Maybe you’ve heard that having boundaries in your relationships is really important. While this is good advice, it doesn’t begin to explain exactly what boundaries are, how you can find yours, or communicate them to the people you’re in relationships with.
In my intimacy coaching work, boundaries are often among the first topics I address with my clients, as so many of us didn’t grow up learning how to feel our boundaries – let alone assert them.
In this post I’ll cover what boundaries are, what they’re not, and how to start finding and communicating yours.
Let’s start with the basics.
What Are Boundaries?
Boundaries are limits that anyone can set for themselves to determine what they are and are not comfortable engaging with. They’re a method that we all can use for establishing our identity, preferences, and personal space – physically, emotionally, and energetically.
In relationships, this can mean lots of different things, which we’ll cover in more detail below.
To begin with, the most important things to know are that boundaries are:
- Personal – only you get to decide where your boundaries are.
- Contextual – you may have different boundaries at different times, or with different people.
- Empowering – they allow you to say yes or no, take responsibility for what’s yours, and filter out what isn’t.
Boundaries, Limits, and Barriers
It’s important to understand what boundaries are not, too.
Limits are the places at the edge of our boundaries. While boundaries are contextual and may shift around depending on who we’re with and what we’re doing, our limits are the lines which show us when we are being assaulted.
For example, you may enjoy play-fighting or wrestling with a lover, in a way that you wouldn’t want to do with, say, a platonic friend – you have different boundaries for these two people. However, being punched in the face might be a limit for you; it’s something that would never be welcome, whoever you’re with or whatever mood you’re in.
Barriers are rigid, and are often a response to being unable to assert boundaries in a healthy way. Instead of being able to feel and establish boundaries and say yes or no depending on the situation, some people will put up barriers to prevent contact at all. While this can be a useful protection in some circumstances, the trade-off is all too often the inability to ever let others in.
Putting up barriers can be seen as an opposite behaviour to people-pleasing; instead of saying yes to everything, you’re saying no to everything. Lots of people may notice that both of these show up for them in different circumstances.
Different Types of Boundaries
There are all kinds of different boundaries that come into play in different situations. As an intimacy coach I take care to maintain professional boundaries; in a relationship with a partner these are not relevant.
Understanding the different kinds of boundaries can be really helpful in identifying which come easily to you, and which could benefit from some more awareness.
In your romantic and sexual relationships, there are six categories which are most relevant: physical, social, emotional, sexual, cognitive, and material:
- Physical: how do you like to be touched? Greeted? How much physical personal space do you need when you’re having a conversation or sharing a bed with someone? How much physical time apart do you need from a partner or lover? How much touch do you need? If you live together, do you need a room for yourself?
- Social: how much do you share about your relationship, or each others’ lives, with friends? How much time do you want or need to talk about yourself with your partner? How involved are you in each others’ social lives? How do you feel about meeting each other’s friends and families?
- Emotional: how much emotional support do you need? How do you want to be supported when you’re struggling? How much tolerance do you have for your partner’s emotional states? Do you have requirements for your partner’s abilities to process and manage their own emotional baggage?
- Sexual: what kind of sexual contact (if any) are you comfortable with outside of your relationship? What sexual activities are hard limits for you? Which activities do you need to experience to feel satisfied? What do you need in order for sex to feel pleasurable? How much sexual contact do you want with your partners?
- Cognitive: are there topics that you don’t feel comfortable discussing? Do you have particular beliefs or world views that are not compatible with certain people or situations? Are there specific situations or decisions people may ask of you that are against your ethics?
- Material: do you prefer to combine your finances with your partners, or keep them separate? How do you feel about giving and receiving material gifts? How do you manage joint expenses?
How To Find Healthy Boundaries For You
Now you have some idea of all the different ways that boundaries can be expressed, how do you decide what’s right for you in your relationships?
This can be a difficult task if you’re used to following the many scripts we’re socialised with. To take one example: in the culture I grew up in, it’s a norm that after being in a relationship for a year or two, my partner and I will move in together.
What if my physical and material boundaries aren’t compatible with that expectation? If I live in an expensive city, and my partner and I can’t afford a home big enough for us to have the personal space we need, should I violate my boundaries in order to do the ‘normal’ thing?
Chances are, when you read through the list of categories above, some of them resonated with you more than others. Which provoked a biggest reaction in you? Do you have a sense of which types of boundaries come easily to you (if any), and which you didn’t even realise could exist?
Having awareness of these places is the most important first step. Begin to ask yourself questions about what you really want from the people you’re in relationships with – and what you really want to offer them, too. If you journal or meditate, or have a different self-reflective practice, try introducing some of these themes and see what arises for you.
