We all know good communication is important in our relationships. We know we’re supposed to talk to those we love, not keep secrets, and mutually respect one another.
But what about when we have an uncomfortable boundary to set with someone we care about?
What if we have a need that contradicts someone else’s need? (What they need is also valid.)
Or how do we keep relationships healthy if we’re good with communication…but the other person isn’t?
That’s what this blog is about. It’ll not only answer these questions, but also demonstrate exactly how to set boundaries in a way that’s likely to be received with open arms.
The 2 Critical Pieces of Good Communication
All healthy relationships have these two forms of communication:
Both people express needs and boundaries clearly, and listen to each other’s needs.
They’re also willing to change problematic behaviors or compromise if needed.
This sounds simple, but we all know emotions and assumptions make it a heck of a lot more complicated. We might assume people know how to act around us, rather than being honest about our needs.
And it’s also fairly uncommon for people to fully respect our boundaries the instant we set them. Even if we don’t understand why a boundary is there—we need to treat it as valid.
Expressing Needs and Boundaries
As survivors of abuse, we were often forced to hide our needs—so it may feel a risky or frightening to share our boundaries now.
But they are important. Good communication cannot happen if you keep your boundaries a secret.
Learning to express boundaries takes time, so be patient with yourself. Treat it like learning any other skill. Take a few leaps of faith. Don’t be hard on yourself if you stumble.
You’ll get better with time and realize it’s safe to tell people what you need. And if someone makes you feel unsafe or disrespected when setting boundaries, leave. Good communication is highly unlikely to ever be a possibility with this person. You can also read this blog here for more tips on setting boundaries!
Encourage the other people in your life to set boundaries. Ask them “What do you need from me? What actions make you uncomfortable?” Questions like this can let them know it’s safe to express a boundary with you and prevent them from getting angry at you for breaking a boundary you didn’t know about—but they assumed you knew.
I had an ex who made assumptions about boundaries. This caused our initially wonderful relationship to become super toxic.
They said texting once a day was too needy and that I hadn’t been respecting their need for space…despite the fact they’d never asked me to pull back on our regular communication. We’d talked daily for over a year. How was I supposed to know they suddenly wanted to change that?
When I apologized and said I had no idea that’s what they wanted, they shamed me. Saying that any good person would know things like this.
I tried to adapt to boundaries that I couldn’t see—and was constantly blamed for not respecting them. How could I respect the needs they never told me about?
This is a more extreme example, but the point is that it can add a lot of stress to relationships if we assume people just know our boundaries. Even if it seems like something “normal” or common, we should still express it.
We’re not telepathic. We need to express our needs clearly and openly.
We need to share any and all boundaries—small or large—as soon as they’re relevant.
How to Set Easy-to-Respect Boundaries
When we care about someone, boundaries can be intimidating to express. We fear they might walk away or want nothing to do with us if we ask for the “wrong” thing or communicate in the “wrong” way.
There’s a way to set boundaries that inspires others to respect them. And you won’t feel like a burden for expressing them. The mutual understanding in this method ensures the boundary is more memorable—meaning they’re less likely to cross it in the future.
Basically, it consists of three steps.
1: Ask where they’re coming from (if you don’t already know for sure) and validate that. Usually boundaries come up after someone did something that accidentally hurt us, so this gives you an opportunity to understand why they acted that way. You can also talk about their needs and boundaries here.
2: Set your boundary. Tell them what is and isn’t okay with you. Be clear and direct—try not to leave room for interpretation.
3: Explain why you have that boundary. This (and the first step) are ultimately optional, but they do wonders in keeping good communication and compassion in relationships. People are more likely to respect us when they understand us.
Here’s a few examples:
“Hey, I wanted to talk about what happened last night. What caused you to be upset and shout? (Listen to them and validate what they say.) In the future, even when you’re stressed, please don’t shout at me. I had a past abuser who did that, so it can cause very serious panic reactions from me—even though I know you’d never hurt me like that.”
“You know our conversation while we were shopping earlier? Why did you make that comment about my hair? (Listen) My mom was often critical of my hair when I was younger, so please don’t make comments like that in the future.”
You can also invite them to ask questions about your boundary, if you feel that would help them understand.
Listen (And Hold Each Other Accountable)
Good listening requires accountability. We need to hold ourselves and the other person accountable for respecting the boundaries we set. This involves changing behavior.
We can’t just listen in the moment and then forget everything after, going back to our old ways (memory disorders aside—those are genuine and real excuses).
It’s okay if someone needs to change their behavior to accommodate your boundary. Be firm with this, but understanding that it may take time to adjust to as well.
After a boundary is set, we need to do everything we can to respect it. Sometimes that means asking for more clarity right away or later, or making a sincere apology if we trip up. The effort to respect a boundary counts for more than just listening right when the person expresses it.
Listening’s important too, but the actions after speak louder than those words.
If someone refuses to change their behavior, it’s a sign the relationship is unhealthy. If someone seems like they’re listening to you when you share a boundary, but then they continue to act as if it doesn’t exist—they aren’t treating you with respect. They are refusing to build good communication with you…and that’s not the type of relationship you want to stay in.
So, who’s someone you need to express a boundary to? Write an example of that conversation in a comment below (it’ll help you feel more prepped for the real talk, too!).