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Why Healthy Relationships Need Boundaries

But what kinds are best?

Key points

  • Sometimes the heart needs steering toward one's romantic goal.
  • When it is done properly, self-control is of immense value in life and love.
  • Nurturing, rather than preventative behavior, is the most efficient method of self-control in profound love.
  • Too much self-control, which is associated with the other’s controlling behavior, is a major reason for the deterioration of love.

“It ain't no sin if you crack a few laws now and then. As long as you don't break any.” —Mae West

“Love, and do what you will.” —Saint Augustine

“Listen to your heart, there's nothing else you can do.” —Roxette

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Achieving self-control is a battle, where victory depends on overruling spontaneous emotional responses of the heart with the deliberate will of the mind. While it is important in life to balance our thoughts and emotions, in matters of the heart, doing so is less straightforward.

In the U.S. television series "The Good Wife," the protagonist, Alicia Florrick, is asked how she makes love outlast passion. “I think it’s not just about the heart,” she says. “Sometimes the heart needs steering.” Florrick is right (even though in later seasons, she has left her husband); sometimes and somehow, you must compromise, as this can ultimately increase your personal flourishing (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).

We need a certain amount of self-control in order to reduce the impact of immediate desire and to nurture long-term romantic values, such as profundity, kindness, respect, generosity, and gratitude. In nurturing profound love, one can, as Augustine indicates, go after one’s heart. A woman, divorced for many years, said, “For six years, I had an affair with a married man. I loved him very much and we had wonderful sex. Once I found out that he also had affairs with other women, I terminated our relationship.” Though this woman did not have an exclusive relationship with her married lover and she could accept being second to his wife; it was his relationships with other women that broke her romantic illusion: that in being only with her, this man followed his genuine and profound heart.

What is Self-Control?

“The Stoical scheme of supplying our wants by lopping off our desires, is like cutting off our feet when we want shoes.” —Jonathan Swift

“If you can’t control your emotions, you can’t control your money.” —Warren Buffet

Self-control is the ability to manage our impulses, emotions, and desires in order to achieve long-term goals. Self-control usually replaces initial, spontaneous responses with more deliberate responses that stem from thinking and planning. Self-control requires a type of sophisticated mental energy that takes account of the past, present, and future. Self-control can be evaluated in such affirmations as “I am good at resisting temptation” and “I am able to work effectively toward long-term goals.”

Many studies indicate the great value of self-control and the significant damage caused in its absence. Indeed, one study has found that adolescents with a high level of self-control were in better intimate relationships 23 years later, experience higher relationship satisfaction, less conflict, and better communication with their partners (Allemand et al., 2019).

It is far easier to control how we process and express our emotions than control the appearance of the said emotions. In other words, managing emotions is often the ability to choose how we express them. It is healthy to express our emotions, but how and when we do so are equally as important.

Setting Romantic Boundaries and Nurturing Romantic Ideals

“Only when I reached seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.” —Confucius

“I maintain a healthy diet, but sometimes, I deserve a chocolate ice cream in the evening. This is also true in regards to my love life—after I rejected three charming, attractive though undesirable men, I felt I deserved a romantic chocolate ice cream in the form of a hot lover who I wanted.” —Amelie

Boundaries are essential in our life: being with other people requires limiting our own desires, which may hurt others. There is a tension between stable boundaries that protect familiar experiences and the desire to have novel experiences, in which normative boundaries are violated. This tension between freedom and commitment may make people feel like they are being held in captivity.

When speaking about self-control, we usually refer to establishing boundaries that block negative emotional temptations, such as eating junk food or having forbidden casual sex. Despite the importance of such preventative measures, a more meaningful form of self-control can be seen when we nurture our own ideals and enhance self-fulfillment. Nurturing often refers to the manner in which we help someone else, such as our children, to develop. However, we can also nurture ourselves and our intimate relationships. Nurturing generosity, gratitude, compassion, caring, and sensitivity are examples of meaningful nurturing behavior.

Likewise, it is easier not to eat junk food when you nurture principles of healthy nutrition. In this case, prevention is not merely the result of a painful struggle with temptation, but is essentially a pleasant maintenance of significant values. Self-control in eating is achieved not merely by choosing not to eat unhealthy foods but also, perhaps more significantly, in nurturing the positive advantages of healthy nutrition.

Nurturing love and bringing out the best in one’s partner is optimal behavior for promoting romantic relationships. If we engage in many nurturing activities, we feel better about ourselves and this feeling is a kind of self-immunization against the pitfalls of temptation. However, like the COVID vaccine, success is not guaranteed and you may need to be vaccinated every year.

Although romantic relationships require both nurturing and preventative activities, in enduring love, the nurturing behavior must take center stage. We often build fences around our boundaries in order to prevent ourselves from being merely one step away from crossing them. This can be seen in the rules of various religions, which demand that women adopt a modest appearance in order to prevent temptation. While intended to divert people from taking the last step before misbehaving, such fences also prevent them from engaging in pleasant normative activities (Ben-Ze'ev & Goussinsky, 2008).

Too much self-control is equally problematic. Indeed, in Karen Kayser’s (1993) study of disaffected marriages, the major events responsible for the deterioration of love involve the partner’s controlling behavior, in particular behavior that consists of unilateral decision making that disregards the respondent’s opinion.

Self-Control, Exclusivity, and Uniqueness

“A morality based entirely on general rules and principles is tyrannical and disproportionate, and that only those who make equitable allowances for subtle individual differences have a proper feeling for the deeper demands of ethics.” —Stephen Toulmin

“I'm in love with you baby, I'm gonna break every rule.” —Tina Turner

“If the world’s two richest people, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, can’t keep their wives happy, what chance do the rest of us have?” —Unknown

Self-control is significant in prioritizing profound future values; this is in contrast to our natural emotional tendency to prefer the momentary present. We often characterize romantic exclusivity in negative terms when we refer to its strict boundaries, whereas romantic uniqueness is constituted from positive terms relating to nurturing ideals and personal suitability. It follows, therefore, that focusing on uniqueness, rather than exclusivity, moves away from viewing love as controlling and limiting our beloved to enhancing our partner’s unique nature. Such a vision is essential for deepening enduring romantic relationships and enabling each partner to give more and become more patient toward their partner.

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Allemand, M., Job, V., & Mroczek, D. K. (2019). Self-control development in adolescence predicts love and work in adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117, 621-634.

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.

Ben-Ze'ev, A., & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its victims. Oxford University Press.

Kayser, K. (1993). When love dies: The process of marital disaffection. Guilford.