4 Signs of Unhealthy Boundaries

Everybody thinks communication is the key to healthy relationships. But I’m not so sure…

Obviously, communication is important in any relationship. But here’s the thing many people don’t realize:

Poor communication is often a result of relationship problems, but rarely the cause.

Over the years working as a psychologist and seeing just about every shape and size of relationships problem, there’s something much more fundamental that causes relationships to fall apart: Unhealthy boundaries

Unhealthy boundaries mean there’s an imbalance in the mixture of intimacy and independence in a given relationship.

For example:

  • Start oversharing your personal life with your employees or direct reports at work and problems are bound to come up.
  • Withhold intimacy from your spouse or romantic partner and lots of relationship problems—including poor communication—are virtually inevitable.

If you want healthy relationships, you need healthy boundaries.

In the rest of this article, I’m going to walk through 4 signs that your boundaries might be unhealthy and the quality of your relationship at risk.

If you have any kind of relationship struggle—big or small, work or home—creating better boundaries is one of the best investments you can make for happier, healthier, and more effective relationships.


1. You Set Boundaries but Don’t Enforce Them

Let’s be honest: Setting boundaries isn’t that hard…

  • Reminding your coworker that you need the numbers from the Johnson file by Thursday afternoon so you have time to finish your report.
  • Or asking your spouse to carve out more time for activities together on the weekends instead of doing extra work or browsing social media.

While it may be a little uncomfortable being assertive and asking for what you want, that’s nothing compared to how difficult it is to actually enforce those boundaries when they’re violated or disrespected:

  • What are you actually going to do if your coworker is late again getting you the numbers? On the one hand, you don’t want to be a nag or cause conflict… But on the other hand, the more you keep “letting it go,” the more resentful you get and the more disrespectful of your requests they get.
  • What are you actually going to do if your spouse, once again, spends all day Saturday working instead of hanging out at the beach like you planned? Bringing it up will probably just lead to a fight. But “brushing it off” only leads to you feeling increasingly frustrated and disappointed and there being more and more distance between you.

Here’s the problem:

When you set boundaries without reinforcing them, you get increasingly resentful and they get increasingly disrespectful.

Think about it… When you set a boundary but don’t reinforce it, you’re training other people to not take you and your requests seriously. And worse, you’re eroding your own self-worth because you’re not willing to stand up for what’s important to you.

So before you start setting more boundaries with people in your life, remember that for every boundary you set, you need to have a workable plan for enforcing that boundary as well. Otherwise, you’re going to end up worse off than if you set no boundaries in the first place.

Remember:

Never set a boundary you’re not willing to enforce.

2. You Compromise on Your Boundaries Constantly

Given how challenging it can be to set healthy boundaries—much less enforce them—it’s understandable that many people fall into a pattern of setting compromised boundaries.

Think of a compromised boundary as a watered-down boundary.

For example:

  • Your manager at work asks you to take on a new project. Even though you’re overworked already and know you should set a firm boundary and say no, you hedge and say “Well…okay, but I won’t be able to start until after the first of the month.”
  • Or, suppose your mother-in-law texts you saying she’s in the neighborhood and wants to drop by in a few minutes. Even though it’s been a crazy day, and entertaining your mother-in-law is the last thing you want to do, you worry about saying no and offending her. So you compromise: You text her back and make up a bit of a white lie saying “sure, although we have to leave in an hour for an appointment.”

Here’s the thing:

Compromised boundaries make you feel better in the moment, but usually, the effect is the same as not setting a boundary at all.

At the end of the day, you’re still not standing up for yourself. And you’re still training other people to think that you’re not really serious about your boundaries.

Of course, sometimes compromise is necessary. But if you’re in the habit of constantly compromising on your values, that suggests that it’s less about finding an optimal solution and more about you trying to avoid the consequences of either not setting a boundary at all or setting and enforcing one when it’s uncomfortable.

If you struggle a lot with compromising your values, try practicing setting small boundaries in more minor situations but sticking with them. Then, as you get more confident and skilled, you can set them in bigger, more emotionally tense situations.

For example:

If setting firm boundaries with your boss feels too anxiety-producing, practice setting small but firm boundaries with your coworkers. When a coworker asks you if you can cover for them for something tomorrow that really inconveniences you, try setting a firm boundary by saying “I’m really sorry, Jeff. I wish I could but I have a prior commitment.”

If you constantly compromise on your boundaries, it’s not a character flaw or personality deficit. It just means you need more practice and confidence.

And like building any kind of skill, the trick is to start small and slowly work your way up.

Remember:

Better to set small boundaries you can enforce than big ones you can’t.

3. You Try to Set Boundaries You Don’t Really Believe In

The whole point of setting boundaries is to help you engage in relationships in a way that aligns with your values.

For example:

  • If you ask your partner to remember to take out the trash every Tuesday evening before trash day, it’s not because you want to be a nag. It’s because it’s important that there’s an equitable division of labor in your relationship.
  • If you set a firm boundary at work by saying no to doing extra work on the weekend, it’s not because you want to be unhelpful. It’s because, in the long-run, personal wellbeing is not worth sacrificing for a few extra hours of productivity on the weekend.

Boundaries exist to protect your values.

So it’s ironic that many of us end up setting boundaries that are in conflict with our own personal values.

