SEX FILES: Learning to set healthy boundaries in a relationship

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SEX FILES: Learning to set healthy boundaries in a relationship


Photo by qunamax /Getty Images Boundaries. The term which first gained traction in pop psychology and self-help circles in the 1980’s is once again ha

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Photo by qunamax /Getty Images

Boundaries. The term which first gained traction in pop psychology and self-help circles in the 1980’s is once again having its moment in the sun – and for good reason. Healthy boundaries are a necessary ingredient when it comes to maintaining a healthy relationship with yourself and others. But what exactly are boundaries and why are they important?


Registered clinical counsellor Joelle Prevost is the author of the new book, The Conversation Guide: How to Skillfully Communicate, Set Boundaries, And Be Understood . As she explains over email, “Boundaries are important because they help us know what to expect in our relationships, which helps us to feel safe. When we feel safe, we can actually be vulnerable and open up more.”

Boundaries can also help us connect with others by limiting feelings of resentment, burnout, and frustration in relationships. “With boundaries we not only feel more connected, but we feel better overall!” says Prevost.

Having healthy boundaries in a relationship is not about trying to control your partner’s behaviour, but rather, it “means you have fair, realistic expectations in a relationship,” she says.


Boundaries are different for every type of relationship, and can even change over time within a relationship. “Some are easy to think of because they are unspoken rules we have in society (or even the law), but other boundaries are more difficult because they vary from person to person based on each unique individual’s wants and needs,” says Prevost.

If you bristle at the thought of setting boundaries, you’re not alone. Communicating to your partner (or friend, parent, dog walker, iguana groomer) exactly what you need from them can feel difficult and scary – especially if you don’t have experience having these kinds of conversations or have been in relationships where healthy boundaries are non-existent.

Prevost encourages people to start by accessing their own feelings within the relationship. “Are there times you are feeling uncomfortable, overextended, or resentful? Those are usually signs that some boundaries are needed. Next, remember that though they might seem “so obvious” to you, your boundaries are your responsibility to communicate to others.”


Next, if you are nervous about speaking to your partner, start small, says Prevost. “Have some conversations around boundaries that are ‘hot button’ emotional issues. Build confidence as a team that you can have conversations about boundaries and have them go well. Note what works and what doesn’t work and then use that data for future conversations,” she says.

It’s also helpful to focus on the relationship and what you hope to accomplish together. Ask yourself, “What relationship goals do you have in common? Do you both want a trusting relationship? Do you both have mutual care and respect for each other? Start out with stating these common goals to feel like you’re on the same team, rather than being pitted against each other,” explains Prevost.


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Setting boundaries feels uncomfortable because you’re essentially taking something away from the other person — a topic of conversation, a way of touching, the ability to ask you favours last-minute. As Prevost shares, “This can sometimes leave the boundary setter feeling guilty. To assuage that guilt, try to offer alternatives. For example, “I can’t do x, but I can do y” or “I’d rather not talk to you about x, but I love discussing y with you.”

Lastly, remember that boundaries are requests, not demands. “Demanding change from someone can elicit defensiveness and stubbornness,” says Prevost. Instead, let the other person know how you feel (uncomfortable, hurt, offended, etc.).

When you take this approach with your partner, Prevost says you “allow them to rise to the occasion and change their behaviour since they care about you.”

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