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Not All Boundary Setting Needs to be Rigid


Five years ago, I (Hailee) began breaking the people-pleasing pattern. I was exhausted from a lifetime of over-giving, and I relied heavily on social media for the encouragement I needed to start setting boundaries.

My Instagram feed was awash with quotes like “If they don’t like your boundaries, cut them out!” and “You never have to explain your boundaries to anyone!” and “Never take care of others’ emotions after setting a boundary!”

After years of neglecting myself for others’ sake, these hardline messages resonated with me. And in some situations, they really worked.


I blocked the aggressive ex who wouldn’t stop texting me. I offered zero explanation for my “No” when a colleague asked, for the third time, that I do his work tasks for him.  I remained stoic when a manipulative friend who’d mistreated me for years got upset when I said I needed space.


These boundaries felt uncomplicated and empowering. They made me feel strong.

But in other situations—situations with trusted friends and beloved family—these approaches didn’t work well.


When I revealed years of built-up grievances to a beloved family member, she was confused and asked for more information—but I wasn’t willing to explain. When I decided to spend more time alone, a dear friend was sad that I wasn’t as available as I’d been before, so I cut her out; she didn’t like my boundary, so she must not be good for me. When a partner said that my new boundary of not taking weekend phone calls didn’t align with his needs, I shrugged; it wasn’t my job to compromise.


I was doing exactly what social media told me to do. I was settling for nothing less than absolute peace. I was refusing to explain myself. I was not taking care of their emotions.


But as it turns out, most social media advice about boundaries favors rigid, uncompromising guidance that’s very useful for toxic relationships—but can quickly destroy healthy relationships.

Toxic relationships typically require firm and unapologetic stances; healthy relationships typically require grace, flexibility, and fluidity. When we set boundaries in healthy relationships as if they were toxic relationships, we erode trust, create unnecessary distance, and inhibit opportunities for change and repair. When we set boundaries in toxic relationships as if they were healthy relationships, we lose ground, get overridden by others’ negative reactions, and expose ourselves to further hurtful treatment.

Here are some helpful guidelines for discerning when to be flexible and fluid, and when to be firm and uncompromising.


(A quick note before we begin: I use the phrases “healthy relationship” and “toxic relationship” throughout this piece, but bear in mind that these concepts have no standard definition. Healthy/toxic is not a definitive binary; not all relationships fit squarely into one category or the other, and some relationships may be “toxic” and then become “healthy” when the parties involved have done inner work. In this piece, I offer my best interpretation of these concepts, and ultimately use them as shorthand to capture common constellations of patterns and behaviors.)


Setting Boundaries in a Toxic Relationship

When setting boundaries with someone who regularly mistreats you, your boundaries are a form of self-defense. Your boundary is a shield, protecting you from their mistreatment.


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This person has demonstrated to you, through their ongoing behavior, that they are not safe to be vulnerable around. Perhaps they frequently yell at you; shame your appearance, body, relationships, or lifestyle; try to control your decisions; constantly lie or break their promises; or attempt to gaslight and manipulate you.

Most importantly, they’ve ignored or dismissed you when you’ve expressed how their behavior hurts you. Your requests that they treat you differently have gone unmet. (Get a refresher on the difference between boundaries and requests here.)


In these cases, your boundary might look like reducing your participation in the relationship; being less available for talks or get-togethers; refusing to discuss certain topics; or something more immediate, like hanging up the phone, leaving the room, or not replying to a certain comment.


When setting boundaries in toxic relationships, it’s important to remember that: 

 

It is not useful to explain your boundary.

Your boundary is self-evident; it is the result of the mistreatment you’ve endured. You’ve already asked that they change and they haven’t.  Now, your job is to protect yourself.

Typically, people who mistreat you aren’t receptive to your boundaries. They may argue, criticize, or demand a justification—but it’s unlikely that they’ll be receptive to it even if you provide it. After all, your discussions up to this point haven’t led to understanding or change.


Attempting to explain your boundary will likely lead to yet another long-winded argument and the same, harmful behaviors. You don’t need to make a court case for why you’re protecting yourself with this boundary. Your job isn’t to explain it; your job is to self-soothe through the discomfort of the fact that they don’t like it.

  

It is not useful to take care of their emotions.

People who mistreat you don’t like when you start standing in your power. They don’t like the fact that they’re no longer writing the rules; they don’t like that you’re finally saying “No more.”

They may appear shocked by your boundary. They may express hurt, sadness, frustration, or anger. They might even attempt to guilt you into taking it back or changing your mind.

In these moments, it’s not your job to take care of their hurt feelings; it’s your job to maintain your boundary in the face of their pushback. While you may have empathy for their hurt, they need to understand that their mistreatment of you has consequences. You setting your boundary—and refusing to backtrack when they seem upset—is the consequence.

 

It is not useful to negotiate your boundary.

Being treated with respect, kindness, and consideration is non-negotiable.

Boundaries can be flexible—we’ll discuss this in the next section—but if you feel tempted to negotiate your boundary, it’s incredibly important to wait until the original harmful behavior has ceased. If you loosen your boundary while the harmful behavior is still taking place, you teach the other person that you find their behavior acceptable.  

 

Setting Boundaries in a Healthy Relationship

 Healthy relationship doesn’t mean “relationship without conflict” or “relationship without disagreement” or “relationship where everyone’s needs are met 100% of the time.”

In healthy relationships, you may disagree from time to time⁠—no relationship is exempt from conflict⁠—but the majority of the time, conflicts are handled with mutual respect.


