Boundaries In Friendships: Why and How To Set Up and Enforce Healthy Boundaries. 17 min read

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Boundaries are simply the limits you set on how much responsibility or influence you allow others to have in your life, or you assume in theirs. 

Imagine if random strangers could walk into your kitchen, take whatever they want, use your toilet, and switch your TV to their preferred channel while you do nothing. Even if these strangers made you breakfast, did your laundry, and mopped your floor as well, you still wouldn’t feel okay. Because, let’s face it, most strangers seldom have your best interest at heart (so they’ll definitely exploit you), and even those you trust seldom know exactly what is best for you.

Just as we need physical fences that limit how friendly neighbours walk in and out of our compound, we also need boundaries in our friendships to prevent trespassing.

Two Main Ways Boundary Issues Manifest Themselves:

As I mentioned earlier, boundaries, just like physical fences, don’t only limit how much people interfere in your life, but how much you interfere in theirs as well. However, when there are no boundaries, either of two things happens.

  1. Excessive external reliance/permission
  2. Overreaching and overbearingness

Excessive External Reliance and Permission

This means you overly allow or expect others to influence and take responsibility for your actions and well-being. For example, seeking your friend’s approval before you ask someone out, allowing them to tell you where and when to go even when you don’t feel like it, or permitting them to use your personal belongings or go through your phone and diary because you don’t want to offend them.

Overreaching and Overbearing

This means you take on too much responsibility for the actions and well-being of others. For example, doing your friend’s assignment, always paying for their meals/drinks, confronting their abusive partner, or always apologising even when you are not wrong.

As a rule of thumb, if you find yourself complaining (to yourself or someone else) about your friends using, pushing, and stressing you out, it is most likely because a boundary is being crossed – you’re either overly reliant, too tolerant, or overreaching.

“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.”

– Brené Brown

Why Are Boundaries Important In Friendships?

Setting boundaries in friendships is important to maintain healthy relationships and ensure both parties are comfortable and respected. Without boundaries, friendships quickly become one-sided, toxic, and in some cases abusive.

Some other reasons include;

  • Mutual respect: Setting boundaries establishes a foundation of mutual respect. It encourages your friends to acknowledge and honour your autonomy – preferences, needs, feelings, and decisions – before doing anything that may affect you.
  • Healthy communication and better decisions: When friends know they need each other’s input and permission before doing certain things, they tend to talk to each other about such things, hence leading to better decisions. For example, if you live with your friend, they should at least inform you before bringing someone to pass the weekend.
  • Maintaining Individuality: Boundaries allow you and your friends to maintain your individuality and sense of self within the friendship. Just as senseless fishes sometimes go against the current, you (both) need to sometimes decide and stand on what you want rather than becoming enmeshed, or overly compliant on what the other person wants. Hence, allowing you (both) to grow independently and pursue your interests and goals. For example, you can focus on your music career while your friend focuses on their engineering career. You need not become your friend’s doppelganger.
  • Prevents Resentment: Clear boundaries can help prevent misunderstandings and conflicts in the present which in turn prevent spite and resentment in future. As we mentioned above, by protecting individuality, boundaries can ensure no one is sacrificing their dreams and ambition for friendship.
  • Emotional Balance: Boundaries help maintain emotional balance by preventing emotional manipulation, excessive demands, or intrusive behaviour from friends. It saves you from being overwhelmed by the emotions and problems of your friends. For example, you do not need to know all the details of your friend’s stressful day at work. They should be able to deal with that on their own. Except in cases where it is excessive or unusual, and they are sharing to seek your council.
  • Empowerment: Setting boundaries empowers you to assert your needs, desires, and values within the friendship without worries. Thanks to the autonomy and space boundaries provide, you can easily create a friendship that aligns with your values and supports your growth, or easily end one that does the opposite.
  • Improves friendship: When you set and enforce your boundaries by calling out friends when they violate them, you provide essential feedback that can be used to improve the friendship. A good example is when you stop paying after the 3rd meal, and they are forced to realise that it is time for them to reciprocate.

It is important to note that when people get upset about your boundaries, it is an indication that the boundaries are working. Think of it like stopping random strangers from casually walking into your kitchen. Some will adjust, and others will try to cause a scene. Whichever case, your kitchen is secure.

“You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.”

– Anna Taylor

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Types Of Boundaries In Friendships

There are different types of boundaries that can be set in friendships, depending on the needs and preferences of each person involved. Here are some common types of boundaries that can be established in friendships:

Physical boundaries: 

This involves respecting each other’s physical space. It can include things like not hugging, cuddling, or touching without permission, especially if the parts involved are private, or if they are the opposite gender. For example, I hardly initiate a hug with a female friend, unless it is to console her.

Time boundaries: 

This involves respecting each other’s time and schedules. It can include things like not constantly calling or texting throughout the day or respecting each other’s availability for social activities. For example, I don’t pick up calls once it’s past 9pm, unless I agreed with the friend beforehand.

