Friendships are immensely important to an overall happy and healthy life, but man, they can get complicated! Setting boundaries in friendships is a key element to forming and maintaining healthy platonic relationships. On the whole (and especially among men), friendships in the United States are on a drastic decline, and that’s a shame. Good friendships can help bolster self-esteem, combat loneliness and depression, and fill our lives with laughter and adventure. However, it’s important for us to set healthy boundaries in our friendships, just like any other relationship. That way, we don’t get burned out, overstimulated, or abused. Let’s dive into the importance of boundary setting and discuss a few common areas to be aware of.
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The Purpose of Setting Boundaries
Setting limits in a friendship is akin to performing safety measures in your home to prevent robbery. We take these steps to keep ourselves safe, physically and emotionally. Every person has different expectations when it comes to personal space, the use of their time, the management of their funds, and the level of intimate conversation they’re comfortable with. When pursuing a friendship, it’s best to be up front about your expectations and express them in a loving and tactful way.
Setting some clear boundaries from the get-go can prevent hurt feelings and disastrous blowouts further on in the friendship. Of course, as you become closer, some of these boundaries may bend or disappear completely. That’s normal, but you need to know where you stand and be firm about your needs.
The idea of purposefully drawing lines in the sand in your relationships might sound overkill to some of you. However, it’s better to cut off problems at the pass than wait for them to smack you in the face and then have to figure your way out without hurting yourself or your friend. Healthy friendships are based on mutual respect, so if your potential friend is worth keeping around, they’ll understand and respect the boundaries you put in place for your own protection.
Types of Boundaries
You may be wondering what we’re even talking about when we say “friendship boundaries.” Perhaps you’ve never had an abusive friendship. Lucky you! There are actually several different types of boundaries that you might consider putting in place to ensure that your friendships positively contribute to the well-being of all parties involved. According to Urban Wellness, there are six types of boundaries to acknowledge.
1. Emotional Boundaries
Emotional boundaries revolve around information sharing and emotional needs. They include your right to control who you share intimate information with, how much you will share, and how much you will listen to. You need to ask yourself what things you aren’t comfortable sharing with friends and let them know when they are overstepping or if you feel they are “dumping” their problems on you. Setting emotional boundaries protects you from revealing information you would rather keep to yourself and from being used as a counselor for a codependent person. Friendships that are overly emotionally stimulating tend to lead to burnout.
2. Physical Boundaries
Physical boundaries include a wide range of limits, including the amount of personal touch you’re comfortable with but also things like what restaurants you’re willing to eat in. This category also encompasses your space. Are you comfortable having friends over to your house, or would you rather go to their place or eat in public? These are personal boundaries and vary by person, so you’ll need to know where you stand.
3. Time Boundaries
If you’ve ever had a codependent friend, you know how emotionally draining they can be. On the flip side, your best friend may be selfish with their time, leaving you feeling neglected. Healthy friendships are a two-way street. Both friends have to compromise a bit to accommodate one another. However, there are good boundaries you need to keep in place. The time you spend with friends should be devoted out of genuine interest in being together, not motivated by fear, neediness, or guilt.
4. Intellectual Boundaries
Intellectual boundaries protect your headspace. Your thoughts are valuable and deserve to be respected. These boundaries revolve around things like whether you will engage in conversations about politics, religion, and other divisive subjects. How will you deal with heated conversations should they occur? How will you ensure that you’re respectful of others’ perspectives, etc.?
5. Material Boundaries
This one is pretty self-explanatory. This set of boundaries revolves around protecting your material goods. Some people are very generous with what they have. Others are not. Will you share clothes? Do you allow friends to become roommates? Do you exchange gifts for special occasions? These are questions you need to ask yourself to establish your material boundaries. If you’ve ever had a friend who either knowingly or unknowingly took advantage of your generosity, you know this area can be a sticky one.
6. Sexual Boundaries
The sixth and final set of boundaries applies less to friendships and more to romantic relationships, but it involves what you’re comfortable with in the bedroom. This includes verbalizing consent, what sex acts you will not engage in, and what kind of protection you want to use.
