As a trauma-informed therapist, Amelia Kelley, Ph.D., knows the importance of boundaries. So, early in her own relationship, she asked a key question: “What are your expectations regarding how we spend our time?” She needed to know if her partner would be comfortable with her independent nature and regular hangouts with friends.
Asking that question was worth it. “I felt a little nervous when I asked him, but I was glad I did,” Kelley shares. “His response was very supportive, and he respected my boundaries around my relationships and time.”
Setting boundaries with your partner can help both of you communicate and understand each other’s wants and needs better. It can also help both of you feel less resentment, connect on a deeper level, mitigate trust issues, and experience fewer conflicts.
Yet a surprising number of people have trouble with setting boundaries in relationships, despite the proven benefits. (In fact, an informal survey by motivational speaker Mel Robbins found that 92% of respondents struggle with boundary-setting.) Psychology Today lists social conditioning, perfectionism, and FOMO (“fear of missing out”) as three of the top reasons people find it difficult to draw clear lines around their needs and wants.
If you’re among those who tiptoe around boundaries in your relationships, consider using conversational questions as a way to open the door. Asking these key questions can help clarify each partner’s personal boundaries and preferences and set the tone for a healthy relationship.
Get started with these five questions provided by Kelley and therapist Sarah McCoy Isaacs:
1. Do you need me to help solve the problem you are talking about right now, or do you just want me to listen?
When your partner is upset about something, you may not know how to respond—and if you respond the “wrong” way, your partner could feel even more upset.
“This question is helpful because many people feel like they need to solve or fix their loved one’s issues, when in fact, their partner just wants to be heard,” Kelley explains. “Telling someone what they should do to solve a problem may feel like we are being helpful, but in fact, it can make our partner feel dismissed.”
2. Is your work a separate and distinct aspect or an interwoven part of your life?
In light of the pandemic, more people are working from home than ever before. If you’re working in the same room together, chances are one of you may have felt annoyed by how often (or not often) the other person wants to chat. Or, you may be working in separate spaces, but prefer not to be disturbed as you try to navigate your workday.
“There are people who can go in and out of work mode throughout the day, and there are those who are solely focused on it and cannot abide being interrupted at all,” says Sarah McCoy Isaacs, a Raleigh, NC-based therapist. “ If this isn’t talked about, it can be detrimental.”
McCoy Isaacs suggests discussing whether—and how often—both of you prefer to receive texts and calls while working (or interruptions if working at home). She also suggests exploring how much each of you desires to discuss work concerns during your off-time.
“How much [do each of you] want to, or are even able to, talk about work things?” says McCoy Isaacs. “You have to know this to understand why they may or may not talk about their workday with detail, and in order not to take it personally or get offended if you text them and don’t hear back for hours.”
3. What’s the best way to know if I have upset you, and how should I respond?
From crying to yelling to silently retreating into the bedroom, everyone expresses anger differently. “If one partner does not know that they have done something to offend the other person, the tension can persist,” Kelley said. “Sharing which indicators to look out for can make it easier to identify when a check-in with your partner is needed.”
You and your partner can then talk about what you each need from the other person in those angry moments. Is it space? A hug? A ranting session? Sharing this information will help each of you better show up for each other in moments of need.
Kelley also suggests making the effort to gauge when your partner might be most receptive to sensitive discussions: “The moment someone comes home from work, feeling tired and overwhelmed, may not be the best time to bring up a serious topic.” Asking them when to (or when not to) broach concerns could make all the difference.
4. Whose responsibility is it to handle conflict between me and your family/friends?
Most of us have been there—that awkward moment when you clash with your partner’s family (or vice versa). McCoy Isaacs says talking about your boundaries in this situation is crucial to avoid negative feelings and relationship damage.
“Part of this boundary-setting exploration is knowing how well they can hear an experience of a person that is meaningful to them, and [be able to] stay with it and not shut down,” she explains. “It’s important to know if your partner can hear that their mom was rude to you and not immediately take their mom’s side.”
5. How do you respond to emotional conversations, and what do you need when they arise?
So you and your partner just had a tough conversation. Maybe it was about an aspect of the relationship you’re not happy with or something hurtful they said. What’s the next step?
McCoy Isaacs says some people need to absorb things along before returning to the conversation, while others prefer immediate resolution—and it’s important to know who falls into which category.
“If [someone falls into the latter category and] is dealing with a ‘silent sifter,’ they will often continue to poke and prod because they don’t understand their processing differences,” says McCoy Isaacs. “You have to understand their default response and be respectful of it, and likewise, they of you.”
Other best practices for setting boundaries in relationships
At times, you and your partner may ask each other one of these questions and not know the answer—and that’s okay! “Boundaries require a lot of self-awareness and insight,” McCoy Isaacs says. But at the same time, trying to discern your honest response is important. Going to therapy either on your own or with your partner can help you gain clarity and a sense of what matters most.
Additionally, keep in mind the true purpose of boundaries. “[Boundaries] are not opportunities to set rules, but to set expectations in your immediate relationships,” McCoy Isaacs says. “They should not be thought of as ways to block conversation or emotions…. Boundaries are meant to respect and allow for conversations and emotions to occur more often, which will ultimately make them better.”