One of the biggest sources of emotional resentment is being in a caregiving role and not knowing how to say no when we need to. It’s incredibly important to learn how to set (and stick with!) our boundaries.
I hear so many people talk about how tough it is to set boundaries, especially when it’s with someone you care deeply about. If you love someone who is struggling with mental health issues, you can probably relate to feeling the gamut of emotions: tired, annoyed, overwhelmed, fed up, sad, ashamed, and alone. You might feel responsible for the person’s behaviors, or guilty when there’s tension in the relationship. You might feel like you’ve been a caregiver for a long time, so you’re trying to figure out how to support the person you care about without becoming the therapist yourself.
If you’ve been aware of your more uncomfortable feelings and you recognize that you’re on the path to burnout, you might have already recognized your need to step back. So what happens if, when you finally set boundaries, you get pushback?
How to deal with pushback when you set boundaries
First, let me just say, I can just imagine how tough that is. I think most of us imagine our ideal scenarios when we go to set boundaries for the first time. “The person will totally understand! They will accept my boundary and we’ll move forward! It will be a one-time conversation!” Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize that the ideal scenario is often not how it plays out, even with people who love us and want what’s best for us. It can take time to adjust to new situations, even for people who want to and are willing to work with us.
But let’s put our curious hats on and find out a little bit more about the type of pushback you’re on the receiving end of:
Sticking with the boundary you set after you receive pushback is uncomfortable, especially for people who are used to pleasing others. If you think the person you’re caring for can grow with you, then I might encourage you to focus on trying to tolerate the discomfort of sticking with it. Many people slide back into giving all they have at the first sign of discomfort in a relationship because they’re concerned that the other person won’t be able to handle it, when in reality what they’re seeing is that the other person is taking time to adjust. It’s okay to give reminders of what you’re willing and able to provide – you can even do this in a way that is compassionate to both you and the other person. You may also need to show through your behaviors that you’re committed to following through on the boundaries you’ve set out.
If, on the other hand, you’re dealing with someone who simply isn’t willing to accept that you have needs of your own, then you might need to take a different tack. Beyond setting and sticking with your boundaries, you might be dealing with the grief of realizing the relationship can never be as reciprocal as you’d hoped. You might be working on how to cope with guilt-tripping, or learning how to take a further step back from a relationship that’s no longer serving you. Remember that it’s okay to leave relationships you’ve outgrown. You’re allowed to do what’s best for you.
Boundaries are all about being in touch with what our head, heart, and body are telling us, so in this way, it’s not at all about giving other people ultimatums. And at the same time, some of you have probably noticed that when you’re in relationships with other people, what you need on a deep level may come into conflict with what someone else needs on a deep level. The hard news is that even when there are good people involved who are trying their best, having conflicting needs can be a deal breaker. If your boundary is not being in relationship with someone who is actively using, and the person you’ve just started dating is in the throws of addiction – or even a casual user with no plans on quitting, this might not work out. If you’re polyamorous and your partner requires exclusivity, it’s hard to imagine a path ahead where you’re both satisfied. If one person knows they want children and the other absolutely doesn’t, this could mean that the relationship is not going to last.
Now, the other option is to see whether collaboration is possible. I met a woman in a 20 year marriage who originally wanted to have children, but decided when she met her husband that she wanted the relationship with him more. I met a man who chose to give up recreational use of a particular illicit substance because it was a deal-breaker for his wife, and it wasn’t that important to him.
If you ask for something you NEED (let’s say: to live in the same city as someone you’re dating), and the other person isn’t willing or able to give you that, then it’s a signal to end the relationship. Not because either of you did anything wrong – but your fundamental needs in relationship are different. If you ask for something you WANT (let’s say, to be with someone who will join rec leagues with you), and the other person isn’t willing or able to give you that, then you get to decide if continuing in the relationship still feels worth it, and if so, how you can both get your needs met around recreation. What you don’t get to do is demand that your partner give you what you want or need. You don’t get to shame them into giving in, you don’t get to use manipulation or coercion, and you don’t get to load them with emotional consequences if they don’t comply. Your partner remains an autonomous, whole person, with boundaries of their own.