A Few More
While these are the most commonly addressed areas of concern, there may be several others for you. You may want to lay down the law about social media. Not everyone is comfortable with all their personal life being public knowledge. If you don’t want people posting pics of you, let them know.
You may have to set some moral or ethical boundaries. If you’re a faithfully religious person, your idea of a good time might clash with your friend’s idea on occasion. Take some time to hash out what you will and will not participate in, and then let your loved ones know. Anyone who disrespects these boundaries is not a friend. Let them go.
The list goes on. Whatever area of life you have convictions about, take some time to search those ideas out. When you feel comfortable, set your relationship boundaries, and make them known. Remember: Healthy relationships are based on respect and reciprocity. You aren’t a jerk or some kind of relationship robot for setting some limits. You’re looking out for your own needs, and sometimes, you’re protecting your friend at the same time!
Identifying Whether You Need to Set Boundaries
It’s important to note here that individuals with higher self-esteem generally have no trouble setting boundaries. In fact, they do it without even knowing or thinking much about it. Setting boundaries is harder for those who struggle with self-worth, have difficulty making friends, or feel like an outcast. If you’re a people-pleaser, the risk of being used and abused is higher. In an interview with Bustle, noted life coach Kate Romero dropped an impactful one-liner: “Givers need to set limits…because takers never do!”
This is not to say that self-assured people are takers—that’s unfair. But givers are much more likely to need stern boundaries. Givers often feel that if they make a fuss, they will lose the love of a friend or miss out on the fun. That’s very likely untrue. Your extrovert friend probably doesn’t even realize they are overstepping, and if they value you, they’ll be willing to listen to your needs.
Important Friendship Boundaries
Now that we’ve got a general idea of what boundaries are and why we need them, let’s take a look at some specific areas you may need to think about. It’s important when thinking about boundaries to not only think of your own needs but those of your friend, as well. Friendship is a two-way street, as we’ve said. If you’re pursuing a serious friendship, you may need to sit down and discuss expectations together in order to create better boundaries. Good communication is key in any relationship. Here are some topics you might need to chat about.
It’s important to establish what you expect from your friends regarding time. If you have a friend who is repeatedly late, cancels your plans at the last minute, or wants to be with you every second of every day, it’s time for a talk. You need to respect their time, and they need to respect yours. Be clear about your expectations. Don’t wait more than a few minutes if they are routinely late, and say “no” if the time demands are becoming too intense.
Not every friend you have needs to know every detail of your personal life. It’s okay to have friends who know everything and friends that don’t. You can’t trust everyone with your intimate details. That is a privilege that is earned over time. If you aren’t sure about this person yet, keep your lips sealed. If they are far too divulging, politely explain that you don’t want to know that much detail. It’s a matter of self-care.
Your Needs Vs. Your Wants
Perfect friendships really aren’t a thing. If you’re in a relationship with someone for long enough, you will eventually hurt or disappoint each other. We’re human. While you might not get everything you want out of a friendship, there are some things that are non-negotiable. These vary widely by person.
Perhaps confidentiality is the most important thing to you. You expect private information to stay between the two of you. Let it be known that this is a non-negotiable for you. If you’re uncomfortable discussing money for whatever reason, let it be known. If you need a friend who calls you at least once a week, tell them.
Only you can determine what’s most important to you. Don’t overdo it. Your friend isn’t responsible for your happiness, so don’t lay out every little thing you want in life and put it in their lap. Just be direct about your most important needs.
We all fall on hard times every now and then, but if you’ve got a friend who’s always asking for a dollar, you may need to set some limits. Let them know that you will no longer lend them money. Offer to help them make a budget and eliminate unnecessary spending. Be a part of the solution instead of a crutch.
How to Set Appropriate Boundaries
Setting limits is not easy for a lot of people. It feels bossy, bold, and uncomfortable. However, that doesn’t have to be the case. Most boundaries are put in place after a fight or a particularly emotionally draining situation. That’s fine. Sometimes, it takes a blowup for us to realize what is important to us and what we will not tolerate. That’s how we grow and learn, but other things should be in place from the get-go.
