How To Set Boundaries In Dating And Relationships

Erecting strong personal boundaries is not only a long-term necessity, it is a remarkably efficient way of garnering respect. There are simply no downsides to demanding a modicum of respect, other than perhaps chasing off the ever-present vampiric hordes of individuals who are looking for weak-willed prey, and not a two-way relationship. Goody.

The real question then becomes how to go about it without looking like a self-absorbed megalomaniac. Here’s the thing, erecting boundaries does not mean invoking the right to be offended. If you find your date’s tendency to smoke a deal-breaker you can neither demand a change nor expect one. You can only ask that he quit and act on the answer. Boundaries are personal barriers, not judgments. Once this distinction becomes apparent, it becomes a lot easier to convey the message head-on.

Don’t make it a judgement

If you feel your date or partner’s behavior is becoming unsustainable, and the time for a tête à tête is rapidly drawing closer, make sure you strip your message of unnecessary judgement.

People are generally far more receptive to a message if it is plain, allowing them to make the necessary changes (or not) without feeling guilty, remorseful or angry. Here’s an example:

Imagine for a moment that you love puffing away at your eighteenth-century pipe. You think nothing of it until your roommate decides to confront you about it. Imagine being presented with these scenarios and think about how you would respond to both of them.

  1. Stop doing that! Smoking is unhealthy, sick and irresponsible. 
  2. Would you please smoke outside instead? 

The first question invokes defensiveness. While you may have been receptive to the message you’re likely headed towards an argument based on the inherent condescension and judgement. The second is far easier to digest. Ultimately it does not attempt to coerce you, it is an appeal to reason — upon which you are free to act. Ironically people are far more likely to react positively if they have a choice! In short, get it off your chest as simply and directly as possible, and let them haggle with it on their own terms.

Don’t dilly-dally

Attempting to swallow the pain will only reinforce behaviors that you find a no-go. The sooner you get it off your chest the better it will be for both parties involved. The good news is that directness also ushers in a plethora of other benefits:

  • You are setting the bar for more direct and honest conversation in the relationship. Your partner will also feel that they can tell you what is unsustainable and important for them, without giving resentment time to build.
  • You are combating latent stress, avoiding showdowns down the road.
  • Honesty, self-worth and directness are attractive. Nobody likes a push-over, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. They may not like it, but they will respect it. If they can’t, count your blessings that you were able to find this out now rather than later.

There is a thin line between erecting boundaries and being adverse to compromise, however. Boundaries should be enforced only when necessary, and when it is truly of import to you. Not only when you find something mildly discomforting. Every relationship will involve a measure of sacrifice and compromise — I find it unreasonable to expect otherwise. If the relationship essentially forces, due to the amount of boundaries present, a partner to be someone else, then perhaps it would be simpler to actually find someone else rather than to demand fundamental character change (which many succumb to, essentially sacrificing their happiness in order to stave off the fear of being alone).