Boundaries are guidelines that dictate what behaviors you’ll tolerate and what behaviors you won’t accept. For example, you could decide you’ll tolerate your ex calling you out for acting needy but won’t accept them not showing up for your date.
In relationships, boundaries work both ways: they produce emotional health and higher self-esteem and are produced by people with emotional health and higher self-esteem.
For these reasons, the sturdier your boundaries, the more attractive you come across. And the more attractive you come across, the easier you get back with your ex. Obviously.
The Common Criticism
That being said, boundaries often receive a bad rep because people feel establishing them is somehow immoral or selfish and thus unattractive. This is utter dogshit.
If you find the idea of setting boundaries anything akin to immoral or selfish, chances are, you just suck at setting them. Even worse, you probably suck at setting them because you don’t love or respect yourself enough.
And besides, counter to the prevailing notion, setting proper boundaries doesn’t mean you stop caring about your ex. You want to care about them. It’s just about responsibility. You still want your ex to be happy. It’s just that you don’t go and try to make them happy by helping them cope with the breakup, for instance. You need to separate responsibility from empathy and caring about somebody.
Healthy And Unhealthy Boundaries Explained
Now before I unveil how to set boundaries, it’s wise to learn the key differences between healthy and unhealthy ones so we’re all on the same page about what we’re discussing. Interestingly, this has to do a lot with, as I alluded to earlier, responsibility.
Healthy boundaries are typically characterized by the person setting them taking responsibility for their own actions and emotions while not taking responsibility for the actions or emotions of others.
Unhealthy boundaries, however, are typically characterized by the person setting them either taking too much responsibility for the emotions and actions of others or expecting others to take too much responsibility for their own emotions and actions.
If this all sounds a bit vague, you’re correct. So let me give a few practical examples of what healthy and unhealthy boundaries look like to clear things up — starting with the healthy.
- My ex made out with my best friend when we were together. I should cut them out of my life forever.
- If my friends start discussing my ex’s dating life in front of me, I will ask them to stop.
- I will not try to get my ex to perceive me as much better off without him, even if that is the case.
- I will not blame my ex, or anyone, for my unhappiness but rather go looking for solutions.
- If my ex asks for help with fixing something in her apartment again, I’ll just admit I don’t want to do it because we’re not together anymore, and it’s therefore inappropriate.
On the other hand, a few examples of unhealthy boundaries:
- Sorry, I can’t go to the cinema today. I’m still waiting for my ex’s call. She said she would reach out soon.
- My ex cheated on me and then dumped me. I must make it up to him. I better show how much I’ve changed and how much he means to me by setting up a surprise date.
- No, you can’t go out with Cindy because I’ll get jealous again. I don’t care that we’re broken up! Don’t date other people.
- If you want me back, block all the men you talked to or dated. You know how insecure I get about that stuff.
- It’s my family’s fault that my relationship didn’t work out. I should’ve never listened to their advice.
How Different Boundaries Play Together
Expanding on how boundaries look like, here’s an example incorporating both the healthy and the unhealthy together. It basically covers a conversation between two exes trying to mend things.
Jenny is the insecure one who keeps disrespecting and stumbling over her ex’s boundaries. Rob is the secure ex who keeps erecting proper, healthy boundaries.
In short: be like Rob, not like Jenny.
Jenny (Insecure Ex): I love you, but I need you to spend more time with me. I’m really trying to make this work again. You didn’t respond to my message for over 3 hours, nor have you answered any of my calls. Why would you do that?
Rob (Secure Ex): I told you I was staying at my grandma’s — and you know where she lives. In the bloody mountains, where there’s virtually no cellular network, let alone a stable internet connection. I told you this already last week. And besides, we’re not officially even together yet. Please, just give me some space.
Jenny (Insecure Ex): Fine, whatever. I just wanted you to know that I’ve gone ahead and finished editing your master’s thesis and have already sent it to your school faculty. I felt generous.
Rob (Secure Ex): Um, thanks, but you didn’t have to do that. I didn’t even ask you to edit my papers.
Jenny (Insecure Ex): It’s okay. I wanted to do it. I want you to finish your studies and find a great-paying job. That’s why I even went and looked for some new job openings for you today.
Rob (Secure Ex): As nice as that sounds, you really don’t have to do these things for me. I can do them myself. Plus, I’m not even sure I want a full-time job yet. I’m thinking of adding another major to my CV. Maybe psychology or something like that.
Jenny (Insecure Ex): Oh, I know that. I just figured it makes sense to help you out as much as possible. I also went ahead and discussed how to rent an apartment with my father, so we’ll have everything ready for when we get back together.