When you’re in a friendship that is not serving you, take a step back. Spend some time away from the person, and think about the relationship. What’s bothering you? What’s the underlying cause? Is there a solution? Take your time. You don’t want to act out of sheer emotion. You want to acknowledge your feelings, not ignore them, but they should be analyzed against rationality as well.
Don’t kid yourself.
Be honest with yourself. Are you part of the problem? Do you need to change your behavior? If we’re honest with ourselves, sometimes we’re being too sensitive. Sometimes, we’re stressed about personal life and just taking it out on a friend. Examine yourself.
Once you’ve landed solidly on how you feel, it’s time to share your ideas with your friend. Find a time to talk person-to-person. Get a coffee, and express how you’ve been feeling. Let them know the thought and work you’ve been putting in, and then directly express your new boundaries. Finally, ask them if they have any input about the situation, and take time to listen to their side of the coin.
Stick to it.
All that time, effort, and emotional turmoil will be for naught if you set boundaries and don’t stick to them when it gets tough. Even if you’ve both agreed on terms, there will be times when one or both of you slips. That’s life. Get up, reestablish your needs, and try again. Don’t just drop the boundaries you worked so hard on because they failed once.
What to Do if a Friend Won’t Respect Your Boundaries
How do you handle it when a friend won’t stick to the limits? When your friend steps out of line, gently remind them of your boundaries. Give specific examples of how they have violated your boundaries and how it made you feel. Tell them how you would prefer they handle the situation should it arise again.
If it continues to happen, you need to analyze whether this person actually respects you. You’re responsible for your own emotional well-being. If you’re being constantly disrespected and your values are being trampled on, walk away. Ending an unhealthy friendship is certainly painful, but in the long run, it’s the lesser of two pains.
A Personal Note
Walking away from an important friendship is a hurt I know well and can speak to. My very best friend in college, my main bridesmaid, fell on hard times after university. She left an abusive husband only to land in a worse situation with a former abuser. Though I was flabbergasted at her decisions, I bailed her out, over and over again. I financially, emotionally, and even physically took care of her. I went so far as to break into their shared apartment to move her out while he was at work, only to see her return to the abuser time and again.
She picked up a severe drug habit, and for the first time in our long relationship, she started lying to me. She had never lied, no matter how bad the situation was. I finally had to walk away. It killed me. I knew she was not in a good place, but I could not save her. She was using me as a crutch, and I knew she had to learn to solve her own problems. Plus, her problems were affecting my own relationship with my husband.
It’s been years since I’ve seen or spoken to her. She has since gotten clean and happily remarried. I’m overjoyed for her. She did it on her own, and I couldn’t be more proud, but we both needed me to step away. I include this to show that I understand how difficult it can be to cut off a friend, but there are occasions when it’s the healthiest thing to do. It doesn’t mean you won’t lament it daily, but lament and regret are two different things.
Closing Thoughts on Setting Boundaries
Setting boundaries in friendships is a matter of protection. Knowing who you are and what you will allow into your life are integral parts of maintaining mental health. Limits aren’t just for you, though. Sometimes, they protect your friend as much as they protect you. If you value your friendships, you’ll put up some fences to protect them.
Going back to our opening example, you lock your doors at night to keep out those with bad intentions and to protect the dear people inside. The same applies to unwanted behaviors in relationships. You lock out the bad ones to protect what you love about the relationship. It’s that simple.
Don’t be afraid to make your needs known. Verbalize them directly, and stick to them. Value your friend’s limits as well. Ask questions to ensure that you understand, and do your best to approach every aspect of your relationship with mutual respect and concern.
Being a good friend means being a good listener. If you struggle in this area, take some cues from “How to Become a Better Listener.”
Building a strong friendship takes time and work. Spend some quality time together with one of these “60 Bonafide Bonding Activities for Friends.”
Frequently Asked Questions
If a friend steps over the line, gently remind them of your values, and be direct about your expectations. If the behavior continues, it may be time to step back or walk away from the friendship.
If a friend leaves you feeling dumped on and emotionally drained, you need to set some emotional boundaries. Be direct about their behavior, and set limits on what topics you will no longer discuss.
Making friends as an adult can be tough. Take some advice from “How to Make Friends as an Adult (and Why You Should!).” Then spend some quality time together on meaningful adventures!