The concept of boundaries in relationships is a popular one in counseling and conversation but can be difficult to understand and even more complex to put into practice. In their well-known book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, the acclaimed Christian psychologists and authors define boundaries in their Boundaries Workbook as follows:

“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows where you end and someone else begins, leading to a sense of ownership. We must deal with what is in our soul (Prov. 14:10), and boundaries help us define what that is. The Bible tells us clearly what our parameters are and how to protect them, but often our family or other past relationships have confused us about our parameters.”

7 Tips for Setting Boundaries in Relationships

If you are wondering how and where you need to firm up some boundaries in relationships, read on for some tips to think through:

1. Get to know yourself properly

Often, we think we know ourselves well, but we’ve never actually taken the time or opportunity to articulate exactly what our likes and dislikes are, our values, our thoughts and opinions, our personality style, and how we react in different situations. Good boundaries in relationships can only ever be established if we have a firm grasp on who we are and what makes us tick psychologically.

There are hundreds of resources on the topic, as well as online tests and assessments. Often those closest to us, our family and friends, will be able to weigh in with correct appraisals if we are willing to listen to them and the relationship is solid enough for the feedback given and received to be done in love. If this is not an area you’ve delved into extensively, start setting aside time every week to get to know yourself in different ways.

2. Take responsibility for what you need

The next step after learning who God has made you to be is assessing what actions are necessary for you to function optimally, given what you know about yourself and your needs. Boundaries influence all aspects of life and include physical boundaries (who may touch you and when), mental boundaries (the freedom to have your thoughts and opinions), emotional boundaries (how you deal with your emotional thought life and protect yourself from harmful emotional intrusions from others), and spiritual boundaries (distinguishing God’s will from your own).

You need to actively set boundaries in relationships with others – your spouse, friend, colleagues, church family, and whoever else in your life impacts on these boundaries in some way, based on what you realize you need as an individual. This is not wrong or self-seeking, but rather is a prayerful and honest way to set limits.

3. Develop self-respect

Boundaries in relationships can begin to be skewed when we start to take to heart too much what other people say or think about us. This is especially difficult in a marriage relationship, when, technically speaking, our spouse is a part of us, and their feelings and attitudes have a tremendous impact on how we perceive ourselves. When this starts to happen, we need to go back to seeing ourselves as God sees us and realize that no one else has the power to control or influence that without our permission.

A healthy respect for yourself means that it is neither inflated nor derogatory, but rather considers all the experiences and mistakes that have shaped us in light of the grace God has shown us through all these character-forming moments. It might be something that we take for granted, but it is worth going back and looking at how healthy our level of self-respect is.

4. Take note of warning signs

This is where boundaries in relationships start to get practical. When someone infringes on one of our boundaries, a warning bell goes off. How loudly it sounds and whether we can assess where it comes from and how to address it, depends on how well we know and respect ourselves, and how we are emotionally equipped to take the action needed to restore that boundary.

To use a popular (albeit cliché) example (because the dynamics of this relationship lend itself to being a common issue), a mother-in-law who criticizes a daughter-in-law might invoke a stronger than expected internal response.

While no one enjoys negative criticism, the warning would sound in this situation because a boundary has been overstepped. This is no longer the mother-in-law’s area of concern; and a daughter-in-law might react in many ways.

Ideally, she would respond calmly, understanding the boundary line in question, and not rising to the bait. If this continued to occur, either she (or ideally, her husband) would need to be able to calmly inform the mother-in-law that this type of behavior is not acceptable. The important tip here is to be aware of boundary warning signs when they appear in any relationship and act on them before the situation intensifies.

5. Don’t confuse help with seeking attention

This can be a frequent problem in the Christian community where we are called to serve and put others’ needs ahead of ourselves, but we need to remember that there is a fine line between serving for others and serving for ourselves. As sinners and idolaters, we can easily fall into the trap of trying to “fix” others.

Here the boundaries in relationships with others are blurred because of our need to self-validate, to get attention or love by being “everything that the person needs”. If this is a temptation, we need to remind ourselves that God alone is everything we need and that trying to be a savior to our spouse or family and friends will only result in burnout and resentment.

This is the very opposite of what is desired. Galatians 6:5 says, “for each one should carry their own load” and we will enjoy healthier relationships if we assert that everyone is responsible for taking actions that will bring about change in their lives.

6. Your choices are free

Another important part of understanding boundaries in relationships is recognizing that, as an individual and adult, you are free to make your own choices and don’t need to feel like you owe a person more than anything that you want to give.

This should in no way be confused with not seeking wisdom and counsel in choices, or acting in love and kindness towards others, but rather relates to a situation where perhaps you might feel the need to put up a boundary of some sort but feel guilty in doing so and like you are committing a sin.

For example, the person in a dating relationship who does not feel like the partnership is headed towards marriage, but who feels bad for the other person (who feels completely the opposite) and continues in the relationship for longer than they should. Knowing that you have the right to change your mind or direction at any time (having prayerfully committed the situation to the Lord) contributes to healthy boundaries.

7. Understand your boundaries may differ from others

An understanding of boundaries in relationships can differ dramatically between people, even those from the same family. It can be difficult to be in a close relationship with, for instance, a parent, who either consciously or subconsciously overrides boundaries.

Growth and self-development can lead to a place where we recognize that we can still be emotionally attached to someone but remain psychologically detached. This means that we can see the nuances of the dynamic clearly, establish our boundary, and yet still enjoy being in the relationship.

At the heart of setting good boundaries in relationships is the realization that we are not being mean and unkind by doing so, but rather that we are protecting ourselves, much in the way that we might put a hedge up around homes to demarcate where our private space starts and ends.

It is about realizing that considering someone’s wishes doesn’t mean that we must do what they think we should do; that we can be confident about our feelings and thoughts; and if that evokes a negative reaction, which is not of our doing but is on the other person. Ultimately, we are also acting to protect our relationships with others, and hope that they will come to that understanding too.

“Fence on a Hill”, Courtesy of Sylwia Bartyzel,, CC0 License; “Stop Sign”, Courtesy of Anwaar Ali,, CC0 License; “A Hand Up”, Courtesy of Austin Kehmeier,, CC0 License; “Love & Respect”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema,, CC0 License


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