How to Set Boundaries Firmly But Lovingly

As I’ve got older, I’ve realised more and more that when it comes to healthy relationships (romantic, professional, platonic, or otherwise), good boundaries are everything. But what are boundaries, why are boundaries important, and how do you set boundaries firmly but lovingly?

I’ve been thinking about, and setting, boundaries a lot lately. This post will have somewhat of a focus on romantic/sexual relationships, since that’s the focus of this blog, but many of these tips for setting boundaries can apply to any type of relationship.

What Are Boundaries?

Love is Respect (a fantastic resource on healthy relationships aimed at young people) has this to say:

Boundaries are really about your relationship with yourself; they help you honor your needs, goals, feelings and values. Boundaries can be emotional, physical or even digital.

Love is Respect

In other words, boundaries are about the things that are yours and over which you have ultimate say. Access to your body, your time, your home, and emotional or physical intimacy with you, are all areas where boundaries are essential.

Your boundaries state the things you will and will not do, and will and will not accept, when it comes to those things that are yours.

Why Are Boundaries Important?

Good boundaries are a crucial component of taking care of yourself. Without strong boundaries, you are likely to end up feeling used, burned out, or taken advantage of. This can happen even if no-one has any ill intent towards you! And if someone does have less than positive intentions towards you, a lack of good boundaries may help them to get their claws in.

This is not to say that being abused or harmed is ever the victim’s fault. It absolutely isn’t and no-one, no matter how good or poor their boundaries, deserves to have that happen. But in a world where some people sadly do have bad intentions and operate in bad faith, good boundaries are one tool we can use to help protect ourselves.

Good boundaries also help you to keep a strong sense of self. A boundary that I have now is “I will support my loved ones when they need it, but I will not take on someone else’s problems or emotions as my own”. This has helped prevent me from losing myself in a relationship or making myself solely responsible for someone else’s feelings, which is definitely a mistake I’ve made in the past.

Finally, good boundaries enable true consent to exist. I firmly believe that a person can only give a meaningful yes (to sex, a date, a new project or responsibility, or even just a conversation) if they also have the ability to say no. Good boundaries allow us to say yes when we mean it, and no when we need to.

How to Set Boundaries (Firmly But Lovingly) in a Relationship

If you’ve historically been bad at setting and maintaining boundaries, it can be difficult to know where to start. You might worry that people will be upset, angry, or disappointed when you start to set boundaries with them. You might even be right! But that just makes those boundaries even more important.

The thing people often miss is this: you can set boundaries in a loving way! Here are seven ideas and strategies I’ve found useful when it comes to setting firm boundaries and keeping my relationships intact.

Use “I” Statements

Boundaries are about you, so use “I” statements when you set them as far as possible. This can help prevent the other person from getting defensive or pushing back against what you’re saying (it’s harder to argue with someone about their own feelings, thoughts, or needs!)

Here are a couple of examples:

“I’d love to cuddle with you but I don’t want to have sex tonight.”

“If I’m in my office with the door closed, I’m working and only want to be interrupted if it’s an emergency.”

Use a Calm Tone of Voice

If you can, communicate your boundary calmly. It might sometimes be necessary but in general, the middle of an argument isn’t a great time to discuss your boundaries respectfully. A neutral tone allows the other person to be receptive to what you’re saying. Raised voices, name calling, or an accusatory tone are all likely to make them defensive before you’ve had chance to make your point.

Assume the Other Person is On Your Side

Unless you have very clear evidence to the contrary, assume that the other person – your partner, friend, family member, or even coworker – is on your side and cares about you. This means that they wouldn’t WANT you to overextend yourself or say yes when you really mean no.

This will help you approach the boundary as a necessary self-care step for yourself, and not as something you’re doing to the other person. It’s also a clever conversational trick – if you signal to the person that you expect them to be understanding and respectful, they’re more likely to want to live up to that expectation by responding appropriately.

Consider When to Compromise (and When Not To)

Compromise is essential in healthy relationships. This means you might not get 100% of what you want in every situation. If your needs conflict with your partner’s, it can be useful to have a frank conversation and try to come to a compromise.

However, you should never compromise on a firm boundary. If you’re someone who (like me) tends towards people-pleasing, what the other person thinks is “compromise” can look like you conceding your boundaries in favour of keeping the peace. Don’t do that.

Directness is Kindness

One of the biggest headfucks for me in past relationships has been not knowing where I stand or what the other person needs. By making someone guess at your needs or hiding your true feelings, you’re not doing them any favours. People who care about you would rather know what’s going on with you.

Being direct gives the other person the gift of knowing you better and having clear information about what you need. Being vague helps no-one. Clarity, specificity, and directness are the name of the game when it comes to boundaries.

Model Respect for Others’ Boundaries

In a healthy relationship, both (/all) people have their boundaries heard and respected. So as well as setting your own boundaries, you need to listen to and adhere to theirs.

Their Feelings Aren’t Your Problem

You might do everything right when you set your boundaries, and the other person might still be upset. At this point, it’s not your problem. While you can sympathise and work with them to get both your needs met, their feelings about your boundaries are ultimately not your job to solve.

If someone becomes very angry or upset about a reasonable boundary, it might be because they felt (consciously or subconsciously) that they were owed a certain level of access to you. This is a huge sign that the boundary was necessary!

Stand firm and resist the urge to compromise your boundaries in the face of yelling, guilt trips, sulking, or other manipulative behaviour.

Do you have any tips for lovingly setting boundaries? Share them in the comments!

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One thought on “How to Set Boundaries Firmly But Lovingly

  1. These strategies are super helpful, thank you for sharing them. I’m very much still working on boundary setting but I’m also making a practice of saying ‘thank you’ to someone when they set a boundary with me. Sometimes I worry it comes across as patronising, but boundary setting is HARD and I want to show that I respect their boundaries and appreciate them trusting me enough to be honest about their limits. Maybe other people don’t worry that setting a boundary with someone will make them hate you, but *I* worry about that and so say ‘thank you’ when other people set boundaries so they know I don’t, even though most people are more rational and less anxious than I am. (Does that even make sense?)

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