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6 Key Relationship Boundaries Necessary for a Couple

Most people consider boundaries to be a clearly defined, black and white concept. 

In baseball, the foul line designates what is in play and what is foul.

In contrast, a gate delineates property lines between neighbors and an electric fence teaches a dog with precision where he can and cannot play. 

But what about the boundaries that are less defined and grayer in concept?  What happens when a baseball falls exactly on the foul line?  Wouldn’t the call be made with a subjective eye?  What happens if a property line lies under a brook or river?  Would the puppy have the same boundaries if the strength of one electric fence varied from the strength of another? 

When considered in this framework, boundaries prove to be murkier and more unclear.  Furthermore, if boundaries are unclear, it will most likely lead to confusion, disagreement, and unrest.

In addition to the visible boundaries of a foul line or of a white picket fence, there are other types of boundaries that cannot be seen. 

Invisible boundaries are present when there is a clear rule with no physical presence.  For example, teachers are not permitted to have relationships with their students. 

There is no actual partition separating them from their students, but instead exists via knowledge and an invisible boundary.   Invisible boundaries are arguably the most important since people need to develop an awareness that they are there. 

Invisible boundaries exist in all kinds of relationships, including romantic relationships, friendships, and professional relationships.  The presence of boundaries, or the lack thereof, is an important factor when considering the overall health of a relationship. 

In general, strong boundaries in relationships are indicative of healthier unions, while weak boundaries are usually suggestive of more troubled relationships.

You may be wondering why boundaries are so important, especially when setting boundaries seems to be so counterintuitive.  Wouldn’t boundaries put an automatic divide between two parties, preventing intimacy and closeness?  Wouldn’t this impact the overall quality of the relationship?  Interestingly enough, boundaries do the exact opposite and benefit relationships in several ways.  

Let’s now look at types of boundaries along with ways to efficiently establish them.  Following are a few of the most important boundaries to consider.

Boundary Type #1: Physical Boundaries

Physical boundaries encompass all things related to touch, from a simple brushing of the shoulder, to holding hands, to close embrace, to intimate sexual encounters.

As young children, we are taught early on to respect our bodies.  Most children learn about “good touch” and “bad touch” during their elementary school years. 

This education usually escalates in middle school with the arrival of puberty and surging hormones.  Teachers educate their students in health class that “no means no” and that one should never force themselves upon an unwelcoming party.  

These lessons are valuable and at the cornerstone of establishing healthy physical boundaries in all relationships. 

Couples need to communicate what they want and what they don’t want when it comes to all acts of physical touch and intimacy. 

Some people may be averse to public displays of affection, but have varying levels of what is acceptable.  For example, holding hands, but not kissing may be acceptable in public to one person, while another person may not allow any type of physical contact. 

This could be related to cultural or religious factors, or be based merely on personal preference. 

Physical boundaries should always be discussed, carefully constructed, understood, and respected by both parties. 

If a boundary is set and disregarded, it can cause an individual to feel unheard, angry, and resentful. 

A physical boundary that is continuously ignored is always indicative of a lack of respect and suggests further trouble in a relationship. 

In severe situations, ignored physical boundaries may even lead to situations of physical or sexual abuse.

Boundary Type #2: Family Boundaries

Everybody Loves Raymond was a popular television show in the 1990’s devoted to exploring questionable family boundaries. 

Undoubtedly, the popularity of the show stemmed from the show’s hilarious exploration of the dynamic that occurred when meddling parents lived down the street from their adult sons and their families. 

While this premise proved to be rich in comedic content, it proves to be much less funny in real life.

A lack of boundaries between a couple and their family of origin is a recipe for disaster. 

Individuals may feel torn and unsure who to align themselves with when issues or problems arise.  One may feel like they will incur negative or harmful consequences if they position themselves with one side over the other. 

People may feel as if they are constantly competing with their in-laws for their loved one’s affection and attention.  This emotional tug of war is likely to result in depression, anxiety, and anger on all sides.

It is critical for a couple to always align themselves with each other, while setting strong, clear boundaries with their family of origin. 

Individuals must learn how to be respectful and firm with meddling family members to preserve the sanctity of their relationship, while families must respect the couple’s privacy.

Boundary Type #3: Technological Boundaries

In today’s world, it is important to note that technological boundaries should exist in every relationship. 

The vast majority of people own numerous electronical devices including phones, laptops, computers, and tablets. 

This combined with the alluring rabbit hole of social media can prove to be disastrous to any relationship.

Electronics monopolize a person’s attention away from their partner.  Individuals are too busy snapping selfies, posting on Facebook, and scrolling through Twitter to realize that their partner is sitting right in front of them.

Individuals tend to feel unimportant and neglected when they are engaged in conversation, only to realize that their loved one hasn’t heard a single word that they have said. 

Furthermore, social media can lead to unnecessary temptation, infidelity, and unfaithfulness, especially in struggling or vulnerable relationships.

It is imperative for couples to establish boundaries with their electronics.  A couple should know when, where, and how much electronic use is permitted in the household. 

With all of the challenges that a relationship can face, it is hard to believe that electronical devices have become one of them.  However, it is more about the neglect, lack of attention, and diminished respect that ultimately arises rather than the devices themselves.   

Boundary Type #4: Identity and Sense of Self

Theoretically, in healthy relationships, two halves unite to create one whole. Individuals enter into relationships with their own histories, aspirations, and goals. 

It is imperative for one to maintain a strong sense of self so that they do not lose themselves in their partner or in the relationship itself.  The only way to successfully achieve a lasting sense of self is by setting clear boundaries around identity.

Individuals lacking self-confidence or self-worth may try to impress their partner by becoming someone who they are not.  They may abandon their own hobbies, friendships, and interests, while altering their personality in an attempt to please their partner. 

