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Drawing the Line: Setting Boundaries with Your Partner

Boundary-setting can be challenging in the best of times, trying to balance your needs with the needs and wants of your partner. When mental illness exists in the relationship, boundaries can become non-existent as you try to compensate for your partner.

Why is setting boundaries so hard? Common reasons include:

  • You may be uncomfortable expressing your own needs and wants.
  • You may be afraid of being seen as selfish.
  • You may be feeling guilty about setting limits because you know your partner is struggling.

The problem is, without boundaries, you are going to burn out. Virginia Morris, author of How to Care for Aging Parents, urges people caring for a loved one to get rid of the little voice in their heads that says, “I can do it all. I am responsible for everything…and whatever I do, it’s not enough.”

That little voice in your head needs to be stopped.

What can you tell yourself about the importance of setting boundaries?

  • Asking for what you need does not equal “selfish.” Your needs are as important as your partner’s. That being said, is your partner truly capable of meeting your needs right now, or is there a compromise that might work instead?
  • You don’t have to be afraid of disappointing your partner on occasion. No one is perfect, even you. There are times that you simply will not be able to do it all. Putting a boundary in place protects you from feeling as if everything is your responsibility.
  • Having boundaries helps everyone involved. Expectations are clear and there is less chance of disappointment or anger because someone didn’t do what they were “supposed to.”

Ultimately, figuring out where to draw the line with your partner will lead to greater satisfaction in your relationship. Little things, like your partner not picking their clothes up off the floor, can become so irritating that the bigger issues, such as your partner not taking their medication, get overlooked. Some tips for setting boundaries in a way that everyone still feels loved and understood:

  1. Figure out your priorities first, before talking with your partner. If you come to your partner with a laundry list of things they are doing wrong, your partner will most likely feel overwhelmed and will shut down, changing nothing at all. See your own therapist, get support from a group or online forum, or speak to a trusted friend or family member to decide what’s most pressing.
  2. Sit down with your partner during a calm and quiet time to discuss your concerns. Planning what you want to say ahead of time, and sticking to your most important concern, might help. If your partner becomes upset or defensive, just listen. It will be tempting to get into an argument, especially if your partner starts listing the ways you are upsetting them.
  3. Decide together how to handle the situation at hand. Does your partner’s treatment team need to be involved? Do you need to elicit outside support from friends and family? Is couples counseling an option? Whatever the issue, people are more likely to be willing to try to change if they are involved in the process and invested in the outcome.
  4. Remember that no one is perfect. Boundaries will be broken, especially as you and your partner get used to the new limits. Gently remind your partner of what you decided on, and try again. If it’s not working, seek outside help.

How have you successfully set boundaries with your partner? What resources did you use to support you in your efforts?

Drawing the Line: Setting Boundaries with Your Partner

Kate Thieda

Kate Thieda, MS, LPCA, NCC, is a patient advocate for Women's and Children's Services at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. She is a licensed professional counselor associate and a National Certified Counselor who specializes in cognitive-behavioral and dialectical behavior therapies. Her book, Loving Someone With Anxiety, will be published by New Harbinger in the spring of 2013.

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APA Reference
Thieda, K. (2011). Drawing the Line: Setting Boundaries with Your Partner. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Apr 2011
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