What Do Healthy Boundaries in Relationships Look Like?
Romantic relationships are some of the closest in our lives, and as such they present challenges for setting and respecting boundaries. The following list outlines differences that arise naturally in many relationships where boundaries might have to be set. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, and we understand each relationship is different. Our goal is to shed light on common issues when the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior might be blurry. We hope this gives you confidence in identifying potentially problematic behavior and addressing it in an open and healthy way.
Personal Habits, Health, and Cleanliness
- Being grossed out by something your partner does, occasionally being gross yourself. The more time you spend with someone, the more you will see of one another’s personal habits, bodily processes, and moments of bad hygiene. While it may not be the most romantic thing to hear a partner get sick to the stomach for the first time, or see them shave their legs, true intimacy gives you access to a person’s most private moments. There will be unglamorous moments as part of this process, but encountering them is: a) unavoidable, and b) a privilege. Being in close proximity to our partners means encountering them at their most vulnerable sometimes, and we shouldn’t take that for granted. You get to see your partner in wholeness as a person in a way no one else does, and you can love one another warts and all.
What's not ok:
- Disregarding one another’s “yuck” triggers completely, or being over- critical of one another’s personal health and habits. We all have “yuck” triggers. Some people feel cracking knuckles makes their blood run cold. Others feel faint when they see blood. There will be moments when you and your partner gross one another out completely, just because you’re human beings. However, there are a few boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed. If you know that your partner is super grossed out by, say, finding hair in the shower, do your best to clean things up. You don’t have to be perfect all the time, just don’t disregard their “yuck” trigger. Awareness and acknowledgment goes a long way towards demonstrating respect. Also try to be realistic about one another. As long as the other person isn’t trying to be gross on purpose, don’t give them a hard time about a gnarly cough or something stuck in their teeth. You both deserve a little grace for your human nature.
Talking and Texting
- Not constantly communicating via text or phone. Especially at the beginning of a relationship, near constant communication can feel like the norm. As your relationship develops, phone calls and texts may dwindle, and that’s ok. It’s important to build communication and trust throughout your relationship, but after an initial investment of time and effort in establishing those ties with your partner, it’s ok not to check in constantly. You should both be there for eachother whenever needed, but being independent of one another to some degree will strengthen your relationship. If your partner doesn’t respond to your every message immediately, it’s ok. If you don’t respond to your partner’s every message immediately, it’s ok. The strength of your relationship is more deeply connected to the quality, rather than the quantity, of your communication.
What's not ok:
- Disregarding your partner’s texts and calls entirely, or insisting on instant communication at all times. If either of you has a problem with common sense boundaries - I couldn’t text back because I was talking to my friend; I’m in a meeting I’ll call you back when we’re done - you may need to evaluate whether you’re developing some codependency, or whether there’s an imbalance of power in your relationship. Your partner may be the closest person to you, and that’s a good thing unless that closeness becomes restrictive. A healthy relationship empowers you to live and succeed on your own terms, and ideally is part of a larger network of support including friends, family, etc. Trying to control another person’s time exclusively is toxic and manipulative behavior. No one should be isolated from their social circle by an overly demanding partner who requires constant communication regardless of what you are doing. Again, it’s the quality, not the quantity, of your communication with one another that counts. On the flip side, if you or your partner request a check-in call or text from the other for a specific reason - let me know you got home safe, for example - it’s inconsiderate not to respond if you’re able. We deserve to feel assured of our partners’ safety within reasonable limits. Try to put yourself in each other’s shoes to understand what might be helpful and hurtful.
