Building Healthy Boundaries in Difficult Relationships

Written by on February 18, 2020 in Accountability, Self-Care

There are many reasons why someone might avoid building personal boundaries. Among the most common include guilt, shame, lack of confidence and family dynamics.

You may not even realize you are allowed to have personal boundaries if you were raised to believe it is your responsibility to be loyal, and loyalty means never saying ‘no’ regardless of how you feel.

In my last post, we explored the challenges of dealing with chronic negative behavior of loved ones, including family, friends and significant others.

Today we’re going to take it a step further down this path and talk about how to build healthy personal boundaries.

The first challenge is that these people have an advantage over you because they know you, your likes and dislikes, and (especially) your hot buttons.

And whether they do it intentionally or not, they will use that knowledge to get what they want from you.

Fortunately, with a little planning, you have the power within you to begin shifting the same dynamics in a loving and compassionate way to begin building healthy personal boundaries.

It will take time, discipline and effort, but if the relationship matters to you, if your own health and well-being matters to you, it is absolutely worth the effort.

Building Healthy Boundaries

I want to emphasize that personal boundaries are not about punishing others or pushing them away.

On the other hand, always putting the interests and well-being of others first may make you feel noble and wanted, but it teaches the people in your life that your needs aren’t as important as their own.

And they will treat them (and you) that way for as long as you tolerate it.

Work Toward Changing Expectations

As tempting as it may be to dive right into that one thing a friend or loved one does that drives you crazy, it’s best to begin with small issues that are less likely to create a wall of resistance.

This isn’t just about growing comfortable and more confident with the process before you tackle hot button issues, although that surely is part of it.

The point is to begin creating a shift in expectations.

You are changing for the better, and they are more likely to recognize that you still love and value them if you gradually, but firmly, guide them toward accepting your new standards.

If you try to do this on the fly by confronting someone’s unacceptable behavior without a plan, chances are you will be rewarded with a heated emotional response and little else.

Negative people do not consider themselves or their behavior to be a problem, so don’t expect them to suddenly see the error of their ways or understand how they are sucking the energy out of you.

They may love you, but the harsh reality is the more positive you are, the more you annoy them and the harder they will try to prove that you are the real problem.

In a healthy relationship, there is give and take, but negative people only take, so if you want them in your life it’s going to be up to you to set the standards.

How You Communicate Matters

The way in which you communicate your request is as important as the request itself, especially when it’s a loved one.

If possible, timing your conversation for when they are in a calm, receptive state will go a long way toward assuring they hear what you have to say.

The most important thing is to be clear and direct.

If your sister has a habit of ridiculing you, especially in front of others, the next time she zings you, calmly tell her that what she said is belittling and disrespectful and she needs to stop.

This doesn’t have to be a call to arms, remain calm and if you can find a way to inject some humor into what you’re saying that would help to ease the tension. 

But it needs to be said, and you need to keep rejecting her behavior until she gets it. 

It is so tempting to be vague – use hints, expressions, and gestures – in the hope that the other person will be sensitive enough to just get what you are trying to say.

Understand that this is not about the other person at all, but rather about your desire to avoid the discomfort of having to express your true feelings.

It is normal to feel anxious and even guilty for standing up for yourself the first few times you express your need for change, especially when the person in question happens to be a family member.

Acknowledge these feelings and own them, just don’t let them stop you.

Will they challenge you, probably; will they refuse, possibly. Will they try to make you feel guilty, you can count on it!

Here’s the thing. You are responsible for communicating your request clearly and respectfully, but you are NOT accountable for how others receive or interpret it, nor for how they feel as a result.

You may have to repeat your request a few times, but if your loved one shows no sign of trying or simply refuses to budge, then you need to be prepared with real consequences.

Actions have consequences. Choosing to ignore the effects of those actions does not free a person from responsibility.

Be Clear About Consequences

It’s best to determine consequences for failing to respect your new boundary at the time you identify the behavior you desire to change.

Whatever you decide, you must be willing to follow through.

Without consequences for ignoring your request, it’s going to be nearly impossible to get anyone to take you seriously.

How far to go with this will depend on your relationship with the individual but unless the person is seriously toxic (then why do you want them in your life?!) starting off with a reminder and then gradually increasing the consequences will normally achieve the change you’re seeking.

Let’s use the example of a friend who has developed a habit of dropping her kids off at your house on the weekend for you to watch without calling or asking first.

