- Boundaries are an essential part of healthy relationships.
- Assertive responses respectfully let your partner know when they've crossed a boundary.
- Partners who continually cross boundaries are likely to keep doing so.
Does your partner keep crossing your boundaries? Boundary violations can include behaviors such as:
- Sharing personal information that you told them in confidence.
- Interrupting your work time without good reason.
- Having their friends over and being loud while you’re trying to sleep.
- Yelling to you from another room and expecting you to shout back.
- Making jokes that you find insulting or offensive.
- Touching you in ways you don’t appreciate.
Clear boundaries are an essential part of healthy relationships. They define not only what you don't want, but also what you're OK with, just as the lines on a tennis court show what is out of bounds and what's fair play. A boundary says, “I’m OK with this; I’m not OK with that.”
So what can you do when your partner doesn’t honor the limits you set?
1. Clearly express your boundary. Your partner may not realize they’re overstepping the limits of what you find acceptable. Let them know calmly and directly what your boundary is and how their behavior crossed it. Aim to be as specific as possible—for example, “I’m upset that you told your mom what I shared with you,” rather than, “You can never keep a secret!”
2. Enforce the boundary. Remind your partner as soon as possible when they’ve crossed a boundary. Use assertive language that shows self-respect while also respecting your partner. Own your emotions, letting your significant other know how you feel in response to what they did. For example, "I felt embarrassed when you made fun of my hair in front of our friends." Keep in mind that you don’t have to apologize for setting this boundary. It’s an important part of looking out for yourself and being a whole human being.
3. Practice logical consequences. Boundaries aren’t suggestions. They’re clear limits, with consequences for when they’re violated. Consequences work best when they follow in an obvious way from the undesired behavior.
For example, Mary’s partner continues to text her at work despite her requests that he not do so. As a consequence, Mary does not respond to the messages, which would only reward the boundary-crossing behavior. Similarly, Jeff is more cautious about what he tells Barry after Barry broke Jeff’s confidence to a mutual friend.
Can People Really Change?
It’s generally good advice to not expect your partner to change for the better, especially when it comes to major improvements in personality and behavior. But that doesn’t mean positive change is impossible. Each of us responds to the pattern of rewards and punishments we experience and to the information available to us.
If your partner is reasonably agreeable and tends to act in good faith, they will want to respect your boundaries and avoid making you unhappy. While they may not be thrilled when you ask them to change what they’re doing, in the long run, it can help them to be the loving partner they want to be for you.
Habitual Boundary Violators
Keeping the boundaries clear in your relationship is an exercise in self-respect, which can foster respect from your partner, too. But what if your significant other keeps blowing past your boundaries like they’re not even there? Despite your pleas, they keep ignoring any limits you impose.
If that’s the case, you may need to ask yourself if this is a relationship you want to continue. Someone who ignores your boundaries is likely to keep doing so. Consider whether you’ll be able to tolerate this pattern of behavior in the long term. The ultimate expression of boundary setting in a relationship is deciding when it’s time to end it.
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