A helpful question we can ask ourselves is “is this a request, or a demand?” In relationships, we’re free to make requests of each other, and that means we have the right to say yes or no to these requests. What’s not okay is making demands of our partners. “If you love me, you’d…” Trust that this will never, ever work out in your favor, no matter how much your partner loves you.
I work with all sorts of people in all sorts of relationships. I have seen a wide variety of monogamous and non-monogamous relationships, and there doesn’t seem to be one particular boundary that makes for success or failure.
Where I have seen it fail is when one or more people are saying “I’m okay with this” while, on a bodily, emotional level, it’s clear they’re not. When you push past your own needs and do what you think you “should” be able to, whether for someone else or for some moral ideal, this leads to a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering. So, I’ll state my belief in the idea of relationship orientations. I know as we study this, there will be more and more development in this area, but what I understand of it is based on my experience with clients and some basic reading. It seems to me that some people are simply wired for monogamy, and can’t function within a non-monogamous situation. It seems there are some people who are wired for polyamory, and feel stifled within the confines of a monogamous situation. It seems there are also people who may be more inclined toward one or the other, but can adapt based on the strength of the relationship, the importance of that person in their life, and a number of other factors. Now, I have a very biased sample (people attending therapy) but I seem to keep running across people who are wired one way and practicing another. For example, I’ve seen a number of clients who’ve adopted an open relationship because, on a theoretical level, they agree with the principles, but when it comes down to actually doing it, their body and emotional selves are screaming “no!”. I’ve seen people who’ve found themselves struggling to make it work in a monogamous relationship, even though on some level they have always felt it wasn’t right for them, but this is what their partner wants. I see these people trying to make it work to the best of their abilities, and I so appreciate that willingness to come to the table and do what we can for relationship. But there comes a time when we have to differentiate between willingness to collaborate and stepping over our own needs.
The kind of boundaries that work best are the ones where we’re deeply in touch with ourselves in the present moment, finding a way to honour what’s true for us. It’s not about forcing the person we’re with to change who they are so we can be with them, or forcing ourselves to change in order to make a relationship last. It’s noticing what’s true, and then acting accordingly. As Steve Almond said once, “You have a right to assert what you really need and want in a relationship, and as difficult as it is, you have to seek it from a person who is willing to give you that.”
I get this question a lot in therapy, in one form or another. "What boundaries am I allowed to set?" might come out as "What is it okay to ask for?" or "Are boundaries selfish?". Really, people are asking, "what should I do?" And here's my answer:
It depends. It depends, most of all, on YOU.
What that means is that there's no one right answer, and no one path fits all. So the process of therapy actually becomes about starting to listen to your own wisdom. Listening to all the parts of you (mind, body, and emotion) that tell you exactly what nourishes you, what doesn't, what feels worth the risk, what isn't, and where your values lie.
Let’s break this down a little further – boundaries in relationships will show up in a number of different categories, including financial, sexual, physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and time.
So for example, some of us need to have it be discussed anytime money comes out of the joint account. Other people aren’t comfortable having joint accounts at all.
Some people need sexual exclusivity in their relationship, while others may have an “as long as you’re safe” open policy. All of us are comfortable with certain forms of touch, sexual or otherwise, and not comfortable with others. For example, I have clients who aren’t okay with physical touch when they’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious, so the physical limit here is defined by an emotional state. I have clients who aren’t comfortable with touch in public spaces, so the limit in this case is defined by the environment. I have clients who’ve experienced sexual violence and certain kinds of touch are too triggering for them, at least at this point in time. There the physical limit has to do with particular parts of the body. Likewise, many of my trans* clients experiencing dysphoria find touch on certain areas of their body to be quite triggering.