You both care about the other’s needs, even if you’re not able to meet them right now. The vast majority of the time, you show, through your actions, that you respect each other—that you keep your word—and that you can apologize and admit mistakes.


Both people invest energy into the relationship. Though you may disagree or feel disconnected from them from time to time, there is an overarching trust that they mean you no harm and care for your wellbeing.


(For a refresher on reasonable needs in a relationship, read “These 25 Needs are Not ‘Unreasonable’ or ‘Too Much’” here.)


I use the phrases “generally” and “vast majority of the time” because no person is perfect. We all make the occasional mistake—we may yell, say something cutting, or be unfairly critical—but in healthy relationships, we are respectful the vast majority of the time and make attempts to repair when we’ve fallen short.


When setting a boundary in relationships like this, here are some helpful guidelines.

 (Please note: In these guidelines, I begin with ‘It can be useful.’ This doesn’t mean that it will be useful or is always useful. Every boundary situation is different; the people involved, and the context surrounding the boundary, really matter. This is why private coaching⁠—that includes the space and time to address the nuances of your personal situation⁠—can really help.)

   

It can be useful to explain your boundary.

When you’re setting a boundary with someone you care about, explaining it can be useful, especially if this isn’t something you’ve discussed before. (Before you set a boundary, it can be helpful to first make a request. Learn the difference and get examples of each here.


It can be helpful for your loved ones to know: Are you setting this boundary because your needs have gone unmet? Because you’re burnt-out, fatigued, exhausted, or overwhelmed? Because their behavior’s been bothering you? Because you just need space? 


“Explain” doesn’t mean “justify” or “prove that your boundary is valid.” It simply means giving them information to understand the need this boundary meets for you. 


Understanding the origin of your boundary may help your loved ones understand and accept it. It also gives them the information they need to make changes to their own behavior, if they’d like.

You can see the benefit of explaining your boundary by flipping the script. Imagine that you’re accustomed to seeing your best friend 2 nights a week, and she suddenly tells you she can only see you once a month. Imagine that your partner suddenly tells you that they’re no longer willing to accompany you home for the holidays. Imagine that your mother suddenly tells you that she’s no willing to talk about Topic X any longer, even though you’ve been talking about it for years.

Wouldn’t these sudden shifts to the relationship come as a shock? Wouldn’t you wish to know more—to better understand? These examples make clear why it may be useful to offer an explanation for your boundary.

  

It can be useful to hold space for their emotions.

It’s normal for our loved ones to be sad, hurt, or disappointed when we convey our need for time or space from them with a boundary. Since this is a healthy relationship that we feel safe and seen within, we might have the bandwidth to hold some space for their emotions, should we choose to.


“Hold space for their emotions” doesn’t mean we have to explain or change our boundary; it just means we can acknowledge that this boundary affects them. 

For example: It’s been a stressful month at work, and you tell your new partner that instead of seeing them every other night, you can only see them twice a week. They understand, but they’re sad—and they’re anxious that your boundary is a sign you don’t like them as much as you did before.


You might hold space for their emotions by saying something like: “I know this is different from what we’ve done before, and that adjustment can be hard. I really care about you, and I want to reassure you that this boundary doesn’t mean I love you any less. I just need more time to myself.”


 Or, alternatively: Your friend has been complaining about her boss for months. Every phone call includes a long-winded vent about her boss’s behavior. You’ve requested that your phone calls be less focused on her work, but the regular venting continues.


As the months pass, you begin to feel resentful, so you set a boundary. You tell her you’re no longer available to process this issue with her. She’s feels hurt by your boundary. Should you like to, you might hold space for her emotions by saying something like: “I understand why this boundary would be hard to hear; this conflict with your boss has been difficult for you. When so many of our conversations revolve around your boss, I feel resentful and disconnected from you as a friend. I’m setting this boundary to preserve our friendship, but I do understand that it’s hard.”

  

It can be useful to compromise.

Sometimes, your boundaries aren’t compatible with their needs, or vice versa. If this is a healthy, loving relationship that you wish to continue, you both might need to compromise to make it work.

Certain needs are non-negotiable, like safety, security, being treated with respect, and having mutuality in a relationship. If compromising on something would fundamentally impact your health or wellbeing—or prevent you from reaching your long-held goals and dreams—it’s probably a non-negotiable need.


On the other hand, if something feels more flexible—like the amount of time you spend together, how you spend your time, how you negotiate holidays, etc.—you may be able to find compromise in order to sustain the relationship.  

To be clear, “it can be useful to compromise” doesn’t mean “it can be useful to neglect your needs.” Compromise means that both people are able and willing to work together to find an alternative solution. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute writes that “Compromise never feels perfect. Everyone gains something and everyone loses something. The important thing is feeling understood, respected, and honored.”

 

And what about the in-between?

Some relationships⁠—like casual relationships with acquaintances we don’t know very well, or brief encounters with strangers⁠—don’t fit into either category. They’re certainly not toxic, but they don’t have a foundation of trust or security, either.


In these cases, it’s helpful to follow the first batch of guidelines and avoid excessive explanations, compromises, or emotional support. We don’t have enough information to know if this person can be trusted with our vulnerability, and flexibility in boundary-setting is best saved for situations where we’ve established safety and mutuality over time.


In healthy relationships, we trust that the other person has our best interests at heart. We are treated with respect and care, and our needs are met the majority of the time. We can be less rigid because we trust the other not to take advantage of us; we can be more empathetic and open to conversation because we trust that the dialogue will be respectful. Healthy relationships create a safe container from within which we can be more flexible, fluid, and experimental with our boundaries.

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