Intellectual boundaries: 

This involves respecting each other’s ideas and opinions. It can include things like not belittling each other’s beliefs or engaging in respectful debates without becoming aggressive.

Sexual boundaries: 

This can include things like not flirting, or engaging in sexual activities with them without consent, or respecting each other’s sexual tastes or preferences. If it’s a friend with benefits, it can also involve not addressing them in a sexual manner in public, unless they agree to that.

Financial boundaries: 

This involves things like not borrowing or lending money without clear agreements or respecting each other’s financial limits. Having a healthy boundary would mean being okay with saying no to a request, as well as demanding your money when the time is due.

Trust boundaries: 

This involves respecting each other’s privacy and building trust. It can include things like not sharing confidential information without permission or avoiding behaviours that may lead to breaches of trust. For example, not revealing what you and your friend with benefits have been up to.

Social boundaries: 

This involves respecting each other’s social circles. It can include things like not inviting others to social events without permission or not insisting on going to an event you were not invited. You also don’t have to know all the other friends your friends have; you are not a stalker.

Personal boundaries: 

This involves respecting each other’s personal properties and preferences. It can include respecting each other’s personal belongings (like clothes, sanitary pads, or footwear), or not pressuring each other to engage in activities that one is not comfortable with.

Religious/spiritual boundaries: 

This involves respecting each other’s spiritual beliefs and practices. It can include things like not trying to convert each other to one’s own religion or respecting each other’s rituals and practices. For example, Christians, Muslims, and atheists can be friends without arguing incessantly about which God is the true one, or if there is even a God in the first place.

Work boundaries: 

This involves respecting each other’s work commitments and schedules. It can include things like not interrupting each other during work hours or respecting each other’s deadlines. It can also involve addressing them professionally when in the work settings, as well as following the protocol that governs their workplace.

Health boundaries: 

This involves respecting each other’s health and well-being. It can include things like not pressuring each other to engage in unhealthy behaviours or respecting each other’s medical conditions and limitations. For example, not tempting a diabetic friend to eat ice cream.

Emotional boundaries: 

This involves respecting each other’s emotions and feelings. It can include things like not using abusive words on them, or not mocking them for crying or being scared.

Cultural boundaries: 

This involves respecting each other’s cultural backgrounds and traditions. It can include things like not making derogatory comments about each other’s culture or respecting each other’s customs and practices.

Remember, boundaries can vary from person to person and friendship to friendship.  So it is important to have open and honest communication with your friends and establish boundaries that work for everyone involved.

“Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”

– Prentis Hemphill

How To Set Boundaries In Friendships   

Setting and enforcing boundaries can be challenging, especially if you are used to people-pleasing or have a fear of confrontation. However, boundaries are essential for maintaining healthy relationships and protecting your own well-being.

Below are the basic things you must do:

Define what you value and want: 

When you have a beautiful garden, you fence it, not because you hate the neighbours, but because you value the flowers. Boundaries are not walls, so the aim isn’t necessarily restricting people but rather protecting the things you value, be it your time, energy, attention, money, and so on.

“Boundaries protect the things that are of value to you. They keep you in alignment with what you have decided you want in life. That means the key to good boundaries is knowing what you want.”

–  Adelyn Birch

Define your limits: 

Your limits spring from your values and worldview. For example, if you are a Muslim, you definitely take the name of the prophets very seriously and won’t tolerate blasphemy for any reason, and, if you are a straight guy, you most likely don’t fancy posters of naked men in your room and definitely won’t love getting kissed on the lips by a guy. Though, there are also physical limits like how much time you have, and how much money you have in your account. 

It is also crucial to define at what point you’ll have to end the friendship. For example, I will stop being friends with any of my friends who steals from me or tries to rape me.

Communicate effectively:

Let your friends know what behaviour is unacceptable. For instance, tell your friend you don’t like offensive jokes or don’t like being touched inappropriately, and don’t hesitate to let them know whenever they do it that this is not acceptable.

It is crucial to let your friends know how and why their behaviour is affecting you. For example, you can let your friend know you aren’t comfortable with them bringing their other friends to your house because they trash the place, or eat all the food.

Punish and reward accordingly:

There are no boundaries if there are no consequences for breaking them. For instance, if a friend refuses to pay back a debt, you can decide to never help them out financially again, or place a very low and hard limit on how much you will spare them. It is also important that they know it is the consequence of their action.

Of course, you can always forgive a friend. But, keep in mind that if they do it more than once, it is most likely not a mistake. For example, if a friend reveals your health condition to others, it can be overlooked as a slip of the tongue, and maybe they had your interest at heart. But, if they go on to reveal your family scandals, it might be time to stop sharing secrets with them.

An unhealthy pattern does not have to continue simply because it has persisted for a long time. You don’t have to keep tolerating or doing things that frustrate you, even if you wish to remain loyal. Friendships are a two-way thing, and you matter in it. If they refuse to respect your boundaries, remember that it is okay to end the friendship. It is better to feel neutral and at peace than unhappy and miserable.

