- Even long-term couples need to think about their relationship boundaries.
- People are dynamic, which means that the lines they draw can shift.
- Long-term couples may redefine their boundaries as a result of life transitions, personal growth, or whether they value more independence or interdependence.
- To ensure healthy relationship boundaries and mutual respect, couples need to keep revisiting what feels right and wrong.
Most guides to defining healthy relationship boundaries focus on new couples. How do you set your personal rules of engagement from the beginning so both partners feel safe and respected? But people in long-term relationships know that love is dynamic. Humans continually grow and change both as individuals and as romantic partners. It’s only natural that significant others will need to revisit their personal boundaries as the months or years or decades go by. The boundaries that you made — or failed to make — in the first days of your relationship won’t always endure the test of time.
Fortunately, people always have the freedom to reevaluate what feels right and wrong. Here are a few examples of how personal boundaries might evolve in long-term romantic relationships.
#1 You Become More Independent or More Interdependent
American culture tends to prize individuality and independence. But we’re also social beings who need each other. Our stories are often co-written by our communities and the people we love. These dueling needs for both independence and interdependence tend to shift throughout our lifetimes. For example, a spouse who prides himself on his newlywed self-sufficiency might start relaxing his boundaries a few years into his marriage. He may become more comfortable asking for help when he needs it. In contrast, someone might begin their relationship with codependent tendencies, and only later embrace a separate identity and some healthy selfishness.
Other examples in this category include the following:
Financial boundaries. You each have your own bank accounts at the beginning of a relationship, but a few years in it feels safe to merge your finances.
Communication boundaries. You start your relationship with clearcut limits on texts and phone calls during the workday, but that guidance changes as time goes on and your lives become more interconnected.
Physical boundaries. When you first started dating, you never kept the door open while you were in the bathroom, but now you’re comfortable having full conversations with your spouse from the toilet. Or you go in the opposite direction and realize that you now need to carve out your own space amidst all the shared space.
#2 You Experience a Major Life Transition
Relationship boundaries might need to shift after a major – or even a minor – life transition. For example, you might start feeling “touched out” after becoming a parent, especially if you’re a breastfeeding mom. It’s okay to say to your spouse, “I still want to cuddle with you on the couch after the baby goes to bed, but first my body needs some alone-time.” You may also decide that you now prefer the bathroom door closed because that’s the only moment you have any privacy due to the rampaging children.
In addition to the boundary shifting that might take place after becoming parents, here are additional examples of times when you may need to rethink respect:
Bereavement boundaries. People coping with grief and loss may need to shift their personal boundaries in the short- or long-term. They may ask for fewer encroachments on their time and energy. They may request that they be the one to bring up their loved one with their spouse, because they’re not yet ready to talk about their pain.
Work boundaries. Someone in a long-term relationship might start a new job or career which is more taxing than what they did previously. This might entail changing some boundaries around daily communication, expectations for time together, and the like.
External boundaries. Internal boundaries apply to your connection to your partner. External boundaries apply to a couple’s connection to the outside world. According to Emily Simonian, a Licensed and Marriage Family Therapist and Head of Learning at Thriveworks, these latter boundaries “keep a degree of separation from others that are outside of your relationship.” So if a couple has kids, they may need to establish whether or not the children can sleep in their bed. Or if a mother-in-law moves into the spare bedroom, a couple may need to talk about how much involvement she will have in their daily lives.
#3 You Mature
Even if you reached physical maturation many years ago, it usually requires a lifetime to become who you are. The human brain can always change, and this neuroplasticity means that we learn as we go. For example, we might become more self-aware. We might become more in tune with our emotions. We might discover what makes us happy – or what reliably makes us anxious. All of that self-growth can take place within a long-term relationship, but the relationship will need to evolve as well in order to stay healthy.
Other examples of how personal change can influence boundaries include the following:
Emotional boundaries. You’ve been conflict-avoidant throughout your relationship, but after a few sessions of therapy, you learn to assert your feelings and ask your partner for what you need. Or you finally identify certain trigger words that your spouse uses during arguments, and you ask him not to use them anymore. Or you learn to separate your own feelings from your partner’s feelings, breaking free of a codependent pattern. Emotional growth often causes people to reevaluate how they want to be treated.
Sexual boundaries. Your sexual needs might change through the course of a romantic relationship. For example, you might want to explore things in bed that you used to say no to, or vice versa. As you age you might become more in touch with your body and its pleasure.
Digital boundaries. Even though you often sexted at the beginning of your relationship, you might become uncomfortable sending nude photos to your partner. Or you might decide that your relationship is too online and you’d like your spouse to stop posting your pictures on Facebook. You may decide that your relationship has matured to the point that you don’t want or need social media validation.
Intellectual boundaries. Your thoughts and opinions will probably change between your first date and your 10th wedding anniversary. If you and your partner start vehemently disagreeing about something, you may need to assert a new boundary that reinforces mutual respect. For example, “We can talk about politics, but if you raise your voice I will leave the room.”
The Importance of Mutual Boundaries in Relationships
Relationship boundaries are often a dynamic, imperfect back and forth. Having too many boundaries can feel like dominance or control. Not having enough boundaries can lead to negative feelings like resentment and frustration. In long-term relationships, couples can benefit from frequent check-ins to make sure that both partners are still feeling secure and respected. This might sound like, “Are you still okay with this?” or “This is hard for me to say, but ___ is no longer working for me. I’d like to talk it through together.”
If you hit a lot of roadblocks or resistance to change, then it may be worth getting into a room with an unbiased, insightful third party. A couples counselor or marriage therapist can help you safely explore your boundary issues in more depth, and make sure that lines are being drawn in healthy ways.