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Every healthy relationship, whether romantic, friendly, or professional, requires a certain amount of give and take. Now and then, you may have to spend a Saturday afternoon at your boyfriend’s intramural basketball game when you would rather be sprawled on the couch with a book, or put in a few extra hours finishing a project your boss has assigned you instead of heading out to the movies. Trouble creeps in, however, when you find yourself consistently suppressing your own wishes to please others. Learning to set boundaries in relationships is critical to both your own happiness and the well-being of those relationships. While this process can be uncomfortable and even frightening at first, with practice it will likely become easier to maintain balanced relationships while saying yes to yourself.
The inability to set boundaries in relationships is often caused by fear. You are likely often asked to do things by a romantic partner, a friend, or a colleague. In some cases, you might prefer not to do these things, but you fear that saying no will hurt that person’s feelings, anger them, or cause them to reject you. To prevent these negative reactions, you say yes when you want to say no.
While this fear instinct is natural, consistently obeying it can lead you to feel taken advantage of, causing resentment which, over time, can fracture your relationships. Instead of automatically restraining your own needs to make others happy, you should establish boundaries in relationships. This process involves considering the needs of others while recognizing your own desires as valid and important, speaking up, and finally compromising.
For instance, your friend may ask you to watch her child on a Saturday night so she can go out to dinner with her husband. While you are happy to do this, she afterward begins asking you to babysit with increasing frequency, and you soon find that you are regularly giving up your own plans to help her. You often wish to refuse her requests, and even begin to feel used, but are afraid that saying no will upset her.
In this situation, you are failing to acknowledge that your plans are as worthwhile as your friend’s, and abolishing the boundaries of your relationship as a result. To reset these boundaries, begin by understanding that your right to happiness is equally important as that of the people around you. Then, speak up. Next time your friend calls for a sitter, inform her politely that you have plans, but that you are happy to watch her child when you are able. As you have always said yes in the past, it is very possible she did not even realize that she was inconveniencing you.
It can take time to build belief in the validity of your desires. Furthermore, voicing those desires can be scary, particularly if you are accustomed to automatically pleasing others. As you push yourself through these steps, however, your self-belief will likely grow, and over time it will become easier to say no. In fact, you will likely find that setting boundaries in relationships does not lead to the rejection and anger that you once feared. Rather, it will lead to strengthened relationships that are based on a healthy dose of mutual respect.
Sometimes the issue of setting boundaries is more like a death of thousand cuts in a relationship. It's not about the big events that often can't be avoided, like being called into work or having to spend time with a relative in need. Many times it's the accumulation of smaller boundary violations that can hurt a relationship.
A wife might choose to go shopping with a female friend instead of going to a movie with her husband, for example. The husband might understand and plan a different movie night. It's only a minor inconvenience. But if a different friend asks her to go get a pedicure on that new night and another asks her to go to an office
party the next time and so on, then the husband could start feeling disrespected or marginalized. That's why couples need to set boundaries for everyone in their lives, not just each other. Friends need to know when they are being intrusive, and spouses need to know when they're being too controlling.
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