Take a moment to imagine two people:
The first person has a good sense of themselves and seems to really enjoy and value your relationship with them. Your interactions feel mutual and balanced. They are good at communicating what they do and don’t want. You never have to guess how they are feeling, or where they stand on an issue. Because they are honest about their feelings, you know that the joy and connection you have with them is genuine.
The second person also seems to really enjoy and value your relationship, yet there is also a vague sense of distance between you. They are really nice, helpful, and reliable, always willing to say ‘yes’ and show up for you, but the relationship is unbalanced. They aren’t honest about their feelings so you’re never really sure where you stand with them or if their smile is genuine or placating. There are clearly negative feelings and resentments brewing under the surface, but since they never share this or ask for anything, you have no way to address it.
Which person would you rather be in a relationship with?
When people talk about the importance of honest communication, saying ‘no’, and boundary setting in relationships, it is often part of a larger conversation about self-care, self-advocacy, and standing up for your own needs and desires. This is 100% true and important, and you don’t need any further justification for taking care of yourself! However, what’s not talked about as often is how boundary setting is also good for your partner.
Often when people are learning to set boundaries, they encounter internal barriers and say things like:
“I feel selfish for prioritizing my own needs.”
“I feel guilty when I ask my partner for something.”
“I don’t want to hurt my partner’s feelings by saying ‘no’.”
“I don’t want to let my partner down when they need me. I’m afraid they’ll feel hurt and rejected.”
“I’m afraid my partner will be mad if I set a boundary. Getting into fights will damage our relationship.”
What’s missing from these common fears is an understanding of how clarity and communication of your wants and needs actually improves things for your partner. Take another look at the two examples above. Would you rather be with someone whose emotions are genuine, or who wears a positive mask even when they aren’t ok? Would you rather have a partner help you because they want to, or because they feel obligated to? Would you rather know when your partner is angry, or have them silently seething and building resentment towards you? Would you rather be with someone who is good at taking care of themselves, or who gives so much that they burn out and become tired and irritable.
Boundaries might seem like they will disrupt or end a relationship, but in actuality boundaries are all about maintaining relationships. Setting a boundary shows that you are invested in the relationship and you want it to go well in the long term. Communicating your honest feelings and needs shows that you trust your partner and are willing to be vulnerable with them. Saying ‘no’ demonstrates that your ‘yes’ is genuine and meaningful. Taking care of yourself in this way also gives your partner permission to take care of themselves in ways that they need.
And yes, it is possible and even likely that practicing honesty and boundary setting will create some conflict or hurt feelings. That is also ok! It is not possible to go through life without ever upsetting another person, and this is actually another opportunity for growth and connection. Working through conflict is incredibly bonding, and many people report feeling closer to their partners or friends after having resolved an argument. Working through conflict or hurt feelings is another way to show that you care, and you’re invested in the relationship in a deep and meaningful way.
The next time you feel the fear around setting a boundary, I invite you to reframe the situation and ask yourself not only what your own needs and feelings are, but also what kind of partner you want to be, and how your communication will benefit you, your partner and your relationship as a whole.
As a somatic counselor and dance/movement therapist, I guide clients in connecting to their bodies as a way of deepening their self-understanding of desires and needs. If you’re having trouble communicating and setting boundaries in your relationships, please reach out for a free consultation.