Boundaries can also be related to privacy. We all need to feel that we can cover our bodies when we need to, and if nude beaches are a good indicator, for some people that’s less often than others. Bancroft points out that “even when we are dressed, we have the right not to be looked at in ways that feel invasive” (page 94). At the swimming pool, while we’re working, or on the street, I’d wager a guess that most of us have felt the discomfort of an unwanted gaze. Some couples are fine with showering together or using the bathroom while the other person is in the room, while others lock the door, requiring their privacy. Some people are happy sharing their email passwords and letting their partners check their text messages, while others like to keep things separate.
Time boundaries can relate to how much time the people in the relationship can commit to each other, how much time they need alone, and how much time their willing and able to give to any other relationships or outside commitments. Time boundaries can also serve to protect your relationship. You might choose to commit time to each other by carving out intention space - for example “for this hour that we’re at dinner, we’re not going to check our phones”. It can involve making a scheduled time for dates and a time for checking in/working through issues.
In terms of emotional boundaries, we all have the right to experience our own feelings, and to do so without judgment. This may seem obvious but I think it’s worth stating here, because I have had so many clients be told by abusive partners that their feelings are wrong or otherwise inappropriate. I want to highlight that how we process these feelings within a relationship can be quite unique. For example, some people need time to process their emotions, while others are ready to talk right away. Some people need to soothe their emotions through calming activities like baths and meditation, while others need to work through difficult experiences through more physically active means like painting, running, dancing, or singing. Some people find that they get angry when others tell them what they’re feeling, and don’t want anyone but them to define what’s happening in their heart.
Spiritual boundaries relate to any practices or beliefs that connect us with hope and belonging. These can be connected with religious institutions, or not. I’ve met people who need to be in relationship with someone who shares their faith. I’ve met couples who don’t mind having different religions as long as there is always a shared respect between them. Some couples may find it important to be able to have hope-building practices as a family, while others require time alone to explore their faith.
Any boundary is acceptable if it’s not hurting you or hurting the other person. Now, this still leave room for practices like BDSM and other consensual pain practices if that’s a thing that you and the people you’re doing it with are into.
I think what this comes down to is that it’s okay for all of us to ask for what we need in relationship (see caveat above). What’s not okay is telling other people how they’re supposed to be. It’s not okay to put our own values onto someone else as if there’s only one right away of being. That means it’s not okay to tell people we’re in relationship (or in any way imply) that their boundaries are wrong. It means we don’t have the right to tell people what to do with their bodies (eg., grooming practices like shaving, what kinds of foods to eat, whether or not they should be exercising, etc), their emotions, or their lives.
If we go back to the original question around “what are acceptable boundaries to have in relationships?”, I think what some people are really wondering is “what am I allowed to ask for?” So how about this. You can ask for anything in relationship (as long as it’s not hurting yourself or the other person). My clients often worry about this, fearing they’re not allowed to ask for words of reassurance, or that it’s not okay to discuss what turns them on, or to request checking in with each other when one of you is away. They fear they’re being too needy, or asking too much. You get to ask for all of these things, and more. I actually encourage it – without these kind of conversations about what we like, what supports us, and what feels good, we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of disappointment and resentment. So let me say that again: you get to ask for all these things. And then – here’s the important part - you have to respect the answer.
David Richo's "How to be an Adult in Relationships" is a transformative piece of writing on love and relationships. I first listened to this book by audio and find Richo's voice to be fairly melodic and soothing, so reading it now with his voice in my memory feels much like a meditation.
When I ask couples what their goals are for counseling, one of the most common answers I get is “better communication”. But ironically, I don’t think I’ve met a couple yet who’ve needed actual help learning the “right words” to talk to each other. I swear I must have some of the most verbose, self-aware clients in Edmonton. But they’re still getting stuck, and I think the common assumption is “I must not be saying it right” or “my partner’s not hearing me”. This hasn’t been my experience.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.