"As soon as we talk about setting boundaries, it’s interpreted as being calculative and not fully 'in,'" says dr Sara Nasserzadeh, a social psychologist and sexuality counsellor. "This is the root of the problem."
In reality, well-defined—and respected—boundaries can lay the groundwork for a healthy relationship, says Erika Lawrence, a clinical psychologist and director of translational science at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. "They’re a way of showing respect for the relationship, which allows the relationship to grow in a healthy way if they’re communicated early on," she says.
Here’s how to set healthy boundaries without hurting your S.O.'s feelings:
1. Don’t procrastinate.
If you don’t think about what your boundaries are, your partner will wind up defining them for you—likely, by crossing them (again and again). "This is one of the main reasons why, after a while, people get resentful toward their partners or feel bad about themselves when they see they were not as clear about setting their own boundaries," Nasserzadeh says.
2. Consider: touch, words, time, and distance.
It’s not always easy to know what your boundaries are, especially in a new relationship. Lawrence recommends thinking about your boundaries in four categories: touch, words, time, and physical and emotional distance.
So maybe you’re only cool with handholding in public (touch), won’t accept name-calling (words), value alone time (time), and care about moving slowly, emotionally, in a relationship (distance). Then, trust your gut, Lawrence says. "If you’re not ready to move that boundary, anyone who is worth being with will respect that."
3. Recite your boundaries.
If you’re new to "boundary setting," it may help to meditate on them in the mornings— maybe in conjunction with an intention-setting practise—until they simply become part of the way you think and act. "When you 'are' a person with clear boundaries," Nasserzadeh says, "you don’t need to 'do' boundary-setting every day." Just like eating right and exercising, it becomes just another part of your lifestyle.
4. Start the boundary-setting discussion.
There’s no one way to talk about your boundaries. Maybe discussions about, say, how you both feel about cancelling plans (tbh, great) might come up organically, while others, like your need to give consent before your partner tries anything masochistic in the bedroom, may need to be stated more proactively.
One way into those kinds of conversations is to ask your partner first how they feel about certain lines, Lawrence says. Is texting during the workday cool or disruptive? Is cancelling a date easily forgivable or totally offensive? Feelings on kissing in public? "It can feel artificial because it’s not a conversation we’re used to having unless our boundaries have been violated," Lawrence notes. But it'll get easier. "Over time, it can feel more natural, and you kind of make it your own."
5. Lead by example.
It’s not enough to just talk about your boundaries. You also need to act like someone who deserves respect. "When you deeply respect yourself, it manifests in certain behaviours," Nasserzadeh says. For instance, is your partner always served first at dinner? Are you always the one to adjust your schedule when there’s a conflict? "Be aware if you are constantly sending signals that you come in second," she advises.
6. Use a scale from 1 to 10 to call out boundary-crossing.
Sometimes, boundaries get crossed. It’s how you handle that violation that can make or break a relationship. First, avoid addressing the misstep in the heat of the moment, and instead, raise your concern when you’re both calm. "If the person you are dating is always a few minutes late and this bothers you, you need to speak about this kindly but firmly—not alluding to it, mentioning it in the passing, or [addressing it] jokingly," Nasserzadeh says.
She recommends using a scale of 1 to 10 to make it clear how important each point is to you. Saying, "Ugh, it’s so annoying that you’re always late" likely won’t result in any significant changes. Saying, "On a scale from 1 to 10, promptness is an 8—that’s how important it is to me" should do the trick.
7. Use "I" statements and other therapist-approved conversation techniques.
Begin the conversation by "setting the stage," Lawrence suggests, which means noting something that you value in the relationship. You might open with, "You’re very important to me, so I want to tell you the truth," for example. Then, name the behaviour you’d like to change using "I" statements to explain how that action (or inaction)—not the person—makes you feel. Maybe you say, "I feel frustrated when you say you’ll pay the bills, and then you don’t send in the money." Finally, make a direct request for the behaviour to change. For instance: "I want you to follow through when you say you’ll do X."
8. Recognise that discomfort is normal—and, in some ways, culturally enforced.
Being assertive can feel uncomfortable in part because women are typically socialised to be more passive, Lawrence says. "Sometimes, we have to get over the way we’re socialized not to speak up on our own behalf." But once you do, it will pay off. "It can be really freeing—it’s showing that you respect yourself, and it’s showing how you expect to be treated," she says. "It can really create a wonderful structure of a healthy relationship."
9. Know your deal-breakers.
Some boundary violations, like physical or emotional abuse, should be straight-up deal breakers across the board. Others, like infidelity, may be less clear-cut. Either way, if you’ve followed these steps and your partner continues to violate your boundaries, take that as a serious sign this relationship isn’t for you, Lawrence says. Your deal breakers are deal breakers for a reason, and if your S.O. doesn't respect them, that's as good a reason as any to end the relationship before it becomes unhealthy.
This article originally appeared in Women's Health US.