How to Have Relationship Boundaries that Work

Successful relationships are created by two people that have a clearly defined sense of self.

This strong sense of identity includes knowing what your values are, what you like and don’t like, and what’s most important to you in all aspects of your life including: your career, friendships, finances, family, significant other, as well as hobbies and pastimes.

Having strong boundaries lets others know how they need to treat you.

Strong boundaries means that you are clear about which thoughts, feelings and ideas are your own and which one’s belong to someone else. You understand that what’s right for someone else isn’t necessarily right for you and you are prepared to speak up about it.

Your boundaries act as a bridge between you and others. where, instead of operating as a wall, which is too rigid and pushes people away, or operating as a doormat, which is too passive and encourages people to walk all over you.


We keep others out with emotional walls when we feel victimized, disempowered and hurt in order to prevent others from having emotional access to us. With walls, you are determined that no one is going to make you feel bad. The secret here is that you will already be going through your life feeling bad if you have that much armour around your heart.

You pay a really high price with emotional walls.

Doormat behavior is used in an attempt to gain love and please others. When using doormat behaviour, otherwise known as people pleasing, we are hoping that we’ll be liked for allowing any sort of treatment the other person dishes out. But the opposite is true, when we let others mistreat us they lose respect and any liking of us is lost in the process.

Both putting up a wall to keep people out and lying down like a doormat prevent us from developing close, connected relationships with others.

For real love to develop, you need to feel free to be yourself and stand up for what’s right for you.

Setting boundaries allows you to protect yourself and honor any differences that may exist between you and your partner at the same time.

When two people with healthy boundaries interact they both feel free to be themselves, feel happy and relaxed in each other’s presence and are without the typical resentments and frustrations that build when we either allow people to cross our boundaries (doormat) or shut people out completely (wall).

Strong love and trust is possible when healthy boundaries allow relationship challenges to be worked on cooperatively.

How to Set Your Boundaries So They Work

Having strong boundaries requires you to be assertive.

Sometimes people think that they are too sensitive to be assertive, but in reality, sensitivity is a learned response and can be replaced with assertive and confident behavior over time. It takes practice, so start small.

At first, you can make the change to having stronger boundaries by figuring out what your boundaries are.

Spend some time reflecting on what your boundaries are and write them down. An example of a boundary that most people have (but not everyone has it) is that:

No one can hit me; or

No one can speak to me disrespectfully; or

No one can treat me badly; or

No one can interrupt me when I’m speaking.

Your boundaries don’t change from one person to the next. We usually want to soften our boundaries for the people we are closest to in our life. This is so that they won’t get upset about our boundary and pull away from the relationship.

If you soften a boundary you are eroding the foundation of the relationship between you and that person because you are having to go against your values and integrity to do this.

When you lose your sense of self, in a way… you lose everything.

So as tempting as it is to soften up a boundary for those you love the most, don’t do it. It’s counterintuitive but by softening the boundary we are more at risk of losing the relationship than if we enforce the boundary.

It really is true that others treat us with the respect we have for ourselves. So hold your bar high and be willing to stand up for what you need. Knowing that if you do this, almost all of your relationships will become stronger and more genuine and for the rare exceptions that fall away, you need know this as the relationship was only superficial.

“Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do.” ~ Eddie Rickenbacker


People refer to having boundaries as boundary setting. Knowing what your boundaries are and setting them is really just the tip of the iceberg though.

Although boundary setting is critical, the really key aspect of having strong boundaries is boundary enforcing.

Boundary setting sounds a little bit like you did your part by letting your partner know what you need and then relying on your partner to either respect (hopefully) or disrespect your boundary.

A much better way to handle boundaries is to set the boundary, but as lovely as your partner is, he or she is human and infallible. In short, he or she may slip up with your boundary.

This is where the old adage, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” definitely applies.

Another one that comes to mind is “Don’t do the same thing expecting a different outcome.

