The Benefits of Setting Boundaries and How To Do It

By Dr. Justin Relationships setting boundaries

One of the keys to maintaining a happy and healthy romantic relationship is establishing the boundaries of that relationship.  

The benefits of setting boundaries are immense. For instance, if you’re in a monogamous relationship, but you’ve never taken the time to get on the same page about what being “monogamous” really means, this increases the odds that one of you will do something that crosses a line for the other, potentially becoming a huge source of conflict.  

This point becomes especially apparent when you look at research on how people define things like “cheating.” What does it actually mean to cheat? In a study where young adults were given a list of 27 different behaviors and were asked to rate the likelihood that each one represented infidelity, there wasn’t 100% agreement on anything! 

Of course, most people agreed that genital contact with another person was a reliable indicator of cheating; however, they were very split on whether behaviors such as forming an emotional bond, sharing secrets, giving financial support, dining out, and hugging for more than 10 seconds constituted infidelity. 

Boundaries have the potential to save us a lot of heartaches. Unfortunately, however, we often don’t take the time to set them. Instead of formally establishing them, we usually just assume them, and that’s where things can go off the rails. 

So let’s take a look at the kinds of boundaries worth setting and how to do it. There are really three main types of boundaries to consider, so let’s explore each one in turn. 


setting boundaries with sex

Setting Sexual Boundaries 

There are two subtypes of sexual boundaries to consider here: the boundaries that concern sexual contact with your partner and the boundaries that concern sexual interactions with others. 

Most people are going to have some limits on the kinds of things they’re open to doing sexually or what they’re comfortable with when it comes to actually having sex with a partner. This includes specific sexual acts and behaviors (e.g., anal sex, dirty talk, threesomes, kink/BDSM) but also things like how often you want to have sex and the steps you want to take to protect your sexual health (e.g., use of contraception or barriers, regular STI testing). In other words, where are you (and aren’t you) willing to go sexually with your partner?  

Beyond this, what (if any) sexual interactions are acceptable with outside people? Many people decide to open their relationship to some degree, although there are usually limits on what they’re allowed to do with others. But even if you want a strictly monogamous relationship (i.e., no physical sexual contact with others), you still need to think about sexual boundaries. For instance, is it okay to watch porn, visit a strip club, or chat with a cam model?  

Take some time to reflect on your sexual boundaries both within and outside of the relationship. Recognize that we don’t always know all of our boundaries—sometimes, we don’t discover them until we’ve exceeded them! But a good place to start is by thinking about things that made you uncomfortable in previous sexual relationships.  

relationship boundaries

Setting Relational Boundaries 

Relational boundaries span a number of different things, including how you and your partner spend your time together, how you manage your finances, and the intimate connections each of you has outside of your relationship.  

It’s common for people in relationships to have different hobbies and interests, spending habits, and friendship circles—and all of those things can potentially become friction points.  

For example, maybe your partner likes to eat dinner at the table and talk, while you prefer to eat on the couch and watch TV. Perhaps you like treating yourself to a fancy coffee every day on your way to work, but your partner thinks that’s a waste of money. Or maybe your partner has a good friend you find to be utterly annoying and can’t stand to be around.  

Boundaries can help in all of these cases. Maybe it’s alternating whether you eat on the sofa vs. at the table, giving each partner a certain amount of discretionary money each month to spend how they please, or agreeing to your partner having a weekly lunch with that friend where you don’t have to attend.  

Relationship boundaries are highly idiosyncratic. You may have ideas of what you want some of them to be from past relationships, but we often don’t know what boundaries we need in a given relationship until we move past the honeymoon phase and start experiencing friction points. A recurring conflict about something is a good sign it’s time to set a boundary. 


personal boundaries

Setting Personal Boundaries 

In LTRs, partners often become enmeshed. They become best friends who spend all their time together, leaving little to no time for themselves.  

One of the most important relationships in life is the one you have with yourself, and it’s all too easy to neglect this when our love life becomes our sole priority.  

Personal boundaries center around the ability to have time for yourself, being able to spend that time how you want, practicing self-care, and being able to say no to things you don’t want to do—and having that not respected.  

These boundaries will look different in every situation. For example, they might involve having a dedicated chunk of personal time set aside on the calendar each week—or perhaps alternating who gets personal time and who takes care of the kids.  

It could also involve having some decompression time (20-30 minutes) after work each day to unwind before you move on with the evening or a regular happy hour with some good friends, sans partner. 

The specifics vary, but the key to personal boundaries is for each partner to be able to communicate what it is that they need, to feel empowered to say no, and to be able to hear no without taking it personally. 


bounday setting tips

Tips For Setting All Of These Boundaries 

Up until this point, we’ve talked about the main categories of boundaries worth considering and some examples of what each boundary type might look like. But how do you actually set them?  

It ultimately starts with you. Before you can set a boundary, you need to get clarity on what your boundaries are. Start by taking some time to think about what you need. 

But, again, recognize that we don’t always know all of our boundaries up front—and that’s okay. Also, recognize that our boundaries are flexible and fluid. They may very well change over time, and that’s fine, too. 

To the extent that you’re aware of an important boundary for you, it is best to establish it early on in a relationship. When we recognize a boundary being crossed and allow it to be crossed repeatedly, that can make it harder to set the boundary later because it will seem like it is coming out of nowhere to your partner.  

When it comes to communicating a boundary, start by affirming your partner. For example, if it’s a sexual boundary, you might start by saying something about how attractive you find them to be and something you really enjoyed about your most recent sexual experience together. Setting boundaries can sometimes feel like rejection, so affirmation is a good way to open the conversation.  

Then introduce your limit, and if you’re comfortable with it, you can offer some explanation for why it’s a limit. It’s okay to just say what your boundary is, but if you can offer some context for it, it can give your partner a chance to really understand it and may create an opportunity for deeper connection. 

You might also consider proposing an alternative—something you do want to do or try instead. In other words, you can turn your no into a yes, and that’s often a helpful approach for establishing sexual and other boundaries. Boundary discussions don’t just have to be about hard limits; they can also be about new opportunities and ways to deepen your connection.  

Another way to think about this is that your boundaries aren’t just your nos but also your yesses.  

When having these conversations, it’s also important to give your partner a chance to express their boundaries—and to respect them. React to your partner’s boundaries in the way that you would want them to react to your own boundaries. 


Setting boundaries in a relationship may feel difficult, but it is essential for healthy relationship functioning.  

Take some time to consider your sexual, relational, and personal boundaries and express these early on or as they come up in a relationship. The more effort you put into establishing boundaries, the less likely it becomes that unintentional boundary violations will pop up.  



Kruger, D. J., Fisher, M. L., Edelstein, R. S., Chopik, W. J., Fitzgerald, C. J., & Strout, S. L. (2013). Was that cheating? Perceptions vary by sex, attachment anxiety, and behavior. Evolutionary Psychology, 11, 159-171.