It is important for individuals to set clear expectations with their partner about maintaining their own identity. 

This primarily means that both partners will maintain a life independent of each other and of the larger relationship. 

This boundary will enable individuals to continue to socialize with their friends, to pursue their own career paths, and to partake in their hobbies and interests.  

Not only is this boundary important to maintain a sense of personal fulfillment, it is also key if the relationship should ever dissolve. 

Establishing clear boundaries will ensure that one can always independently stand on their own, regardless of the status of their relationship.   

Boundary Type #5: Financial Boundaries

Money and financial affairs can be a tricky business, as there are numerous facets to fiscal matters. 

There are no universal “one size fits all” methods to help couples to manage banking, business, and investment portfolios. 

Some couples may choose to preserve their individual bank accounts upon entering into the relationship, while others may combine them into a joint account. 

Individuals need to discuss how they are going to handle their expenses, savings, and accounting while setting clear expectations as it pertains to financial concerns. 

These boundaries should include topics such as how bills will be paid, how the money will be allocated, and how investments will be handled.

The absence of clear financial boundaries will unquestionably spell trouble for any relationship. 

If one partner spends frivolously, bounces checks, or consistently misses due dates, it will have a serious financial impact on the couple’s credit history and cash reserves. 

On the other hand, if a person’s outlook is to save every penny, there may be an unwillingness to splurge on vacations, luxury items, or even general necessities. 

If couples are not on the same page as it pertains to their finances, it can lead to emotional duress, logistical concerns, anger, and unhappiness. 

Boundaries should always clearly define expenditures, financial management, and account access for both parties.

Boundary Type #6: Personal Space

In their exuberance to explore the world, toddlers are often wholly unaware of the nuances pertaining to personal space. 

They will often approach a stranger to examine a sparkly handbag or to touch a soft cardigan. 

Usually, this exploration will conclude with a parent profusely apologizing, while simultaneously grabbing the toddler to divert their attention elsewhere. 

As children grow, they learn about personal space in a concrete manner. It is usually from a parent or teacher who attempts to visually depict the amount of space required between two people. 

Personal space is also very important in relationships.  Individuals tend to have varying levels of tolerance as it pertains to violations of personal space.

Some people are more reserved and require a significant amount of space. Others may require less space and be more forgiving of violations.  Individuals can greatly benefit from setting clear expectations with their partners as it pertains to desired space in certain situations. 

For example, one may need space upon awakening if they are not a morning person. Others may require space to relax and unwind after arriving home from work. 

Other individuals may need time and space to retreat and calm down after an argument or disagreement occurs.

Regardless of the reason, individuals need to set clear boundaries pertaining to personal space. 

If personal space boundaries are violated, individuals will likely become upset, angry, or irritated. In addition, their partners may feel rejected, sad, or lack understanding. 

It is important to delineate expectations to avoid this type of confusion or misunderstanding between partners.

How to Establish Healthy Relationship Boundaries

Open communication and compromise are the keys to establishing healthy boundaries in relationships. 

Couples need to openly communicate their thoughts and feelings to create boundaries that work for both parties.  Communication should be ongoing and can be accomplished through verbal or written means

Partners can brainstorm boundaries, write down their thoughts and ideas, and then openly discuss them with each other.  Couples need to listen during this process and gain understanding and insight into how their partner is feeling.

Once boundaries are identified, couples need to work together to establish and implement them. 

Partners must be willing to compromise to ensure that everyone’s needs are addressed.  Both parties should be able to come to an agreement that they can live with when a boundary is constructed. 

If a boundary is broken after construction, it will only lead to discord, anger, and mistrust.  Thus, it is imperative that couples compromise and create boundaries from the start that works for both of them.

Sometimes it is difficult to know what boundaries need to be created, or even how to create them.  In this instance, professional help can be sought to assist a couple with boundary setting. 

A mental health professional, religious clergy, or a mentor can act as an unbiased third party. They help a couple to develop fair, clear boundaries.

The Benefits of Setting Boundaries in Relationship

Whether visible or invisible, boundaries are important because they provide us with a guideline how to act, respond, and behave.  They offer structure, limits, and carve out frameworks. 

If boundaries are weak, lacking, or unclear, a vast array of issues are likely to arise.

Boundary setting helps people know exactly what to expect in their relationships. 

Boundaries inform people what is accepted and what is not allowed.  For example, boundaries in most relationships preclude couples from engaging in sexual intercourse outside of the relationship.  However, some couples have looser boundaries that may allow for more open relationships. 

these definitive guidelines provide individuals with the knowledge of what is appropriate and what is not. 

They also provide information about the types of consequences that could incur should boundaries be violated or disrespected.

We have also learned that established and robust boundaries are indicative of healthier relationships. 

Wrapping Up Boundaries

Although boundaries may first appear to be concrete and definitive, they are actually more complex. 

A strong picket fence may look like a solid boundary between two houses; however, this may not be the case for a small bird or chipmunk who can easily fit through the posts. 

The picket fence may serve as a firm physical boundary, but a latch may easily open it to both sides.  The fence may seem like an insurmountable barrier to the family dog, while a bird may barely notice and fly right over it. 

In essence, relationship boundaries should be carefully constructed both objectively and with all subjective opinions taken into account. 

Compromise should result from these subjective opinions to form strong, clear, and agreed upon boundaries.  These boundaries will likely be invisible to the eye. Nevertheless, should always be wholly present in a person’s awareness and actions.

Photo of author

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS is a Licensed Professional Counselor in New Jersey, a Nationally Certified Counselor, an Approved Clinical Supervisor, and a mental health freelance writer. Tracy has fourteen years of clinical and supervisory experience in a variety of mental health settings and levels of care.

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