Do not lose yourself in a relationship: How to set effective boundaries

Declaring your limits to your spouse should not be an act of war.
  • Declaring your limits to your spouse should not be an act of war.

What you need to know:

  • It is commonly and socially assumed that you should lose your individuality and merge into one with your partner when you’re in love or married.
  • The effectiveness of your boundaries will only be as good as the respect that your partner accords them.
  • Taking things slowly will allow you to establish the emotional bond that is a prerequisite for a stable, long-lasting relationship.

Good relationships are usually made up of two unique individuals who have working and mutually respected boundaries.

But setting boundaries in a relationship is not the easiest of tasks. Zipporah Wambui, a family therapist based in Nakuru says that the hardest part in setting boundaries arises from social misconception. “It is commonly and socially assumed that you should lose your individuality and merge into one with your partner when you’re in love or married. But this is a recipe for disaster,” she says.

As an individual, there are limits you can stretch and limits that will break you and your relationship when and if they are violated.

Here’s how to go about setting effective boundaries in your relationship.

What are your limits: “You will never be able to set boundaries if you are not aware of how far you can be stretched, what you can condone, and what your non-negotiables are,” says Dr. Ilene Cohen, a psychotherapist and the author of When It’s Never About You. Knowing your boundaries and setting your boundaries are two different things. “It is not something you can wake up and declare. It is something that will be derived from your day-to-day moral and behavioural code of conduct,” says Ms. Wambui.

Declaring boundaries: Declaring your limits to your spouse should not be an act of war. Don’t go at him hammer and tongs. Let it be a mutually beneficial conversation on both your tolerance levels. Henry Cloud, the author of Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, says that this conversation will do well to be more about what either of you is about rather than an argument. “You don’t set boundaries to intimidate, but rather to be aware of each other in order to enhance mutual respect,” he says. This is echoed by Dr. John Amodeo, the author of Love & Betrayal. He says that by making it a collaborative process, you’ll effectively create a deeper connection and a better relationship template with your spouse.

Continuity: Setting boundaries is not a one-time activity. It is a continuous process that you may have to engage in from time to time in your relationship. Mr. Cloud says that it will involve saying no. “If your partner asks you to engage in something that makes you uncomfortable, you’ll have set a boundary by simply saying no,” he says. This will then set a precedence that you would not wish to engage in such an activity in the future. Nonetheless, you will do well to avoid casting your boundaries in stone. “Don’t be rigid when you can be flexible. Even as you tell your partner no and state what you can and cannot tolerate, be considerate enough to offer an explanation on why you feel the way you do,” says Ms. Wambui. Also, take care to understand why your partner made such a request.

Violation: The effectiveness of your boundaries will only be as good as the respect that your partner accords them. This means that there will be problems in your relationship if your boundaries are constantly being violated, knowingly and unknowingly. If things aggravate with no signs of remorse or regret from the violating partner, you may consider terminating the relationship altogether. This is because the violation could be a sign of an abusive and controlling partner.

Boundaries for self: When you set boundaries for your partner, you must also set a series of declarations on what you’ll do if and when those boundaries are habitually broken. For example, says Ms. Wambui, you cannot set a boundary and leave it open to violation with no consequences. “This will only fuel more violations in the relationship,” she says. “If you say you’ll leave if there’s emotional or physical abuse, leave! If you say no, mean no and not yes. Don’t send mixed signals.”

To have effective boundaries, it is always better that you set them at the beginning of your relationship. This is never an easy task. The beginning of a new relationship is often inundated with heavy doses of passion and romance. This can make it difficult for you to settle into your relationship at the right place. The consequence will be that you will not only be unable to set your boundaries, but you may lose yourself in the relationship.

The risk: Dr. Susan Krauss, the author of The Search for Fulfilment says that a rushed relationship will not last beyond the infatuation stage. “The flames and the rush of passion will soon die down. If you rushed your pace and overtook mutual emotional development, your relationship will die too,” she says. On the other hand, Ms. Krauss says that taking things slowly will allow you to establish the emotional bond that is a prerequisite for a stable, long-lasting relationship. “Establishing the emotional bond between you and your partner will be the key for the relationship’s ability to endure over time,” she says.

Perspectives: Granted, the pace of a new relationship will mainly be determined by how soon intimate activities such as sex take place. “You must be clear on what such activities mean to each of you. For example, you should evaluate with a clear head what having sex early on means,” says family therapist Susan Gacheru. “Is it just a casual engagement or does it mean that you are equally committed to a long-term relationship?” This is because while you might be having intimacy with the conclusion that you are past dating and into a formal relationship, your partner could be far from settling in a relationship.

Individuality: Maintain and continue to build your identity. Be yourself. Don’t lose friends or get swallowed in your new partner's character or life,” says Ms. Gacheru. “Instead, concentrate on building your career, and meeting your friends and family just as you did previously. Also, don’t be all over your partner by constantly calling and texting. Don’t make the mistake of projecting a stereotype based on their profession too. For example, do not assume that they are responsible simply because their career is associated with handling major responsibilities. Dig below the surface. “It will take you about three months to start seeing them for who they really are,” says Scott Stanley, a psychologist and the author of The Power of Commitment.

Sexual satisfaction vs Conquest: Interestingly, Dr. Krauss says that where sex is too rushed, the woman in the relationship will be making herself vulnerable to future low sexual satisfaction. “Having sex early in a relationship, followed by cohabitation, sets the stage for women to be less satisfied with the sex they’re having now,” she says. This is echoed by Jonathon Aslay, the author of Understand Men. “Don't get sucked in too quickly just because he is saying and doing all the right things. It might be nothing more than just a strategy to get you in bed,” he says.

The future: Try to establish what your respective intentions for wanting the relationship are. This does not mean that you hypothetically start bringing up future plans. “The first few dates are about knowing each other. Don’t bring up discussions about moving in together,” says family and life coach Fidelis Akoth. She also points out that you should not bring up kids or your dream wedding fantasies in the first few weeks of your dates or relationship no matter how excited and hopeful you are. “It will not be wrong to fantasize about it since this will be someone you want in your life, but over and above your feelings, you will do well to maintain some objectivity and evaluate how his values and outlook in life intersects with yours,” she says.


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