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When It’s Time to Draw the Line: How to Set Boundaries

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
December 12, 2017
From the WebMD Archives

Sometimes you need to draw a line in the sand with those you love. You care deeply about them, but their behavior is unacceptable and strains your relationship to the point of breaking it. Though you may dread doing so, the time may have come to set clear limits – and maybe even an ultimatum. To help you manage the situation, consider the following guidelines:

Be clear what your boundaries are. When you are calm, take time to fully think through the situation. Decide which behaviors you are willing to accept, are willing to give time to change, or see as totally unacceptable if they happen again.

Be clear about the consequences of your loved one overstepping your boundaries. There are some behaviors that warrant discussion, while others require much stronger action. For instance, you might be upset by your husband watching porn online and feel the need to talk with him about it. By contrast, you might see chronic sexting with someone other than you as infidelity and a reason for divorce. Or, you might be willing to stay married as long as your spouse goes to couples therapy with you.

Be committed to maintaining your boundaries. If you find yourself thinking that you’d like to hold the line or you hope to hold the line, then you need to think more about this. You are not yet committed to your boundaries. Although it may be difficult to stay firm, you greatly increase your chances of doing it if you are decisive about how to respond. For this reason, it’s essential to carefully consider your boundaries and how you plan to respond to your loved one crossing them.

Take measures to stay grounded. Make note of when you begin to get upset. Remind yourself that you have a plan and recommit to it. If you need extra help calming yourself, you might pay attention to your breath (noticing your inhale and your exhale) or you might find a way to briefly leave the situation. The calmer you are in dealing with the situation, the better you will feel and the more effective you will be.

Articulate your boundaries clearly, succinctly, and with caring. Be sure to explain to your loved one that you care about them and want to stay in the relationship. However, you must also explain that you will not accept them continuing their behavior or being unwilling to work on it in some demonstrable way. For instance, you may tell a friend that you care so much about her that you cannot support her while she continues to drink excessively and do self-destructive things while drunk – but that you are there for her if she seeks help, such as going to AA.

Be as succinct as you can be while doing all you can to make yourself understood. If your loved one fights you or seems intent on arguing, simply stop the discussion. You cannot force anyone to understand something they don’t want to understand or acknowledge. You have done all you can to explain your position and do not need to do more.

At this point, it is time to do what you planned and said you would do. If you find your resolve weakening or fear that it will, you might want to enlist the support of someone you can trust to help you stand firm. Sticking to your boundaries may not feel good, but it will hopefully feel right – enabling you to be positive about yourself and the possibility of a happier future, whatever happens with your relationship.

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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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