It can also be helpful to learn to pay more attention to your body’s cues. Your body will have a reaction (a gut feeling, perhaps) when one of your boundaries is violated, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Beginning to listen to these reactions, however subtle, can be a really great way to begin noticing when something isn’t right. This information can help to inform your boundary-setting in the future.
Ultimately, healthy boundaries are the places where you can give another person your love and support without compromising yourself and your needs. Boundaries are vital for our mental health: if you’re often feeling drained, tired, or resentful with your partner, then this could mean that you’re violating your own boundaries in your relationship. Noticing if and when these feelings come up can be helpful clues to point you towards where your boundaries are.
Allowing someone to violate your boundaries is also an act of you violating your own boundaries. Whenever someone behaves in a way that isn’t aligned with your wants and needs, you have the responsibility to communicate that with them and ask for something different, or remove yourself from the situation.
Which bring us to…
How To Communicate Personal Boundaries
Communicating boundaries can feel really edgy and vulnerable because it’s a skill many of us haven’t learned. To give a couple of examples, many young children are tickled by their parents despite being asked to stop. Or they are told they must hug or kiss relatives, even if they don’t want to. This teaches children that their boundaries will not be respected, and – worse – their ‘no’ may result in punishment or withdrawal of affection.
So, how do we learn as adults?
First of all, it’s important to get clear not only on what your boundaries are, but also on how you will behave if your boundaries are not respected. This isn’t about punishing the other person – it’s about knowing how you’ll remove yourself from a situation where your boundaries are being violated. Hopefully you won’t need to communicate this, but it’s important that you’re clear on it so that you can if you need to.
When discussing boundary issues, talk only about your own experience and your own needs, and take responsibility for yourself. Be clear in your language. Non-Violent Communication has a helpful structure which we can borrow here:
State a fact that you’ve noticed, using “I” sentences. Avoid accusing the other person of anything, voicing an opinion, or mentioning any emotions at this stage. The aim is to state something as neutrally as possible that the other person can agree with.
“I notice that I initiate most of our plans for seeing each other.”
How does this make you feel? Try to stick only to emotions here, rather than getting caught in stories, and again focus on your own experience only.
“I feel insecure and sad about this.”
State the need you have in this situation. What’s your boundary?
“I have a need for reciprocity and reassurance that you want to see me as much as I want to see you.”
Ask the other person for what you need in this situation. Be as specific as possible; avoid asking them to make you feel a particular emotion, and instead ask them to take specific actions that would have the same effect.
“I’d like to request that you take the lead in organising more of our dates, and ask me more often when we can see each other next.”
5: Check in
Finally, ask how this landed for them. Give them your full attention as they respond to your request.
“How does that sound to you?”
When discussing boundary issues it can also be helpful to focus on the positive result of having your boundaries respected. Hopefully, both you and your partner want the same thing: perhaps it’s a close, intimate relationship built on love and trust. Framing the discussion with this perspective can help to remind you both that you’re on the same side, and avoid the conversation becoming an argument.
In the “need” section of the framework above, you could include this by saying something like,
“An important part of intimacy for me is to feel reciprocity and reassurance. I love the intimacy that we have together, and hearing that you want to see me as much as I want to see you would help me to feel much more secure in our relationship.”
Hopefully this will start a productive conversation with your loved one and result in a change in behaviour that helps you to get your needs met.
It’s important to note that if your needs are opposed to the other person’s boundaries or desires, you may have to consider what this means for your relationship. There may be a compromise you’re willing to make, or it may mean that you need to change the amount or type of intimacy you can enjoy with that person. For example, if I find out that one of my friends can’t keep secrets, I may not necessarily feel I need to end our friendship – but I may decide to no longer talk with them about deeply personal topics.
If this seemed like a lot, I’d encourage you to take everything slowly. Learning how to be better with your boundaries can be a lifelong journey, and it’ll likely feel easier in some situations than in others. It’s an extremely useful enquiry to make though, and very worth it – when you get clearer on your wants and needs, and better at communicating them, all of your relationships will benefit.
This is a big topic for me. Not because I have an awful lot to say about it, but because the resistance I feel to changing my mind is colossal.
For a whole bunch of reasons, some known and some unknown, I have reached adulthood with the belief that to change my mind is to be flakey, inconsistent, and unreliable. Sticking to my word, on the other hand, means I am deserving of trust and love, and so being dependable is something I often strive for – at the expense of taking care of my own needs.
Naturally, this comes up most acutely in relationship. Open relationships in particular require me to check in with myself often about my comfort levels – perhaps things that felt fine a month ago no longer do. Polyamory means putting myself in potentially challenging, triggering situations often, more so than when operating within the relative security of monogamous commitments. It’s crucial to be able to acknowledge that, for whatever reason, I am feeling particularly tender and would prefer a little more care than I needed before.