- Not having a lot of similar interests (movies/music/activities), or having differences of opinion and viewpoints. You like Ru Paul’s Drag Race, they like Game of Thrones; you play softball on the weekends, they visit art museums. You may want to share everything with your partner, but inevitably you’ll have differences of opinion on entertainment, culture, and more. Provided you respect what your partner likes and is interested in, you don’t have to share 100% of your thoughts and feelings on everything. You should both have time and space to invest in the things that bring you joy, and there should be things that both of you don’t necessarily enjoy that you’re willing to do with your partner. The important thing is to appreciate one another’s differences while respecting boundaries. If your partner hates going hiking but does so occasionally for you, appreciate their small sacrifice and try to reciprocate it. You’ll both likely enjoy yourselves more than you expected.
What's not ok:
- Not strongly sharing the same values. Day-to-day activities and interests aside, you and your partner should have common ground on the values you share. It’s difficult to move forward with the surprises, opportunities, and challenges that a long term relationship encounters if you don’t have the same priorities. If you don’t share a value in professional success, it may be hard to understand if one of you spends more time at the office than usual, or if one of you makes a risky business decision in hopes of long term payoff. If you don’t share a value in creative expression, it may be difficult to balance your partner’s lifestyle expectations with your own artistic ambitions, or vice versa. We all have to make sacrifices to maintain our relationships, and it’s important to know what you’re making those sacrifices for. In difficult times, sharing values will keep you grounded in the loving, compassionate core of your relationship, and help you weather storms together with confidence because you trust that you are both motivated by values you treasure.
Kinks and Libido
- Having different libidos, or different kinks than your partner. Provided you each give and get clear and enthusiastic consent when you engage in sex, differences in libido and kinks are not an insurmountable obstacle. If you’re open to some highly frank, lighthearted, and practical advice in this area, the sex and relationships podcaster and columnist Dan Savage has plenty of great material, and we highly endorse his podcast “Savage Love.” In his words, being “good, giving, and game” means being highly motivated to meet your partner’s sexual needs, even if you’re not necessarily in the mood for a particular kind of sex all the time. Our desire for sex is influenced by our physical state (energy level, health, fitness), and our emotional and mental state (stress, anxiety, depression), and our kinks tend to be hard wired. Try to find the time and space to talk freely about the kind of sex you want and how often you want it, and share how often and whether you’re willing to engage in each other’s kinks. Provided you’re being as giving as possible with one another, you should be able to balance your desire for sex with your partner’s ability to reciprocate, and vice versa.
What's not ok:
- Shaming one another for wanting sex, or for not wanting sex, kink shaming. Sex is highly personal, and many of us are most vulnerable when engaging in or talking about sex. Being able to explore these intimate parts of yourself with a trusted partner/partners, can be deeply fulfilling, but also a little scary. Trying to make someone ashamed of what they want sexually can be highly violating and triggering, and is a huge betrayal of trust. Provided that no one is trying to get something sexually without consent, you both need to be respectful of the other person’s vulnerability in sharing their sexuality with you. People who want more sex are not “sex-crazed” and people who want less sex are not “prudes.” There are plenty of points on the spectrum of sexual desires that fall within a normal and healthy sex life, and everyone deserves respect for safe, sane, and consensual sex.
Overall, relationship boundaries should be strong but not rigid, and respected, not resented or feared. In this post we’ve outlined some reasonable expectations and standards that healthy relationships follow. Each relationship is unique and couples have different boundaries with one another. Provided you feel physically and emotionally safe, seen, and heard, you can accept and/or reject your partner’s behavior as it feels right to you, and they can do the same.
Healthy boundaries will keep you each strong enough for the other to lean on when the circumstances call for it, and you can bend them if you need to accommodate someone temporarily. Just being aware of what your boundaries are can empower you to react in both of your best interests when needed, and give you confidence in your relationship, and your own self esteem. If you’re concerned about whether you and your partner have healthy boundaries, it can be helpful to talk to a therapist either individually or together. Open communication facilitated by a professional can help uplift the true connection at the root of your relationship, and clear any doubts and resentments that keep you from being fully invested with one another.
All material provided on this website is for informational purposes only. Direct consultation of a qualified provider should be sought for any specific questions or problems. Use of this website in no way constitutes professional service or advice.