So, set your boundary and then expect to have it broken. This is because the crucial part about boundaries is the enforcing part where you will give them the benefit of the doubt, but make it known that whatever is occuring is not okay. If they continue to push your boundary, what follows from you is a logical consequence.

You are responsible for enforcing your boundaries. No one is responsible for honoring them. Now, ideally your significant other will honor your boundaries, and you know what… he or she will. If there are logical consequences.

As humans we get lazy and sloppy in our behavior if someone isn’t holding us to a standard.

So hold your boundaries and your standards at all costs.

One of my favorite quotes that describes simply is:

“Good fences make good neighbors.” ~ Robert Frost

So true. A fence makes it really clear what is to take place on each side of the fence. The fence in boundary setting is your assertive voice making your boundary known each and every time your boundary is about to be toppled over.

Being assertive and holding strong boundaries requires that you honor your feelings and intuition; let go of any false beliefs about yourself, others and the world around you; and by releasing your past while focusing on the future that you want to create in your life.

Boundaries allow you to connect to others with confidence through appreciation and respect for your own unique perspective, personality and presence in relation to that others.

Boundaries allow you to shine as a unique individual and they do the same for everyone else also. You will need a lot of self love to uphold your boundaries in the face of tough customers.

Tough customers are those people and partners that push your boundaries and really test you. If you’re not willing to fight for what you need with your boundary and have the attitude that ‘it’s not worth it’ then you will have trouble holding and enforcing your boundary.

The thing is, you are absolutely worth the fight. It’s being willing to go the distance for what is right for you that maintains your self-confidence and self-esteem.

Only people that can handle this level of conflict that may happen when someone pushes your boundaries will be able to have a close relationship.


Step by Step Guide to Boundary Setting

True love and connection requires you to be able to:

  1. Set your boundary (e.g. Next time, it would help me if you’d call and let me know you’re running late.) This is said in a lighthearted manner. That’s it. No drama ensues. You express your boundary and drop it.
  2. Enforce your boundary (e.g. Next time: Oh, I changed my plans [logical consequence]. I figured I must have the date wrong when I didn’t hear from you by the agreed upon time. Hopefully we can get together really soon). No lectures. No I told you last time… No explanations. Just cool as a cucumber.
  3. Enjoy a close relationship (e.g. Next time you get together really soon… “I appreciate you showing up early so we can get good seats for the show”; OR “thank you so much for calling to let me know you’re running a little late”.)
  4. Yes, of course there are times when you enforce the boundary and your “date” neither shows up early or calls… but guess what… not only has the please respect my time boundary been crossed, but now so has the please don’t treat me poorly boundary. So, if you are truly enforcing your boundaries the next logical consequence in almost every circumstance would be to break ties as this is a pretty negative influence in your life (bye Felicia).
  5. The good news is that 9 out of 10 people need you to actually enforce your boundary in order to fall in line and it is an extremely rare difficult customer that will push the envelope so far that they risk pushing themselves right out of the relationship with their poor behavior.

We love hearing from you!

Let us know in the comments if you were able to make your relationship boundaries work with our tips.


One Response

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Susan Blackburn

Susan Blackburn

About Susan Blackburn:

Susan Blackburn, M.A., C.Psych. is a Registered Psychologist, Psychotherapist, Counsellor & Therapist in Toronto at Yonge Eglinton, a Published Author and a guest Relationship Expert on radio and television.

Susan enjoys working with people to enhance the quality of their lives. Her collaborative psychotherapy and counselling approach offers clients effective tools and strategies to increase happiness, manage stress, find balance, improve confidence, embrace self care and focus on the positive so that they can relax and enjoy life.

Services are covered under most extended health benefits and workplace insurance plans requiring clients be seen by a Registered Psychologist through her registration with the College of Psychologists of Ontario.

Susan is the owner of Susan Blackburn Psychology a boutique therapy private practice located in midtown Toronto at Yonge and Eglinton.

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