“People who violate or cross your boundaries by being cruel, insensitive, thoughtless, abusive, rude, or disrespectful should not be a part of your life. You deserve love, dignity, and respect. People who willingly and knowingly cross boundaries have mental issues that need to be dealt with.”

– Unknown

Common Mistakes People Make When Setting Boundaries:

At this point, it is obvious that you need boundaries to avoid your friendships from degenerating, or to improve your friendships. However, many people make a couple of silly mistakes when setting boundaries. They either

  • Set boundaries that are too rigid
  • Set boundaries that are too porous, or
  • Lack of proper awareness of how boundaries work.

Boundaries that are too rigid: 

When your boundaries are too strict or inflexible, it can lead to isolation or cause harm to your friendship. For example, if you are too strict with your abhorrence of profane language, you may never get to make good friends who usually have a lot of obscenity in their speech. If you insist that every woman should cover their head or face before speaking with you, you also repel a lot of good women from your circle.

As your relationships evolve, and circumstances change, it may be necessary to adjust your boundaries. For example, if you start dating a friend, you can go ahead and call them pet names, and even move to their place. 

Also, boundaries can be different in different relationships. The boundaries that you set with one friend may not be the same as those that you set with another friend, and there’s nothing wrong with that. For example, if you have a friend who works till late in the night, it might make sense to pick up their calls that come in by past 9 pm, even if you never do that for other friends.

When boundaries are set in stone, they crush our friendships.

Boundaries that are too porous: 

When your boundaries are weak or inconsistent, it can confuse your friends, or give them the notion that violating your boundaries is okay. For example, if you always wait for that friend that shows up late, allows them to use up all the milk, or constantly cancel your plans to fit into theirs, then your boundaries are weak and porous.

It is also important to note that boundaries need to be clear, and also take time and consistency to build. If you refuse your friends from wearing a shoe, but allow them to wear another, that personal boundary is not clear enough. They need to understand that you do not share your shoes. Period. (That’s assuming you have personal boundaries on shoes).

When boundaries are not clear and solid, they get overlooked.

Lack of awareness of boundaries: 

When you are not aware of your own boundaries or the boundaries of others, you may unintentionally violate their boundaries or allow them to violate yours. For example, some people do not know that playing loud music is actually rude. 

This lack of awareness of boundaries can be due to a lack of self-awareness, social skills, or understanding of what constitutes healthy boundaries. For example, a person who lacks awareness of boundaries may constantly interrupt others when they are speaking, overstay their welcome, or go through their phones or diaries without thinking twice about it.

Hence, it’s important to develop self-awareness and social skills to avoid violating others’ boundaries and to communicate effectively with others to ensure that your own boundaries are respected.

“Boundaries need to be communicated first verbally and then with actions.”

– Henry Cloud

What To Do When A Friend Violates Your Boundaries:

Boundaries can be violated intentionally or unintentionally: Sometimes, people may violate your boundaries intentionally, such as when they try to pressure you into drinking, smoking, or having sex. Other times, they may do so unintentionally, such as when they forget about a dinner plan you had made together. 

Whichever the case, whenever friends violate your boundaries, it is important to inform them, reiterate the boundary and why it is important, and then forgive. There are instances when doing this will be enough, and there would be instances when they would also state their stance on the matter, and the boundary would have to be renegotiated.

For example, if your friend cusses you out for your support of a certain political party, and you find this offensive and remind them of your intellectual boundary, your friend has the right to call for a renegotiation of that boundary. They may sit you down and inform you of the need to reevaluate your stance despite the boundary that forbids trying to convince a friend about their political stance. This whole episode may cause you to adjust the boundary from prohibition about speaking about the topic, to prohibition to speaking about the topic disrespectfully. That new boundary – of respect – is something both can work with.

Communication, tolerance, and being open-minded and willing to learn are key to setting and upholding effective and healthy boundaries.

“Walls keep everybody out. Boundaries teach them where the door is.”

– Mark Groves

Conclusion: Balance Self-care and Caring For Others.

When you set strong and healthy boundaries, one common response you might get from people who do not like the boundaries is that you are being selfish. Now, while it is true that you are putting yourself first by setting healthy boundaries, it is not the same as being selfish.

Someone who is selfish (aka toxic) will push relationship dynamics that prioritise their needs at the expense of others. That is not a boundary, but manipulation. Boundaries simply ensure that you are replete and happy in the friendship, without sucking the joy out of others.   

“Many care deeply about themselves and neglect others. Many care deeply about others and neglect themselves. Few are able to care deeply about themselves *and* others”

– Mark Manson

I enjoy writing long-form SEO content for self-help and personal development blogs. I can also do simple graphics design and copywriting. I’m an author, coach, logician, introvert, and storyteller. I love simplicity.

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