What Does a Healthy Relationship Look Like?
Updated: Jan 20
There are many stereotypical answers to this question -- trust, respect, intimacy, communication, etc. I don’t disagree with any of these answers, although some are better supported by the research than others. My concern is that the most important part of healthy relationships, is often missing from the list, and that is “boundaries.” I assume boundaries don’t make the list because they are the only answer that isn’t entirely self-explanatory. But boundaries are the difference between something healthy like closeness, and something unhealthy like codependency. (Codependency is when you let another person’s behavior affect you to the point of personal dysfunction, you are obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior-- usually because they are an addict).
To elaborate, closeness is about spending quality time together, but imagine if every time you got home from spending time with your friends or family, your partner acted resentful, depressed, an insecure, and/or suspicious. Your partner’s response would be considered a violation of your personal boundaries around how you spend your time.
Most people don’t think about their relationships in terms of boundaries and violations of boundaries simply because it’s not part of the vernacular. Beyond that, boundaries can be misinterpreted as indifference, selfishness, or offensive -- something to be broken down over the course of a relationship. This misunderstanding stems from the fact that not all boundaries are healthy boundaries, some are too porous, others too rigid, and often when people are talking about boundaries they are talking about unhealthy ones because they are problematic and gossip-worthy.
Someone’s who relationship boundaries are too rigid will avoid intimacy and vulnerability, often out of fear of rejection. This person may come across as detached or indifferent. Someone whose relationship boundaries are too porous may not even have the self-awareness to know what their boundaries are, because these individuals are often too preoccupied with the opinions of others, and deeply fearful of rejection. This kind of person is unlikely to say “no,” even when this means tolerating disrespect or abuse. It’s not ideal to be either of the types of person, the commitment-phobe, or the push-over, the abuser, or the abused, so it’s important to understand the role and nature of boundaries in relationships.
One of the first things to know about boundaries is that they can and often do change over the development of a relationship, and that well set boundaries are a source of strength in healthy relationships.
For example, while my boyfriend knows the passcode to my phone, he knows it would be a violation of my boundaries to read through my old text messages. I trust him not to violate that boundary, in turn he trusts me to act with integrity in our relationship according to our mutual understanding of privacy, decency and fidelity. As a result of the clarity and mutual respect for each others’ boundaries, our relationship is rarely a source of insecurity or anxiety for either of us.
The second thing to know about boundaries is that setting, communicating, enforcing, and adjusting boundaries is really challenging -- so it’s not something to be hard on yourself about. First of all to even be able to set boundaries you have to develop enough self-awareness to know what your boundaries are in the first place. Secondly, communicating boundaries can require more self-esteem and self-confidence than comes naturally to most people.
It is hard to ask for what you want in a relationship, especially if you feel like on some level you don’t deserve it.
Thirdly, enforcing boundaries can be extremely awkward and out of character, especially for people who are more predisposed towards having porous boundaries because they aren’t used to putting themselves first. When communicating with your partner about boundaries try to be as clear as possible. One of the mistakes we often make in relationships is assuming the other person is more aware of our views than is reasonable (they aren't mind readers!) It’s better for you to assume they can infer nothing from silence and behavior, even though it may seem obvious to you.
Lastly, knowing how and when to adjust your boundaries is hard because it’s dynamic and elusive, not like math where there is only one answer and a formula for finding it. For example, I feel some people pressure themselves into changing their boundaries because they are worried that holding that boundary makes them high maintenance, or aggressive, or difficult, etc. Consequently, they communicate to their partner that they are ok with, their partner getting lunch with their ex, while in fact it will leave them insecure, jealous mess. A good way to pressure test whether you are changing a boundary for the right reasons, is to bring it up explicitly with someone who knows you well enough to call you out when you aren’t being honest with yourself. If you don’t have someone like that, or the boundary feels too personal or embarrassing to talk about with your friends and family, consider discussing the matter with a professional. In some cases it may be possible and appropriate to gradually adjust your barrier, testing your comfort and its effectiveness along the way.
Often one of the biggest problems with couples counseling is that couples wait too long, perhaps causing irreparable damage before seeking help.
It’s always better to preempt these things, and you want to make sure the advice your getting will work. Mom might be able to tell you why she and your father are still together with basic communication skills, but she probably isn’t able to teach you how to correctly use: Speaker-Listener Technique, Disarming, “I feel” Statements, and Thought and Feeling Empathy. The more challenging the topic, the more likely sophisticated methods will be required. Relationship boundaries are often challenging.
5 Main Types of Boundaries:
There are five main types of boundaries for a healthy relationship: physical, emotional, sexual, material, and temporal (time). Physical boundaries involve physical touch and personal space (this includes your home and belongings). An example of a boundary on physical touch would be if you aren’t a big fan of “PDA” public displays of affection, you simply want your partner to stop pinching your butt in public! An emotional boundary that should exist in all relationships is that your partner should never deliberately invalidate or belittle your feelings (e.g. “I can’t believe you are complaining that I didn’t text you that I was going out for one drink before coming home from work. Do I need your permission to breathe too? You’re crazy if you think I’m going to put up with you yelling at me like this.”). Sexual boundaries might include your definition of infidelity, especially in this world with social media, pornography, online dating and other prevalent contemporary phenomena that, for many, is blurring the lines on this issue. It’s important to know where you and your partner’s boundaries are around these issues. Material boundaries cover everything from money to possessions -- I like to hold onto one of my boyfriend’s sweatshirts when he goes out of town, but the first time I did this I made sure to ask permission so I knew which one was ok to take. (Consistently enforcing and respecting smaller boundaries, can help prevent bickering and make it easier to navigate challenges when it really counts). Time boundaries, aforementioned, involved setting boundaries in your relationship so that both you and your partner can balance how you spend your time across your priorities: work, friends, family, hobbies, etc… without feeling guilty or jealous.
If you are already in a relationship, it’s not too late to create boundaries with your partner. It can be a little harder, because you may have to break some old habits, but it’s worth the effort for all the hassle it can save you both. Boundaries are your friends. While the focus of this blog is on boundaries in romantic relationships, putting boundaries or limitation around other types of relationships is a good practice in general -- professional, familial, etc.
Written by Sophie Wright
Originally published on 10/10/2019