Boundaries in Relationships and Stress

How Boundaries in Relationships Can Affect Stress Levels

Setting boundaries can create greater closeness.
Setting boundaries can feel like you're creating distance, but you're actually allowing greater closeness. Dina Alfasi / EyeEm / Getty Images

The concept of "boundaries" in relationships is one that is commonly discussed in the field of family therapy. Different therapists and researchers may use different wording in referring to relationship boundaries, but they are all generally talking about the same thing: where we draw the line with people. Boundaries may be described as, "Where you end and where others begin," or "How emotionally close you let people get to you." They are one measure of relationship health, and can be associated with stress if boundaries are not clear.

How Boundary-Setting Helps With Stress Management

Setting healthy boundaries in your personal relationships is an important part of stress management for several reasons.
  • Maintaining Balance
    For one thing, when we don’t set boundaries on what we will say yes and no to, we tend to take on more responsibilities than we’re comfortable with, just to please others. This can add stress as we try to navigate a lifestyle that is too busy for our comfort level. (Because we know better than anyone what is too much for us and what is not—if we don’t respect our own limits, how can we expect others to respect them, or even know where they lie?) Setting healthy boundaries helps us to maintain the right balance in our schedules and in our lives.
  • Keeping Conflict Minimal
    Additionally, when we say yes to things that would be better addressed with a "no," we tend to feel resentful after a while. Some of us may not realize that we have a hand in our own overly-busy schedule, while others of us may be mad at ourselves for letting it happen. Whatever our perceptions, we do know that we feel stressed, and that we resent that feeling. (See this for more on how to say no.)

    If we feel resentful and frustrated by the situation we face, or direct those feelings toward the people who are pushing our boundaries, we can end up feeling alienated from the very people we’re trying to be nice to, or damaging the relationships we’re intending to strengthen. And we all know how much stress relationship conflict can cause! (If you don’t, read this research on conflict in relationships.) Maintaining healthy boundaries lets others know where they stand with us, and can allow us to avoid causing additional conflict in our relationships due to resentments and other negative feelings caused by poor boundaries.

  • Setting Boundaries Actually Promotes Closeness
    It bears mentioning that a common misperception about personal boundaries is that keeping everyone in our lives at an arm’s length is the same as having strong, healthy boundaries. In fact, allowing others to get close to us, without overwhelming us, is the true goal of boundary-setting; healthy boundaries allow us to have closer relationships that respect the needs of all involved. Most of us have some people in our lives who require a different type of response, and indeed need to be kept at an arm’s length (or farther) because they do not respect the boundaries we set, but the majority of people can be allowed to get close to us without stepping on our toes—if only we let them know where we stand. (See this for more on dealing with difficult people.)

    The bottom line is that setting healthy boundaries in relationships is a key skill for relationship stress management. It is a kindness we can do for ourselves as well as for those we are close to. If boundary-setting isn’t something you are already comfortable with, there is plenty you can do to develop a comfort level with this skill. (And no doubt, you’ll have plenty of opportunities in your life to practice!) These tips on setting personal boundaries can help.

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