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Setting Relationship Boundaries

Setting Relationship Boundaries

What’s a Boundary Anyway?

Boundaries are limits we set in relationships to take care of ourselves. They are guidelines we establish for people in our lives that teach them how to treat us. Boundaries are ours and ours alone, no one can set them for us, nor can we set other peoples. They are not attempts to control someone’s behavior. They are not contracts, threats, or ultimatums.

Huh? Give Me an Illustration.

Boundaries are like a fence we put around our yard. The fence is there for three reasons: To keep people from harming us, to keep us from harming others, and to remind us what is our responsibility. Carrying this example further; a good picket fence keeps the neighborhood kids OUT of my yard, keeps my crazy puppy IN my yard, and reminds me that it’s time to MIND WHAT IS MINE (mow my yard or pull weeds). My fence does NOT control what the neighbors are doing outside of my yard, or block the road so that crazy drivers can’t pass. We are not in control of other people. We set boundaries to protect ourselves, not to try to change others.

So how do I do this?

When setting a boundary, start with a need that you have that isn’t being met or a feeling you have had that you want to change. For instance: “needing your loved one to communicate without yelling” or “feeling angry that phone calls or texts aren’t returned in a timely manner.”

Then identify what you DO need or want. In these instances, those might be “I want calm communication” or “I want a relationship with someone who responds when I reach out.” This part is important. Looking at what we DO WANT allows us to see what we can do to get our needs met without expecting another person to change.

The last step in setting this boundary is coming up with how YOU will get that need met. For example, “I want and need calm communication” becomes “I will step away from our talk until you can communicate calmly” or “I will call someone supportive who is calm and whom I can talk to.” “I want a relationship with someone who responds when I reach out” is followed up with “I will stop reaching out until you are healthy enough to reply to me” or “I will reach out to supportive people who respond.” In this way, boundaries help us get our needs met but aren’t dependent on another person changing.


Boundaries are not rigid walls. However, they are not up for debate or dispute either. In relationships, both parties are responsible for setting and enforcing their own boundaries. A “boundary” that we set but don’t enforce is actually not a boundary at all, it’s a threat. Threats don’t work to get our needs met. Boundaries allow us to have compassion, understanding, and respect for others and ourselves. Key components of recovery for both the people suffering from addiction and their loved ones.

Written by:

Heather M. Bland
Family Counselor