Good communication. Emotional management. Establishing realistic expectations. Many of us understand these are all important tools for setting up healthy emotional boundaries in a relationship. But we still often fail to understand our partner is a separate person from ourselves, according to relationships blogger Kris Gage.
“And I think understanding how to bridge that gap is what emotional boundaries are really about,” Gage tells NBC News BETTER.
Gage, 31, says deeply-rooted cultural attitudes about love often cause people to see romance in terms of co-dependence.
“We learned bad models from anything from like rom coms to love songs to our friends — anything really,” she says.
The writer, who lives in North Carolina, gives some helpful advice to understand when your relationship lacks good emotional boundaries, and what to do about it.
Take responsibility for your own emotions
If you and your partner constantly argue about the same thing, it’s a sign one or both of you lack good emotional boundaries, says Gage.
“I think … one of the red flags is when you have the same fight over and over and over,” she says.
People with poor emotional boundaries will often blame their partner for their feelings, which can lead to unresolved conflict, she explains. Often, when arguing, they will use phrases like “You make me feel X…” and “You make me do X …”
Gage says this is because many people don’t grasp that they are responsible for their own reactions.
“People don’t make us do things unless they’re actually coercing us, which is not happening in a relationship,” she says.
People who have good emotional boundaries take responsibility for their own emotions, she explains. In other words, they see themselves as an active, rather than passive, agent in the relationship, she says.
“When you are upset about something and you immediately go to your partner and focus on what they did — so ‘You did this and it made me [do X]’ — like you’re a passive participant, like a victim, that’s a red flag, and pretty much everything comes down to that,” Gage says.
Look at emotional boundaries like they are cookies
One way to understand emotional boundaries is to look at them the way you would a cookie — or anything you are temped by, says Gage.
“The problem isn’t understanding the value of setting up an emotional boundary — just like the problem isn’t the value of knowing that a cookie is junk food,” she explains. “The problem is that underlying motivation or that underlying discernment of when to eat the cookie.”
For example, eating a cookie because you’re stressed isn’t the same as eating it because you’re hungry, or because you just ran 5 miles and want to reward yourself.
How we engage with our partner is similar, according to Gage. It isn’t about the person — it’s about understanding what we truly want, she explains.
“And so with emotional boundaries it’s like, are you saying ‘no’ to something from a place of love, either love in yourself, or are you saying ‘no’ from a place of fear?” she asks. “So things like that. It’s much more difficult to discern emotional boundaries and understand where that line is.”
Give to yourself what you are looking for in your partner
When we stop assigning our emotions to our partner, we begin to take responsibility for how we feel, says Gage. This, in turn, leads to healthier boundaries.
“It’s really about self love,” Gage says. “If you feel that you’re constantly grasping at others for love, for compassion, for understanding, for respect, or whatever it is, if you feel a sense of flailing for it, or desperation, or a distinct strong unhappiness associated with not having this need met, it’s because you’re not meeting it for yourself. So anything that you feel that you are not getting from a partner, you first have to give to yourself.”
For example, let’s say you’re feeling lonely because your partner had an engagement. Even though they promised to spend time with you another day, you assign your feelings of loneliness onto them. This is a sign that you are not truly fulfilled within yourself, explains Gage.
“That need —the reason you’re flailing and struggling so hard to get it met from other people — is because you’re withholding it from yourself,” says Gage. “It’s never going to be met outside of you first — it has to be met inside first.”
Learn when to say “That’s not mine”
Gage says she educated herself about emotional boundaries after dating a guy who had a tendency to blame his feelings on her. But she learned a major lesson, she says, which is not to allow others to assign their emotions onto her.
“What I learned from that was when to push back on the other person, and say ‘That’s not mine,’” she explains.
She says she has learned to react differently in her current relationship.
“…I’ve noticed I will take more care in how I interact with him,” Gage says. “So if I feel that I have like either lashed out or said, ‘You make me feel…’ I will catch myself and I then I will circle back and call it out. Just say like ‘Hey, that was my emotion that I was feeling and that’s not yours to deal with,’ and then we just move on.”
MORE RELATIONSHIP ADVICE
- How one couple saved their marriage by asking this simple question
- How thoughtful communication can improve your marriage, according to a divorce attorney
- Why this marriage counselor says a "good enough marriage" is one that lasts a lifetime