Boundary-Setting Mistakes To Avoid For Healthier Relationships

Boundaries are an integral part of forming healthy relationships with others. Though some might see boundaries as creating a distance between themselves and others, more realistically, it's a way to "define" who you are relative to other people, according to the Georgia Center for Opportunity. This, as we will discuss, includes things like maintaining a certain separation from the emotional, physical, and mental spaces of others so that you can own these parts of yourself.

In fact, boundaries can help foster stronger relationships with other people in your life in many different ways, from helping to navigate relational needs to enhancing communication and bolstering overall relationship satisfaction (via Eugene Therapy). This isn't just between romantic partners. It can help you to mediate healthy long-term relationships with friends, family, and coworkers.

However, despite all these benefits, it can be easy to fall into the common pitfalls when boundary-making, such as how, when, and why boundaries must be set. Therefore, it's important to uncover, recognize, and correct these mistakes for the longevity and happiness of our relationships.

What is a boundary?

A boundary is what defines you as a distinct and unique individual that's separate from others. In essence, it's about defining who you are relative to another person so that you can maintain a healthy sense of self (via the Berkeley Well-Being Institute). This isn't about isolation, but rather it allows you to take a deeper look and place emphasis on what you believe, think, and feel without having these concepts of self overlap or be subsumed by another person.

For instance, you can start defining these boundaries by thinking about what you need from your relationships, what you're willing to take ownership of, and what you aren't. This might look like a list of things you're comfortable with and not comfortable with, such as what you need to feel safe and secure in a given relationship. These rules don't have to apply unilaterally; they can adapt over time (per the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships).

What you don't want, however, is to enforce boundaries reactively or use them to control how other people behave. The purpose and benefit of boundaries are to improve the quality of and remove ambiguity within a relationship. When done healthily, boundaries give all types of relationships a chance to thrive.

Defining different types of boundaries

While we often think about boundaries in terms of physical and emotional security, they can and perhaps should extend to all aspects of life, including mental, spiritual, time-related, material, and sexual limits that you express between you and others. As explained in the book "Setting Boundaries Will Set You Free," by Nancy Levin, such boundaries aren't only important for maintaining relationship quality, but they also serve as a means of protection against those who would violate or exploit their connection with you.

For example, we've all probably experienced someone who takes advantage of these different aspects. It might be financial — like someone asking for money and not paying you back. Or, it could be a friend who repeatedly emotionally unloads on you or even a partner who asks you for things in the bedroom that make you feel uncomfortable. It may even be a family member that's not respectful of your religious, moral, or spiritual beliefs.

No doubt, when a person close to us asks us to go outside these limits to accommodate their feelings, needs, or judgments, it can be particularly hard to say no. You might feel selfish for asserting such boundaries, or the individual themselves might try to guilt trip you into changing your mind. We won't tell you that boundaries can magically stop these occurrences. However, when set properly, boundaries can give you a foothold for standing your ground and taking ownership of what you can control — your own behavior (per MentalHelp.net).

Making assumptions

One of the easiest mistakes to make when implementing a boundary lies in how you communicate it, which, according to Science of People, is one of the most critical aspects of setting boundaries. In close relationships with others, it isn't uncommon to expect them to know you well enough to somehow mindread what you are uncomfortable with. Likewise, in other cases, it might be that certain societal or cultural expectations can be projected onto the other person, informing what we think they know and what we expect.

You aren't alone if you've been guilty of making such assumptions. Many people may feel conversations about boundaries are too awkward to have, especially if they're intimate in nature. They may presume or even hope that the other person will somehow know or communicate what's okay and what's not. Unfortunately, studies around this issue highlight how "consent is often assumed" in the absence of its actual verbalization (per Psychology & Sexuality).

This is where communication becomes crucial for both parties. Discussing each other's boundaries rather than assuming the other's knowledge of them may be helpful in avoiding misunderstandings, conflict, and later boundary violations. Moreover, healthy conversations about these topics can significantly impact the relationship's longevity, as research highlights that communication is essential for relationship satisfaction (per the Encyclopedia of Quality of Life and Well-Being Research).

Ignoring the warning signs

First, it's important to acknowledge that certain boundary violations or negative behavioral tendencies may be more difficult to tackle than others. For instance, a piece from the Journal of Interpersonal Violence demonstrates that despite having an awareness of negative relationship behaviors, some people (especially adolescent individuals) either don't know how to respond to or how to discourage them.

It points out that, at times, even if we know that a behavior isn't acceptable, certain barriers can stop us from taking action. From the outside, it might look like we're ignoring or being passive toward the warning signs of boundary violations, but the reality is more complex. We may set a boundary like, "I won't accept someone shouting at me." But what do we do if this were to happen? Without a prepared strategy, we can end up ignoring our own boundaries out of fear, shock, or simply trying to make the situation end as fast as possible.

