Real-Life Couples Share—How to Set Boundaries for a Healthy, Thriving Relationship

We’re taking notes.

By Kelly Krause
Couples setting boundaries in relationships.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about setting boundaries in relationships. Specifically, what it looks like to communicate and establish healthy and supportive boundaries. And not just in romantic relationships. It’s important to acknowledge the role that boundaries play in our relationships with friends, colleagues, and family. As a self-diagnosed (and therapist-agreed) people-pleaser, boundaries are an area I sometimes struggle with. Traditionally, I’ve also had to learn the hard way that my tendency to not communicate clearly makes for an even more complicated path forward.

I’ve gotten better at flexing this muscle over the years. Now, I tend to advocate for myself, but it’s still an area that I can always grow and refine. In romantic relationships, especially ones where you’re sharing a space and life, I find it’s even more important to ensure you’re setting clear expectations. That way, you leave no room for guessing and can arrive at a solution together. Sometimes those conversations can be tough. But after hours of listening to Esther Perel podcasts, I’ve learned that those discussions are only made more difficult when they’re avoided and not addressed. (Hot tip: If you have access to Masterclass, I highly recommend Ester Perel’s course on Relational Intelligence.)

Claire Zinnecker and husband sitting on porch steps.

Couples Share Tips for Setting Boundaries in Relationships

With all this in mind, I was curious how my own friends approach setting boundaries. I wanted to know how they work with their partners to build more alignment to foster open and honest communication. As with any advice or learnings, I think it’s important to remember we’re all sharing this based on our own lived experiences. I love hearing how people approach the same question and hope you find their responses as helpful and insightful as I do. All my interviewees responded to the same question:

“What is your approach to setting boundaries in a partnership or relationship, and what’s been the biggest learning or takeaway?” Dive into their answers ahead.

Mary Ralph sitting on couch.

Trust the Process

“When it comes to setting boundaries in a relationship, I’ve noticed they kind of just pop up and get clearer as time goes on. You know, those moments where you’re like, ‘Okay, we definitely shouldn’t go there.’ Being able to talk about those moments is super important. I see it as an ongoing chat, even if it doesn’t happen right in the moment when things are intense. Looking back, I can say we’ve had some good outcomes from how we handle boundary talks. It’s made us way more aware of them as we hit those moments.” — James

Honor Each Other’s Needs

“We are not the type of couple that sits down and lists out all of our boundaries. Instead, we talk about them when we feel disrespected or unsupported. Sometimes, this happens right in the moment of a heated conversation and other times it happens after we have had a moment to think about it.

Setting boundaries has taught me to be unapologetic about my own needs and well-being. It has taught me that my partner cannot read my mind and I have to be super honest and clear with him when it comes to sharing how I am feeling and what I need. But the biggest takeaway has been learning to honor each other’s needs and well-being to help us maintain a relationship rooted in love, trust, and mutual respect.” — Gustavo 

Couple sitting on city stoop.

Clarity Is Kindness

“Adam and I have been married for 14 years, and I think that for many of those, we prided ourselves on being so aligned and compatible, we didn’t need boundaries! With a little wisdom (and personal growth) we’ve both become more intentional in how we care for ourselves and nurture our relationship. For me, boundaries are about bringing that intention into our conversations and realizing that even the most compatible couples are still made up of two autonomous humans with individual needs.

We’ve learned to verbally tell the other person—this is what I need more of, and this is what I need less of. And since we also collaborate on creative and professional projects, sometimes we have to set a boundary to not discuss stressful work situations at certain times so that we can create a container for fun and connection. For us, it’s really all about communication—not making assumptions that your partner knows something that you haven’t told them, and remembering: clarity is kindness.” – Camille 

Acknowledge Your Individuality

“It’s important to know that I can set a boundary and adjust a boundary. It’s important to know that I can state my boundary clearly and I’ll be heard—and it’s important for me to know that my partner knows they can tell me how that boundary makes them feel so I can adjust if it makes sense.

I think any conversation about boundaries in a relationship needs to acknowledge that each person is an individual *and* that the relationship is important and boundaries need to be continually explored together with mutual respect for where the other person is at. So a conversation about boundaries has to start there.

For me and my partner, over the last year, I’ve really loved knowing that I can and should say what’s on my mind at all times with the expectation that my thoughts and feelings will be validated and we can work through the particulars as a unit. I have never felt loved like this.” — Nate

Candle and books.

Support Each Other in Feeling Safe

“One of the things that can be tough about setting boundaries in relationships when you struggle with codependency at all like I have, is that even though boundaries are all about saying ‘yes’ to yourself and your needs, sometimes expressing them feels like you are saying no to your partner in some way. It’s easy for me to feel a little rejected, or worry that I did something wrong or wasn’t good enough and take his boundaries personally every now and then.

Most of the time, it’s simple and straightforward. But other times, I need to feel reassured that I’m loved and we are okay. Setting boundaries has shown me one of the parts of our relationship that I most admire: we take great pride and care in helping each other feel safe in our couple bubble. Often, when we set a boundary that feels like a big one, we will accompany that with little reassuring reminders. ‘We are good. I love you, and everything is okay and I’m not going anywhere.’ I know consciously that he’s not going anywhere, but I can’t explain the way my body calms when he says that.

We also are good at being sensitive toward the other person. So setting a boundary is often followed by a question like, ‘How does that feel?’ or ‘What do you think?’ Taking care of my boundaries can affect him, or require him to readjust his expectations. It helps him to know I am mindful of that.

And just like any couple, we can be clumsy at this, too! For example, we commonly won’t set boundaries even though we should, and we don’t realize it until we get a little resentful. And in that case, we know at this point that we need to come back to each other when something feels off. Sometimes, I sense that he needs a boundary even before he does. Reassuring reminders and gentle curiosity are kind of like our North Star these days for guiding us back to each other.” — Jules