If this sounds familiar to you too, then know that being able to express this to those you love and have it heard and honoured is the best way to learn that changing your mind is actually ok. That it won’t necessarily lead to abandonment or rejection.
This can be done slowly and gently, too, as with learning how to be vulnerable. Try noticing the little things that don’t quite feel right: have you changed your mind about where you want to eat after your partner has made a reservation? Or have you changed your mind about the film your date has just started playing, and you’d rather watch something different? How does it feel to acknowledge this to yourself, and to speak it out loud?
The final piece is to realise that just because you have changed your mind, it doesn’t mean that the other person has to go along with your request. You can trust them to hold their own boundaries and say no if they need to. And maybe it doesn’t matter so much anyway – often, the act of noticing and voicing your change of preference goes a long way to you feeling heard and complete.
There are two things I’ve discovered while learning how to be vulnerable recently: it’s really fucking hard, and really fucking worth it.
I could never have known how to be vulnerable through most of my twenties; I’m not sure I really knew what vulnerability was. Or perhaps I did, I just didn’t realise that sharing my softest parts could lead to more depth in my relationships.
The thing with allowing yourself to be vulnerable is that it allows the most scared, fragile, and young parts of you to be seen, and this process of showing all of ourselves to those we love is what creates the most real intimacy.
With hindsight, I can see now that resisting allowing my vulnerability to be seen only lead to more anxiety: not talking about what I need in a relationship in order to feel safe meant that my needs were not met out of fear of losing the other person. Failing to honour those needs resulted in relationships where I could never grow, ultimately ending in a feeling of stagnation and resentment.
Here are some of the ways I am learning to become friends with showing my vulnerabilities (it’s a work in progress).
How To Be Vulnerable… Slowly & Gently
You can start small. Perhaps a new romantic relationship isn’t the best playground to start exploring your vulnerability right away if it’s not something you’re used to doing; start with friendships that feel secure, and topics that feel only a little edgy.
What things would you not want your friend to know about you? Is there anything you’re ashamed of, scared of, or anxious about that you could consider talking with your friend about, as an exercise in sharing something vulnerable with them?
It can be interesting to notice how you feel in the friendship after trying this. In my experience, sharing something difficult and being seen and heard in that way brings me closer to that person, and leaves me with gratitude for our connection. Usually for me, fear of speaking my vulnerability comes from a fear that the person will disappear if I do. Practicing doing this with someone trusted, and with topics that are unlikely to compromise the friendship, allows me to start understanding that vulnerability doesn’t have to lead to abandonment or rejection.
Speak Your Vulnerability
Once you’re feeling a a little more comfortable with consciously sharing vulnerabilities with people you already feel secure with, you can bring those practices a little more ‘into the wild’. Stumbling into a feeling of vulnerability with someone who matters to us, unintentionally, can be scary and triggering. There are tools we can use to use these situations to create deeper intimacy, instead of feeling that we need to run away, freeze up, or fight.
This can be as simple as saying, “I feel really vulnerable right now.” Sometimes this is all that is needed to begin to pull us out of an unhelpful place and into somewhere where we have more opportunity to vocalise what’s going on for us. Being able to voice the impact of the situation – that we’re feeling scared, or anxious – can give us a little space to decide whether we want to explore this further, or whether we need to take care of ourselves by moving away, if possible.
In my experience, telling someone close to us that we’re feeling vulnerable engenders more trust and honesty from their side, and a desire to understand and help if possible. Ultimately, if we want it to, this can lead to more productive and intimate conversations.
Use a Reality Check
It’s always possible to ask yourself, no matter how anxious or scared you’re feeling, “am I safe right now?”
Noticing that the answer is “yes” can be a necessarily calming thing when feeling particularly vulnerable, especially when practicing sharing things that we feel anxious about.
Often the things I’m feeling most scared over are fairly irrational, if not almost inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, and so reminding myself that I am ultimately safe is a helpful reminder of perspective.
Develop a Support Network
It’s much easier to be vulnerable if we know that we have supportive folks around us. The (often irrational) feeling that we’re risking one relationship by showing our darkest sides can seem less scary if we know we have others with whom we can be fully ourselves.
This doesn’t happen overnight, of course. But beginning to foster friendships built on allowing vulnerability, and a community where the tough stuff is just as welcome as the joy, is a really valuable thing. For me it means that there are always people – whether I’ve known them for years or only a couple of months – who welcome my vulnerability, anger, fear, or grief, and with whom I can practice speaking it, sharing it, and processing it if I need to.
Know Why You Want to be Vulnerable
The reason I put so much energy into identifying my vulnerabilities and sharing them with those I love is that it allows for deeper connection. It’s a sign of trust, of self-knowledge, and of how much I value the relationship: so highly, that I want this person to see every part of me.