These are, of course, natural human responses to unpleasant situations, but for our long-term security, correct boundary-setting procedures can be helpful. As psychologist Dr. Soph notes on her website, while identification is a crucial first step, we need to follow it up with an appropriate response to deter the action from occurring again and to set a standard about what's acceptable and what isn't. "Stay put," she writes in her blog. "Giving in sends mixed messages."

Being afraid to say no

There are many reasons why people might be afraid to assert their boundaries. As a compelling example of this in the Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research highlights, relationship standards are often mediated by power dynamics. For instance, societal ideas about what's acceptable and normal in behavior might negatively influence a person's ability to set healthy relationship boundaries. Namely, a person might be afraid to say no in a relationship because of normative ideas about what's expected of them by society, their partner, and other external factors.

And even if a person can work up the courage to say no, there's always the risk that their boundaries could be dismissed altogether, such as in the case of gaslighting (via the American Sociological Review). Gaslighting is "aimed at making victims seem or feel 'crazy,' creating a 'surreal' interpersonal environment," according to the review. Signs of gaslighting include the constant need to apologize or feeling like you are being manipulated.

You might also feel you'll disappoint them, or they'll be hurt by your words. Or it could be that the idea of conflict or confrontation is the real issue. However, your ability to express boundaries isn't selfish, shameful, or unkind. It's actually of benefit to both parties. One, it's a sign of mutual respect when people can acknowledge the boundaries of others. And two, it's more honest to them and yourself to recognize when a request is asking too much (per Lyra Health).

Failing to set proper consequences

How you reinforce behavior will likely determine the outcome you are seeking, according to Lumen Learning. For instance, if a child screams and their parents immediately placate them with sweets or treats, they may learn that screaming is an acceptable way of getting what they need. The consequence (receiving sweets) reinforces the behavior (screaming).

By the same thread, when there's no consequence or acknowledgment of boundary violations, other people may learn (sometimes not even consciously) that violating our boundaries is okay (via Psychology Today). Moreover, when we don't address boundaries early on, the feelings associated with the repeated unaddressed violations can bubble up, turning into forms of punishment, such as ultimatums, threats, retaliation, or even demands and ways to assert control, as described by "The Better Boundaries Workbook" by licensed psychotherapist Sharon Martin.

This isn't what the consequences of boundary violations are about. Primarily, they can be looked at as a form of self-care, per Dr. Dana Nelson on their website. They're best enforced from a place of compassion and respect, not resentment or anger. It expresses clearly what you'd like from the other person and what will happen if they can't respect that boundary.

Not being consistent with your boundaries

As therapist Emma McAdam explains in a YouTube video, one of the main reasons people falter when sticking to boundaries is the belief that a boundary is "mean, harsh, or bad." This could be especially true for people trying to set boundaries with a family member or a very close person. Maintaining boundaries in such an instance can be difficult because of feelings like duty, guilt, or familial obligation.

A study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found family obligations can be a two-edged sword. On one hand, close ties with family may be associated with better communication and less conflict. However, it can also be tied to poor mental health as individuals can feel duty-bound to provide financial, emotional, and mental resources for their families, even at the expense of their own health.

We're not saying it's wrong to feel a sense of care and responsibility toward family. But think of it this way: Just as you wouldn't want a family member to make themselves ill catering to you, consider how they would feel if they knew you were doing that for them. In this sense, consistent boundaries actually offer a way of maintaining the relationship as a whole, avoiding confusion, and showing love rather than duty (via Psychology Today). This means when you do help out, your family knows it's because you want to, not because you have to.

Mistaking affection for remorse

Okay, let's say you've set a boundary, and someone has broken it. As a consequence, you've asked for time away from that person — not as a punishment but to feel safe and respected in that relationship. Immediately after, the boundary-breaker sends you a dozen red roses, apologizing profusely and asking for your forgiveness.

This could be a sign of love bombing, which, as therapist Kati Morton explains in a YouTube video, is when a person tries to manipulate another into ignoring or not enforcing their own boundaries by showering them with love as a form of distraction or pacification. Then, once the love bomber is allowed back into their life, the cycle of boundary-breaking begins anew.

This is a common pattern in abusive relationships, according to Morton, and can trap people in deeply damaging situations. For instance, research illustrates in the Journal of Family Violence that there's a tendency to justify boundary crossings because of a need to follow a certain "relationship script." This script dictates how a person thinks a relationship should go, like "they'll change if I preserve" or "this is just a once-off." The victim isn't at fault for thinking in this way. But try to remember why you created that boundary in the first place, what it represents to you as a person, and what it really says about the boundary breaker's remorse if they cross it.

