“I have needy friends who expect a lot from me, and sometimes it’s draining. How do I set boundaries with my friends, and what if I have friends who don’t respect boundaries?”
Boundaries help to establish the ‘line’ between what is OK and not OK to do, say, or expect from someone. Without boundaries, relationships can become unhealthy and imbalanced. People who have a hard time setting boundaries with their friends often feel taken advantage of and like their friendships aren’t reciprocal. Overstepping boundaries in friendship tends to happen less when boundaries are clear and consistent, so setting boundaries is often the first step in addressing this problem.
This article will provide steps and strategies on how to set healthy boundaries with friends.
Boundaries are the ‘rules’ of a relationship that guide the way that two people interact, including things that are expected, OK, and not OK to say or do. Similar to the way a society needs laws and rules to safeguard individual freedoms, rights, and safety, a relationship needs boundaries to ensure that two people have their feelings and needs respected in a friendship.
You may have different boundaries in male-female friendships than with same-sex friends or with people who you have dated versus with platonic friends. Boundaries tend to be stricter in work settings than they are with family, friends, or significant others. While trust and closeness cause boundaries to loosen and shift, some boundaries need to remain in place in order to keep a relationship healthy.
- Things that are acceptable/unacceptable to say or talk about with someone
- Phone and texting boundaries including when and how often you communicate
- Sexual boundaries including if/when/how it is OK to touch someone
- Physical space boundaries including how close it is OK to stand to someone
- Emotional boundaries including how vulnerable you are with someone
- Material boundaries including what items belong to who, what is shared/not shared
- Time boundaries including how long you spend doing things with or for someone
- What things are OK to do with/for someone, including favors you do or are asked to do
- Privacy boundaries and how much you choose to share or disclose with someone
- Intellectual boundaries including the right to have a different opinion
- Workplace boundaries which include internal rules and policies as well as norms
Some people have a really hard time setting clear, firm, and consistent boundaries with others, especially with those closest to them. Below are some steps to help you evaluate some of your boundaries, as well as tips on how to establish stronger boundaries with friends.
Your earliest lessons about relationships come from the things you experienced, witnessed, and were taught by members of your family. If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you may have developed codependent patterns and learned to put the feelings and needs of others before your own. This pattern can continue into adulthood, causing people to repeatedly get stuck in one-sided relationships.
To understand your relationship patterns and where they come from, consider the following questions:
- When is it hardest for me to say no, stand up for myself, or ask for what I need?
- How old is this pattern of behavior? Why did I develop it? How is it holding me back?
- What am I afraid will happen if I stop this pattern now?
Taking inventory of your most important relationships can help you identify which ones are unhealthy and what boundaries you may need to establish with certain friends. If you realize a relationship is unhealthy, consider working to improve your boundary-setting skills.
Healthy relationships are ones where you are able to:
- Openly express your thoughts and feelings, even when you disagree
- Address conflicts and problems in the relationship openly and respectfully
- Spend time apart from one another and have other relationships
- Find compromises to meet both people’s needs and preferences
- Make decisions on your own without the other person’s approval or input
- Set hard limits about what is acceptable and unacceptable and hold people accountable when they cross these lines
It’s important for friends to maintain their individuality and not feel like they need to always agree, be on the same page, or do everything together. It’s healthy for friends to spend time apart, have separate interests and hobbies, and not feel the need to be involved in every aspect of each other’s lives. In a healthy friendship, differences, personal space, and privacy are not a threat to the relationship.
Open communication is one of the most important aspects of setting and maintaining healthy boundaries with friends and can also help to prevent misunderstandings and conflicts.
One of the best ways to clearly communicate your feelings, wants, and needs to friends is to use an I-statement.
I-statements are especially helpful when you need to address an issue or problem with a friend but don’t want to attack them or hurt their feelings. Here are some examples of I-statements:
- “It would mean a lot to me if you came to the show this weekend.”
- “I was sad that you didn’t come out last week. Can we hang out soon?”
- “I was a little upset when you didn’t show up. I would really like it if you could let me know next time so I’m not expecting you.”
One of the most important functions of boundaries is that they help you protect your priorities instead of letting the priorities of others come first. While you might feel an urge to drop everything for a friend in need, you always want to consider your own priorities first.
