Setting Boundaries: The Key to Healthy Relationships

Have you ever had to fight for the arm rests while you sit in the middle seat on a plane? Or avoided someone at work because they’re a “hugger” and you don’t like the invasion of your personal space?

Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly encountering situations where we need to set boundaries in order to create healthy relationships — even with strangers. This concept was explored in depth during the February installment of the Now You Know series, co-sponsored by Meridian HealthCare and the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County.

The featured speaker was Meghan Fortner, Vice President of Clinical Treatment for Meridian. She pointed out that our interactions with others — with family, significant others/spouses, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, professionals, etc. — are all defined in some way by physical and emotional boundaries that are established between both parties.

Physical boundaries might involve proximity — that is, how close we stand to someone, or how/whether we touch him or her. To give an obvious example, two male friends of longstanding might well embrace when they meet after not seeing each other for a while. But if one male is introduced to another for the first time, there is a handshake and little other physical interaction.

Emotional boundaries involve how, to what extent and under which circumstances we share and express our feelings and our emotions with others. For example, if we’re sitting in that middle seat on the airplane and feel cramped with all the space the person next to us is taking up — do we realize our feelings and need for more space and are we willing to say something? Or do we just capitulate to the needs of the other person and neglect our own?

Emotional boundaries define where our feelings end and another’s begins. Whether it’s people with whom we interact regularly, or those we’ve just met, we’re most comfortable when sensible and appropriate boundaries are established and respected.

According to Meghan Fortner, when it comes to establishing healthy boundaries for people with whom we interact regularly, it’s important to be able to identify, respect and effectively communicate our needs, feelings, opinions and rights to others. The most effective boundaries are firm, yet flexible. Important qualities include empathy for others, a willingness to negotiate or compromise, and respect for others’ boundaries.

If the boundaries you’ve established for yourself are too rigid, you will appear distant and aloof from others, unwilling to get physically or emotionally close to them. Those with rigid boundaries often take self-sufficiency to an extreme — refusing to ask others for help of any kind, even those who are very willing to give it.

By contrast, those whose boundaries are too loose sometimes don’t know how to say no. This can range from allowing more people into their lives than they should — even those whose impact is overwhelmingly negative — to getting too close too quickly, to the point of inappropriate touching and even promiscuity.

The best way to set healthy boundaries with others is to be calm, clear, respectful and firm. You don’t have to apologize for or justify what you’re doing. Give yourself permission to be selfish — you don’t need to sacrifice your own comfort and well-being for the sake of not hurting another’s feelings.

In the end, you want healthy relationships with people who respect your boundaries, while eliminating toxic people and relationships from your life.

For more information on setting boundaries, visit