The next time she shows up on your doorstep, ask her to wait while you get the kids settled. Then calmly explain that in the future you would prefer that she calls you first, because you may not always be available to help.

If she does it again, go through your request once more, emphasizing that you value her friendship but you need her to understand that you have commitments of your own.

The third time she shows up you need to stand your ground.

Meet her at the door, but don’t let her in. Calmly explain that you are unable to take the kids this time, and you hope she’ll be able to find an alternative.

Don’t apologize or make excuses.

She will act surprised (conveniently forgetting your request), try to guilt you, and you will be tempted to give in.

But try to keep in mind that when you repeatedly assume the role of rescuer in a relationship, you not only teach others this is an acceptable way to treat you, you’re robbing them of the opportunity to take responsibility for their own life.

This is the difference between compassion and enabling.

Expect Challenges and Push Back

The most common way people undermine their efforts to build boundaries is by assuming that if they express their request once, and the other person doesn’t immediately comply, they are either not listening or simply don’t care.

Accept that you will likely have to repeat your request a few times for it to sink in and for your loved one to begin taking you seriously, especially if you have a history of tolerating the behavior you now seek to change.

Keep reminding yourself consistency is key.

You don’t have to beat them up over a misstep, but you do need to acknowledge the behavior and remind them of your request.

Then take a step back and be brutally honest with yourself about how you communicated your initial appeal.

Were you clear, or did you leave things vague in the hope they would somehow just get it so you could avoid the risk of confrontation?

If you feel confident that you’ve clearly communicated your request, and they refuse to budge, then it is time to suck it up and show you are serious about the consequences.

You Always Have a Choice

The most common emails I receive from readers are about the struggle to deal with negative loved ones.

One reader told me she felt trapped living with her sister who is a chronic complainer. The writer said it had gotten to the point they couldn’t even be in the same room anymore but, “what can I do, it’s my sister!”

The thing is we often convince ourselves we have no choice but to put up with a loved one’s negative or hurtful behavior but that simply is not true.

You can accept their behavior, do the work to establish firm boundaries, find ways to minimize your time with them, or you can cut them out of your life altogether.

These may not be the choices you want, but they are still valid options.

Saying ‘no’ to unacceptable behavior isn’t always be easy, but with kindness and consistency to guide you, over time healthy boundaries will free you to develop closer, more fulfilling relationships.

Related reading:
Will you be the passenger or the driver in your life journey?
About Marquita A. Herald

Marquita HeraldMarquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living.

She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living Start Here.

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5 Reader Comments

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  1. Phoenicia says:

    Your post has given me much food for thought Marquita. We do indeed teach others how to treat us. At times we felt we had no voice or say but the real issue is we did want to face being rejected or ghosted if we stood our ground. Boundaries are important in healthy relationships. Your statement resonated well with me:
    ” You are responsible for communicating your request clearly and respectfully, but you are NOT accountable for how others receive or interpret it, nor for how they feel as a result.” What freedom it brings to stop worrying about how others will feel/treat you if you decide to change the rules.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts Erika. You are correct of course in your point about expectations and how complicated we humans can be. There is no perfect boundary model or strategy because each person is different, but I believe it is so important to try because otherwise, we become victims in our own life. There is always the option of cutting someone (even a relative) out of your life, and that is even harder. I’ve done it and it pretty much saved my sanity, but working up to it and then dealing with the unearned guilt afterword is not for the faint of heart. Thanks again!

  3. I’m so glad you found value in the article Donna! You bring up an excellent point, boundaries are living things and they must be managed on an ongoing basis, you can’t just set it and forget it because life is forever evolving. Good luck with your family!

  4. Hi Marquita,
    building boundaries is often difficult because in our time many people expect too much from others and are egocentric. It would be beneficial for many to learn and practice to be more mindful.
    Your advice is very helpful and it is always worth to try to establish healthy boundaries, especially with people near to us with the hope that they do get it 🙂
    Thank you
    Erika Mohssen-Beyk recently posted…Why Meditation Is Powerful And Can Activate Your AbundanceMy Profile

  5. Hi Marquita,

    This article helped me out so much because I am dealing with some family members at this time whereby I did build boundaries in the past but they seem to be melting away. I have to get back on the horse again to reiterate my boundaries in my calm voice.
    Thanks again!
    Donna Merrill recently posted…Visualize Blogging SuccessMy Profile