Rob (Secure Ex): Look, I’m not ready for that yet. We’ve only been on a couple of dates since our breakup. It’s too soon to think about getting back together officially, let alone moving in together.
Jenny (Insecure Ex): But I love you… I want to take care of you and make our relationship work.
Rob (Secure Ex): I love you too, but you have to let me do things my own way and at my pace. You have to let me come to you. You must respect my boundaries. What you’re doing is not healthy. You’re rushing things. We’re not even together, and you’re already thinking about us moving in together? You haven’t even consulted me about it.
Jenny (Insecure Ex): I can’t believe how selfish you are! I do everything for you, and now you’re blaming me for it and telling me how you’re not ready?!
Rob (Secure Ex): If you really cared about me, you would stop trying to control my life and let me live it independently. I won’t get back with you if you don’t let me have my peace.
How To Set Healthy Boundaries
This basically boils down to deciding on two things. First, deciding what behaviors you are willing to tolerate and what behaviors you are not willing to tolerate. Second, deciding how you will respond to situations where your ex crosses or tries to cross your boundaries and what the consequences will be.
While you might think setting boundaries is hard work, that’s actually the easier part. The real struggle is keeping your boundaries intact when your ex doesn’t respect them or when they react negatively to them. This is bound to happen eventually.
So here are some tips to navigate the potential backlash.
- Don’t cave; always follow through. If your ex crosses your boundaries, do what you decided or said you would. Be compassionate and polite, but be firm.
- Define your boundaries and the consequences when your ex crosses them before any backlash. It will be difficult to think of the consequences for them once you’re in the middle of a heated argument or disagreement.
- If your ex gets angry because of your boundaries, avoid mirroring their attitude, or you’ll just magnify the conflict. Instead, keep your cool and calmly state or re-affirm your boundaries and what you’ll do if they are not respected.
- If your ex gets passive-aggressive or starts to guilt-trip you, immediately call them out on their bullshit calmly yet earnestly. Don’t explain yourself or get defensive or angry. Keep your composure throughout the conversation.
Once you put up your boundaries, your ex will always respond in one of three ways.
- By threatening/warning to end the interaction/date/relationship if you don’t sheath your boundaries.
- By actually ending the interaction/date/relationship.
- By respecting your boundaries and continuing with interacting, dating, or being in a relationship with you.
If your ex responds in the third way, congrats — you’re moving in the right direction. However, if you elicit the first or second response, hold your ground. This is key. Whatever happens, don’t sheath your boundaries. Even if you lose your ex forever afterward, don’t cave. Because the alternative is far worse.
If you fail to keep your boundaries erect, you’ll, for one, look like a chump. You’ll also lose most, if not all, of your ex’s respect. And you’ll probably be rejected for it eventually. It’ll be a drawn-out rejection as well, which is much more painful and confusing than a swift one.
Even worse, by dropping your boundaries, you condition your ex to treat you with more disrespect. Hence the saying, “What you tolerate, you encourage.” So if you won’t get rejected by that point, you’ll probably get used or abused instead. Again, a much nastier alternative to a clean rejection.
That said — either quick and clean or drawn-out — rejection does bear a sunny side. This sunny side being that it’s one of life’s best filtering mechanisms. It slaughters relationships that wouldn’t work and leads you closer to finding those that would.
Boundaries And Sacrifices
I’ll end this article with a comment on sacrifices and their place in boundaries. Obviously, they’re important, and you must make them sometimes.
If your ex has this unreasonable need for you to text them every day, even if it’s just to say good morning — and you care about them and want to work things out — then it may be reasonable to make a small sacrifice to make them happy.
But there’s a catch: if you make a sacrifice for your ex, it needs to be because you want to, not because you feel obligated or because you fear the consequences of not doing it. You should also do it without expecting anything in return (see: vulnerability).
Now differentiating between sacrifices engrained in perceived obligation and those driven by voluntary sacrifice can be tricky. So whenever you’re in doubt, it’s helpful to ask yourself, “If I stopped doing this, how would my relationship with my ex change?”
If you’re genuinely afraid of the changes, then that’s a bad sign. It indicates you’re making sacrifices conditionally and hold weak, unhealthy boundaries.
Whereas if you feel you could stop making the sacrifice and feel okay about it, despite the unpleasant consequences, then that’s a good sign. It indicates you’re making sacrifices unconditionally and hold strong, healthy boundaries.
Ultimately, someone with weak and unhealthy boundaries will be deeply apprehensive about causing discomfort, conflict, and emotional outbursts with their ex. At the same time, someone with strong and healthy boundaries won’t be.
A person with proper boundaries recognizes, after all, that it’s unreasonable to expect two people to never rock the boat — to always cater to each other’s needs and accommodate each other all the time. Aim for becoming such a person.
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