Not differentiating between compassion and empathy

As we've discussed, the people around us can try to manipulate or aggravate us, whether intentionally or not. However, when we recognize the signs of this behavior, it may become easier to respond more intentionally with practice. Despite this, though, one thing that can always be difficult is when we're subconsciously influenced by another person's distress.

By this, we mean a situation where a person doesn't ask anything of us, but we're compelled to help them nonetheless with our time, emotional support, and energy. And inside, we may justify this exertion as being empathetic and compassionate. But these two things aren't the same. According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, empathy is when a person takes on another individual's emotional and mental burdens by putting themselves in that person's shoes.

Rather than compassion, which still allows you to acknowledge the other person's emotions without allowing them to consume you, the demands of empathy can become unhealthy, especially if you ignore your boundaries with the "need to fix their problems and make them feel better" (via Psychology Today). Without healthy relationship boundaries, not only are we less likely to be able to offer real help to the other person, but we may put ourselves at risk of emotional and mental strain.

Not applying your own boundaries to yourself

As with the example above, it's not always easy to distinguish who boundaries are for. While boundaries can help others learn to respect and understand our needs, that isn't their primary purpose. The point of boundaries, as therapist Kati Morton emphasizes in a YouTube video, is about "taking back responsibility and control over our own behaviors and reactions."

Furthermore, defining boundaries can be key to the process of self-actualization, according to the American Psychological Association. This means acknowledging our needs and working to discover our true selves. When we have no boundaries or lack the commitment to boundaries, we can confuse who we are with other people. This is only natural, given how much others can influence our environments, behavior, and beliefs.

When we aren't able to see ourselves clearly, it can prevent us from taking ownership and accountability for our own behavior, thoughts, and feelings (per therapist Dave Lechnyr). As a result, we can convince ourselves that how others see us is a reflection of who we are. In doing so, boundary violations seem normal because there's no self to violate.

Having no flexibility with your boundaries

Based on what we've discussed so far, it can be easy to see why a person might view a boundary as a static or fixed mode of interaction. When a person creates a boundary, it, in essence, delineates what they have determined as themselves and others. For example, I believe in XYZ, so my boundary protects this belief. But of course, humans are complex creatures, and not all interactions and connections with others are the same or stay the same over time.

This is why flexibility is important as a boundary-setting strategy, according to the Centre For Interpersonal Relationships. It doesn't mean that your boundaries are any less authentic or consistent. But what it can mean is that your boundaries can adapt to different situations, relationships, and evolving needs. Conversely, having too rigid a boundary may be isolating and even detrimental to mental well-being. 

Being dismissive of the mood and tone of your boundary discussion

Tone, especially emotional tone, which is how we communicate through expression, body language, and wording choice, might be a crucial factor between good and bad boundary setting. In fact, studies show that emotional tone can even mediate feelings of connectedness and the quality of interactions with other people (per Early Education and Development).

Inversely, according to Life Coaching and Therapy, dismissive, aggressive, and demanding tones in boundary conversations often lead to conflict, misunderstandings, and the target of the conversation being less open to future boundary discussions. For example, consider this interaction: Friend B keeps sending Friend A messages even when they're working. A responds, "I can't talk right now, I'm going to have to put you on silent if you keep texting." This is an ultimatum, but it sounds similar to a healthy response where A explains, "I'm at work at the moment, so I can't answer your message right now. If you wait till I finish work, we can discuss the issue."

A conversation may have similar nuances in wording choice or even intention, but the way it's expressed may evoke a very different interpretation of what's actually being said. Based on tone, a person might translate the mood or context of the conversation as argumentative or assertive, as a demand or a request, and even as a condition as an ultimatum. This is where practice and reflection can help inform the differences between good and poor boundary-setting conversations (via Counselling Directory).

How to set healthy relationship boundaries

Setting healthy relationship boundaries begins with self-reflection. "Take some time to be a detective of your own psychology," senior, licensed, and accredited therapist Sally Baker tells PsychCentral. "So often stuff happens to people and they feel uncomfortable, but they're not sure why. The first step in having healthy boundaries in any situation is spending the time to explore what's happening to you."

The next step is how you communicate these boundaries. Skylark Counseling Clinic recommends being confident and self-assured when discussing boundaries with your partner or loved ones. Clearly express your limits and what will happen if a boundary is violated. You may want to use "I" statements to avoid sounding accusatory and encourage open dialogue. Listen actively to understand their perspective and find compromises that respect both parties' boundaries.

It's also important to remember that setting boundaries isn't a one-time event; it requires ongoing maintenance (per Iowa Family Counseling). You may need to continuously communicate and reinforce your boundaries with your partner or loved ones. Be assertive in addressing boundary violations and advocate for your needs. Recall that practicing self-care and prioritizing your well-being isn't selfish or mean. Rather it ensures you have the energy and strength to provide a stable foundation for your ongoing relationship with that person.