Boundaries in Relationships and Stress

How Boundaries in Relationships Can Affect Stress Levels

Heart shaped lock on a fence
Setting boundaries can feel like you're creating distance, but you're actually allowing greater closeness. Dina Alfasi / EyeEm / Getty Images

Boundaries can be described as how emotionally close you let people get to you. They are also where you draw the line within a relationship. They say how much you are willing to give or take before requiring that things change or deciding to call it quits.

For example, you may be okay with your partner going out one night a week without you but feel that two or three nights per week is unacceptable. Or maybe you are willing to forgive one case of infidelity but feel that any more than that is too much.

Boundaries are one of the measures of relationship health. As such, they can contribute to your relationships with your partner, children, family, and friends in positive or negative ways. When do relationship boundaries lead to increased levels of stress?

Responsibility Imbalances

When you don’t set boundaries on what you will say yes and no to, you can easily take on more responsibilities than you are comfortable with just to please others. This is called rejection sensitivity and can add stress as you try to navigate a lifestyle that is too busy for your comfort level.

If you don’t respect your own limits, others may not respect them either. Not setting boundaries or limitations on your time can also make it harder for others to tell when they've asked you to do too much.

Setting healthy boundaries helps you maintain the right balance in your schedule and in your life. It gives you permission to say no and better protect your time.

Feelings of Resentment

When you continue to say yes to things that would be better addressed with a no, you might start to feel angry or resentful. It may seem as if others are taking advantage of you or that you are being expected to give too much.

Sometimes this resentment occurs because you don't realize that you've had a hand in your overly busy schedule. You can't make the connection that you let your to-do list get out of hand. Other times you do realize that you are responsible, so you get mad at yourself for letting it happen.

Whatever your perceptions, the end result is that you feel stressed and resent the situation. This can lead you to close yourself off and alienate yourself from the people in your life. It can also potentially damage the relationships you’re intending to strengthen by constantly saying yes.

Increased Conflict

When you feel like the give and take in a relationship is out of balance, this can create conflict. Conflict often leads to stress, which can not only hurt your relationship further, but can also harm your physical health.

Every relationship experiences some level of conflict or disagreement. When this conflict is related to not setting or enforcing clear boundaries, you may find that it lingers. It is never fully resolved because it keeps happening again and again.

Maintaining healthy boundaries lets others know where they stand with you and can prevent additional conflict in your relationships. It can also decrease the amount of imbalance or resentment that exists, reducing your stress even more.

Setting Boundaries to Promote Closeness

A common misperception about personal boundaries is that keeping everyone in your life at arm’s length is the same as having strong, healthy boundaries—that you can't let others in if you want to be happy. This isn't exactly true.

In fact, allowing others to get close to you (in a healthy way) is the true goal of boundary-setting. Proper boundaries allow you to have close relationships that respect the needs of all involved. They enable you to be independent and interdependent at the same time.

Most of us have some people in our lives who require a different type of response and, indeed, need to be kept at an arm’s length (or further) because they do not respect the boundaries we set. But the majority of people can be allowed to get close to us without stepping on our toes, as long as we let them know where we stand.

The bottom line is that setting healthy boundaries in relationships is a key skill for relationship stress management. It is a kindness we can do for ourselves as well as for those we are close to.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares tips on setting healthy boundaries featuring therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab.

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By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.