to heal and strengthen your connection.


The Marriage Minute is an email newsletter from The Gottman Institute that will improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less. More than 40 years of research with thousands of couples proves a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up below.



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