How to Set Boundaries With People You Love

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Sometimes you need a little space, even from the people you love. But these people — family, partners, close friends — can be the hardest to set boundaries with, because you don't want to push them away. Below, some tips for establishing those boundaries without being a jerk.


Figure out what you need.

The first step to good boundaries is figuring out where to draw them. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? How much alone time do you need? What level of closeness do you want with your partner, your family, your friends? Jane Adams, PhD, author of Boundary Issues: Using Boundary Intelligence to Get the Intimacy You Want and the Independence You Need in Life, Love, and Work, says,

The appropriate boundary in all important relationships is that ineffable place where you feel both close to and distinct from the Other. Remember that intimacy means allowing access to your interior world — your thoughts, feelings, fantasies, beliefs, etc — and risk that it (and you) may change. How intimate the relationship is and how much you trust the other person to treat that inner world respectfully — i.e., not mess with your head or hurt your feelings — determines how much of it you show them.

Boundaries will be different for every relationship and every person. If you're not letting anyone get close to you, you might want to discuss that with a therapist. But there's a difference between closeness and losing yourself, and defining that difference for yourself is the first step toward setting boundaries that work for you.

Talk about it.

Jo-Ellen Grzyb, co-author of The Nice Factor: The Art of Saying No, says a big mistake people often make is assuming their loved ones can read their minds. That's (usually) not the case, and rather than requiring that the people you care about "just know" what you need, you have to tell them. And do it early — "the first time you feel it in your gut" that you need to say something, do so. If your girlfriend tries to talk to you while you're on the phone, or you realize you absolutely need Wednesday evenings to yourself to recharge, speak up rather than stewing about it. If you delay too long, you'll build up resentment, which isn't fair to you or the person you care about, and will only make the conversation harder. However, there is one important caveat to this advice:


Wait til you're not mad.

Grzyb says the time to discuss a boundary issue is soon — but not so soon that you're actively pissed off. If you talk to your girlfriend the second she interrupts you, you're likely to snap at her and unload feelings of annoyance that aren't necessarily even her fault. After all, she can't read your mind. Just wait for the next calm opportunity, and talk about solutions with a level head. And keep it simple and non-accusatory. Don't say "you always pester me" — instead, say something like, "it's hard for me to concentrate when I'm on the phone, could you wait til I'm done before asking me questions?"


Consider their needs too.

The thing about people you love is that you want them around. And any relationship that's truly close involves some give and take. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, suggests that when you talk about boundaries, especially with a romantic partner, you talk about "how you can meet your partner's needs too." For instance, maybe you want quiet time when you get home from work to recharge, but your partner wants to spend time with you and talk about the day. You could suggest a half-hour of quiet time after work, followed by dinner together where you get to catch up. Cain says what's important is "establishing protocols that will suit both people." Once you've done that, you no longer have to talk about it all the time — you and your partner will have routines in place that ensure you each get what you need.


State a general preference.

One good way to talk about your need for space with loved ones is to make it about you, not them. It's not that they're annoying, it's that you really need that half hour to yourself every evening. Cain says that especially for introverts, "it's helpful to have these conversations through the frame of temperament." Some people like constant social contact, others need more alone time — discussing your boundaries in terms of which kind of person you are can make your loved ones feel less accused. It also allows you to make general statements about your preferences. For instance, Cain says her friends all know she's not very good about returning phone calls. She's made it clear to all of them that she doesn't like the phone much, so when they don't hear from her, they know it's about her, not them. So if, for instance, you can't manage the twice-weekly phone date that your friend would prefer, let him know that you're just not really a phone person. And ...


Offer an alternative.

Sometimes setting boundaries can just be a matter of agreeing on how to talk. Grzyb points out that if you're someone who doesn't like getting a lot of texts, you could ask your most text-happy loved ones to leave a voicemail instead, so you can set up a time to talk. If you hate the phone, set up a coffee date. If a friend wants to unload the details of her breakup on you, but you're already feeling pretty exhausted, ask if you can talk to her about it in a couple of days. Figuring out an alternative way to connect is a good way to show that while you care about someone, you also need to take care of yourself. And anyone who's truly close to you should respect that.


Boundary Issues: Using Boundary Intelligence to Get the Intimacy You Want and the Independence You Need in Life, Love, and Work
The Nice Factor: The Art of Saying No
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Image by Jim Cooke and Timurpix/



Mr. Badmutha and I are very different in a lot of ways, and he had to learn that not everyone is like him, because his whole family is loud, brash, and extroverted. When we got together he didn't understand my need for solitude, but after a while he accepted it. We are celebrating our 15th anniversary today.