Here’s an example of what it looks like to set a boundary that’s in conflict with your values:

  • Let’s say your partner is extremely introverted and shy. And as a result, doesn’t enjoy socializing in large groups and gets very anxious when they have to.
  • Because it’s so distressing to you when your partner is anxious, you get in the habit of telling your friends you can’t socialize on the weekends because you’re too busy.
  • As a result, your friends stop inviting you to things as often, which leads to you feeling and a bit lonely. You also start to feel resentful toward your partner, which in turn leads to distance and tension in your relationship.

It’s difficult to sustain a boundary that doesn’t line up with your personal values and preferences. And what’s worse, these values-dissonant boundaries usually end up backfiring eventually, anyway.

So, remember:

A boundary set for the wrong reasons can be as unhealthy as no boundary set at all.

4. You Don’t Respect Your Boundaries with Yourself

So far, we’ve talked about setting boundaries with other people. But it’s worth remembering that you can and should set boundaries with yourself.

And the reason is pretty simple…

Just like healthy relationships with others depends on good boundaries, a healthy relationship with yourself depends on setting good boundaries with yourself.

Here are a few examples:

  • Sticking to a healthy diet and setting boundaries on your impulse to eat junk food is a healthy boundary with yourself.
  • Not giving in to the urge to procrastinate and keeping your focus on the task at hand is a healthy boundary with yourself.
  • Staying present and attentive in an important conversation and resisting the urge to interrupt and talk about all your great insights and ideas is a healthy boundary with yourself.

Obviously, there are all sorts of benefits that come from setting good boundaries with yourself: From getting good grades and staying in shape to having enough money for retirement and being a good listener, many of the most important things in life depend on our ability to set (and enforce) boundaries with ourselves.

But there’s one more crucial reason why healthy boundaries with yourself are so important:

How can you expect other people to respect your boundaries for them if you don’t respect your boundaries for yourself?

It’s a pretty fundamental fact of human nature that we tend to have more respect for people who seem to respect themselves:

  • It’s hard to respect a professional athlete who lets themself get out of shape and flakes out on practice sessions.
  • It’s hard to respect a therapist who talks about themselves constantly and doesn’t know how to listen compassionately.
  • It’s hard to respect a parent who’s cruel to their children.

Similarly, I think that on a less-than-conscious level, we tend to disrespect the boundaries of people who don’t seem very good at enforcing their own boundaries.

Of course, I’m not saying that’s good or okay. I just think it is the way it is.

If you feel like other people never respect your boundaries, it’s worth reflecting on your own relationship with your internal boundaries.

In nothing else, the confidence that comes from setting and enforcing your own healthy boundaries with yourself is likely to give you more confidence setting and enforcing healthy boundaries with others.

Remember:

You can’t control if other people respect your boundaries, but you can always control whether you respect your own.


All You Need to Know

You can improve the quality of just about any relationship in your life—including your relationship with yourself—by creating better boundaries.

And if you can avoid these 4 common boundary mistakes, you’ll be well on your way:

  1. Setting boundaries without enforcing them
  2. Compromising too much on your boundaries
  3. Setting boundaries you don’t really believe in
  4. Not respecting your own boundaries

25 Comments

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Thank you for this! This resonates with me. It is definitely a healthy thing to have and maintain boundaries. I am passing this article on to a few of my friends & family members too. It is a good reminder.

I was just thinking lately how I have never recognized the lack of boundaries in my life. This is such a great article. I always thought I was being generous for giving so much. I can “see” now.

Yeah, that’s a big part of why this is so hard… in a lot of ways, setting healthy boundaries is emotionally counterintuitive!

Boundaries have always been confusing to me. Always feel like I am giving too much or too little. After reading your article realized I have to start with my own which have always been adaptable, movable. Going to practice some firm boundaries for my Self and see how that feels. Thanks much for thoughts!

I loved this article! The point about setting and respecting your own boundaries with yourself really resonated. Thank you!

It is absolutely true that figuring out where the boundary should be located is much easier than dealing with the consequences of enforcing the boundary. Unfortunately, the people closest to us (and therefore subject to enforcement of the boundary) will generally be angry when we don’t allow them to do exactly what they want. Dealing with this anger is difficult and painful and can lead to the end of important relationships. I know this from personal experience.

Great article, important notes on enforcing the boundaries that you’ve set! Looking forward to implementing these concepts.

Hi Nick, this is great as always. Question about example in #3 about the introverted husband thing. If his boundaries are knowing his social limits and mine are way beyond his and me compromising my values to adjust to his boundaries causes tension… is this an example of “irreconcilable differences” ? I feel very stuck in this pattern.

Potentially… Values mismatches can only be stretched so far, unfortunately.

Although, a lot would depend on the specifics of the “tensions”

Need some more ideas of how to enforce boundaries and setting up consequences of overstepping boundaries especially with teenagers. Thanks

After an stressful day of dealing my classmates as an officer in our class I receive your email. This article gives me an idea that what I’m actually doing is right. I’m
setting boundaries with enforcing them especially when we’re having a tasks in our class that should meet the deadlines ’cause I do wanna compromise too much on my boundaries for being a nice mayor all the to time. If I say “this files must submitted on time, they must submit on time on my gdrive”. If they don’t respond on the time I’ve given, I don’t accept their files anymore. It is what it is.

This is the best piece on boundaries I’ve ever read – and that includes during my counselling training! I’ve had extremely poor boundaries in the past and it’s led to many relationship issues, exactly as laid out here. I’ve been working on them over the last few years and it’s increased my self confidence and improved my life dramatically. The points here will surely help me improve

This is a great article Nick. It has taught me a lot on setting and enforcing boundaries. This is something I am not very good at but I am working on it.

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