- Check your schedule and to-do list before agreeing to plans with friends
- Don’t commit to helping a friend unless you know the time and energy it will involve
- Notice signs of stress, burnout, and fatigue, and take time to relax when you need to
- Don’t agree to do something for a friend that would put you in a bad position
You cannot have healthy boundaries or relationships with people you don’t feel able to say no to. Saying no does not have to be a huge deal, a letdown, or a betrayal. In fact, a good friend will often be completely understanding when you say no.
Here are some ways to say no to friends without damaging your friendship:
- Respond in a timely way (instead of procrastinating or not responding)
- Apologize for not being able to help and explain why
- State you wish you could do more
- Suggest an alternative way to help
- Encourage them to ask you for help in the future
For more tips on how to say “no,” check out our article on what to do if you’re being treated like a doormat.
Another important part of setting boundaries with friends is to be able to deal with issues and misunderstandings before they build up and become bigger conflicts in the relationship. While you might worry that any disagreement or conflict will end your friendship, the truth is that healthy conflicts can actually strengthen friendships.
The key to talking about issues or problems you have with a friend is to do it early, when the issue is still small, and to approach the issue in the right way. Some tips for talking about issues and complaints with a friend are:
- Express how their behavior made you feel rather than attacking their character
- Don’t make assumptions about what their intentions were
- Listen to their side of the story with an open mind
- Own your part, too, and apologize if needed
- Make it clear that you still care about them and value their friendship
- Don’t bring up the past, other issues, and don’t involve other people
- Be willing to accept their apology and move on
Good boundaries are clear, consistent, and are demonstrated through both your words and actions. When boundaries are unclear or not consistent, it can send mixed messages to friends about what you expect or need from them.
Here are some ways to be clear and consistent with boundaries:
- Show appreciation when friends treat you the way you want to be treated
- Treat your friends the way you want them to treat you
- Confront friends who overstep boundaries by using an I-statement
- Ask for what you need and give friends a chance to help you
- Address issues or problems directly instead of shutting down or lashing out
When boundaries are violated, one person usually ends up feeling offended, hurt, or even betrayed. When this is part of a larger pattern in a relationship, it may be a sign that you need to re-evaluate and sometimes even end the friendship. This is especially true if you have a friend who is acting in ways that are toxic or abusive towards you, you’ve addressed the issue, and the behavior has continued.
- They criticize you, belittle you, or embarrass you in front of others
- They are overly controlling of your life, behavior, choices, or relationships
- They manipulate you, guilt you, or twist things around to blame you
- They are hot and cold, unpredictable, or give you the silent treatment to punish you
- They hold you accountable for their choices, emotions, or reactions
- They share your secrets or use personal information against you
- They talk badly about you to other people or try to sabotage you
Boundaries keep relationships balanced and healthy and help friends know what is OK and not OK to do or say. Good boundaries are clear, consistent, and respect the feelings and needs of both people in a friendship. Open, clear communication with friends is essential for boundary setting, especially during times when there are issues or conflicts. It’s sometimes necessary to distance yourself from friends who are always overstepping boundaries, especially when you’ve made an effort to address these issues and set better boundaries with them.
All relationships, including friendships, need boundaries to be healthy. The particular boundaries you have with friends will depend on a number of factors, including how close you are, how long you’ve known each other, and the things you both expect, want, and need from the friendship.
Boundaries help keep friendships balanced, healthy, and reciprocal. Boundaries are important to make relationships equal, helping both people get their relationship needs met while also maintaining a sense of independence.
Examples of emotional boundaries include not taking on the emotional burdens, stress, and problems of someone else. While it’s good to be supportive of others, it’s important to understand that each person needs to be responsible for their own emotional stability and happiness.
Creating boundaries with friends can be as easy as having an open conversation about what you each want and expect from the other, saying no to requests that make you uncomfortable, and being open when you feel hurt, offended, or taken advantage of by a friend.
Respecting someone’s boundaries means being mindful and attentive of their feelings, wants, and needs, and working to change your behavior when you’ve said or done something to hurt them.
Unhealthy boundaries are boundaries that are unclear, inconsistent, or non-existent. Examples include pretending to be OK with something that makes you uncomfortable, ignoring when others are uncomfortable, or acting in ways that are disrespectful of others.
Many people struggle to set healthy boundaries, often because they are afraid of upsetting people, starting a conflict, or letting people down. Guilt, fear of hurting or disappointing people, and fear of abandonment often are at the core of boundary issues.