This isn’t only relevant for people you’re already close to, though. Meeting strangers with the vulnerability of admitting, “I’m new and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing” or, “I’m lost, can you help?” or, “I’m feeling really nervous right now” can instantly create a much more honest connection, and invite the other person to share deeper parts of themselves, too.
Be Clear On Your Boundaries
This is perhaps the most important thing of all. Being able to identify and communicate boundaries allows us to open up with others, because we can feel safe in knowing where our limits are.
For me, one of my most vulnerable places is in anger. Sharing anger with those I care about, when that anger is directed at them, feels particularly edgy because this is where I am most fearful they would walk away from our relationship. And yet anger is such an important feeling, often necessary for setting and upholding boundaries. One of my biggest challenges recently has involved learning to allow this anger, and the vulnerability I feel in expressing the boundaries it signifies for me, trusting that those I love won’t disappear as a result (so far, so good).
Being over-vigilant with boundaries keeps people out; we never allow ourselves to be vulnerable out of fear or shame. Conversely, if we don’t hold our boundaries at all then we put ourselves at risk of being compromised. The balance is in knowing our needs – how much of ourselves we can give, how much capacity we have, how we need others to treat us – and feeling confident in communicating this to others.
The confidence in knowing that we can look after ourselves, without relying on others to care for us, frees us up to share our vulnerable, fearful sides. This is because we’re doing so from a baseline of self-responsibility. We can seek deeper intimacy through sharing our challenges, knowing that we are already enough.
I read a quote recently which really stuck with me:
“People think that intimacy is about sex. But intimacy is about truth. When you realize you can tell someone your truth, when you can show yourself to them, when you stand in front of them and their response is ‘you’re safe with me’ – that’s intimacy.”Taylor Jenkins Reid
Before I’d really given it much further thought, I suppose I would have said that ‘intimacy’ between two people meant a kind of sexual closeness; intimate massage, intimate relationship, intimate touch. ‘Intimacy’ becomes one of many euphemisms for sexuality without us having to think twice about whether it’s actually separate, and whether we can seek out one without the other in our relationships.
I’m certain I’m not alone in having proven many times how easy it is to engage in sex without intimacy. Which makes it all the more curious to me that it’s one of the words so often used to refer to types of bodywork that involve genital touch, or relationships that include sexual contact, regardless of any of the other dynamics between those involved.
What Is Intimacy, If It’s Not Sex?
Modern usage of the words intimate and intimacy date back to the late 19th Century, when newspapers used the word euphemistically to refer to sex (and women’s underwear). But it comes originally from Latin intimare meaning, “to make known, announce, impress,” which in turn came from intimus meaning “inmost, deepest.” Its roots are much more closely aligned with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s sense than today’s conflation with genitalia and sex.
Or are these two things – allowing ourselves to be known, and speaking about sexuality – really so separate after all? Our sexuality is so often the place where we hold the most shame, fear, and vulnerability. Wounds run deep here, and take time to heal, if we are able to even become conscious of them in the first place. Allowing ourselves to engage sexually with another, even to be naked in front of them, can require a huge amount of trust that we will be seen, along with all our anxieties, and feel safe.
There is an alternative to this of course, which is to never show all of ourselves to avoid the risk of rejection or abandonment, but sacrificing any chance of intimacy along the way. The conflation of sex with intimacy can lead to lots of very unfulfilling encounters, desperately wanting to be seen but being held back by fear, all the while substituting physical closeness for something that feels deeper.
Just as shame over sex caused newspapers 100 years ago to use ‘intimacy’ as a euphemism, our shame today causes us to confuse the two, seeking out sex when what we’re really craving is the intimacy of being seen.
Could we explore decoupling intimacy from sex, and learn how to feel safe while allowing ourselves to be seen first, before we engage sexually? Practice speaking our vulnerabilities before we introduce tangling limbs and sweaty requests for water?
Could we practice more intimacy in our non-sexual relationships, and notice what happens if we speak our immediate truth, with all the awkwardness and vulnerability of admitting that we’re frightened, or hurt, or excited?
Perhaps. But how do we go about this? How do we begin to understand what intimacy really is, and create more of it?
The first thing to know is that it starts with ourselves. We can’t just ask for more honesty and truth from another; we have to open ourselves up first. And before we can do that, we need to know ourselves. We have to practice intimacy with ourselves before we can ever hope to create something with someone else. What are you most scared of? What are you avoiding, and how? What are your most unhelpful patterns and habits?
Becoming better acquainted with all the gnarly, difficult stuff – and meeting it with compassion – means that we are able to bring all of this to our relationships in a conscious way. Instead of reacting out of fear without understanding why, we can speak about our vulnerabilities with those we feel closest to. In allowing these darker parts of ourselves to be seen, we can experience the kind of intimacy that comes from allowing another to see all of us while knowing we are still safe.