7 Small Relationship Boundaries The Most Successful Couples Set

Be mindful of every impact on your relationship.

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Have you set personal and emotional boundaries to protect yourself from being manipulated or violated by others? Or have you been used or hurt because you didn't have appropriate boundaries? What is the link between knowing how to have a healthy relationship and setting boundaries?

Do you know how to set healthy boundaries in a marriage or a relationship? Has your concern for self-protection been prioritized over that of your relationship? Are you afraid of being co-dependent? Boundaries define the structure of healthy attachment. And a healthy attachment is the glue that binds relationships together. Having boundaries is one of the signs of a healthy relationship.


How can you increase security and decrease threats to your primary love relationship by making it primary?

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Here are 7 small boundaries every successful couple sets:

1. They put their primary partner first

For your primary relationship with your partner to be primary, your extended family and children will be in the second position. Yes, this is difficult for some people to comprehend. You may have a deeper bond with your children than with your partner. Many people do. And don’t get me wrong. It is essential to love, protect, and bond with your children. Your extended family is also vital. But your attention to them cannot replace your attention to your partner.


Your primary relationship with your partner demands your primary love and attention. Your children know this. When parents don't get along, children grow insecure. Their attachment needs demand both of you be accessible, available, and responsive to them. And that you are securely attached as a couple and their parents. If your relationship with your partner breaks down, your children will suffer. They will become less emotionally secure and have difficulty trusting their relationship with you. And their relationships with others.

Who's on first? Your parents, siblings, and close friends may try to become the first place in your life. However, your relationship with them will become less healthy if you allow this to happen. I tell my clients their family and friends are friends of their relationship. People who love you understand your primary love relationship. They know a healthy love relationship creates a healthy you.

Avoid the trap of prioritizing any relationship over the relationship you have with your partner. When the two of you are secure and connected, you will be the best parent, family member, and friend. And you will be a great model for others.

2. They guard the primary relationship from outside interference.

Guard your heart! Do not allow any relationship to put your primary relationship in an emotional second place. How about the kiddos? Be careful to present a united front with your kids and to work out disagreements behind closed doors. That means not allowing your kids to manipulate you by going to your spouse. It sounds ridiculous a child could have power over you, right? But they do. You need to be present to give emotionally to your children even when they have little to give emotionally to you. However, providing emotional support to them should never take away from the emotional connection with your partner.


Parents and siblings

Your parents and sibs lost their primary claim on your time when you got married. You cannot continue to relate to them the way you did before you got married. Your partner will feel betrayed if you spend more time supporting your parents and extended family than you do your marital relationship.


Friends can also be forever. But how you relate must change. Emotional affairs happen when you begin to share your heart with friends. This can happen innocently with coworkers. Enough intimate sharing will result in feeling more emotionally connected to a special friend than you do with your spouse. This is dangerous! It can lead to a surge of new love emotions that will threaten the stability of your lifetime love relationship. Few people who commit in front of friends and family to be faithful to each other for life believe they are capable of having an affair.


Anyone can have an affair of the heart. It can be with nearly anyone we unwisely show too much vulnerability. Friendships can place unhealthy demands on your loyalty to your primary partner. So, be mindful of how you spend time with others.

3. They bolster fitness and fun together.

Gyms are breeding grounds for affairs. The commitment to staying fit requires hours working out every week. Group-based exercises can create boundary violations. I recommend couples work out together. If you don't work out together, you need to be careful not to develop unhealthy attachments to others. Again, relationships that might threaten your marriage are often those least suspected.

Keep recreation that takes hours away from the marriage in check. Golf, cycling, and fishing are time-consuming activities. If you do them together, great. Have a blast! However, most people do them solo or with someone other than their partner.

Couples dealing with athletic mismatches can find recreating together challenging. As a result, many couples go cycling together and end up riding with distance between them and rarely talk for the day. Consider doing sports like tandem kayaking and tandem cycling. There is nothing like these activities to build teamwork and togetherness. Go for hikes together, scuba dive, and snorkel together. Playing doubles pickleball or tennis is a great way to connect with your partner and others.


It takes thought to recreate in a way that connects your love relationship rather than connecting you with others or creating more time apart. Primary love relationships require a lot of time to grow and mature. Boundaries are set so outside activities do not consume the time needed to keep your love relationship healthy.



4. They ensure equal career acceleration.

Take turns with career acceleration. Today's culture allows for both partners in relationships to have fulfilling careers. While this can be a good thing, it is crucial to be wise about how much time it will take to make it work. Many couples with promising dual careers find themselves in couples therapy on the brink of divorce because they are not realistic about the time demands of dual careers. This is especially true when you throw kids into the equation.

Consider taking turns with career acceleration. One of you may need to climb the career ladder while the other works part-time while taking the lead with the children. Kids and careers take time. If the marriage is not given the time it requires, it will crumble, and everything else will fall like a house of cards. Devoting time to your marriage creates core strength to empower you to live your life well.


5. They protect the vital stuff in relationships.

Time is the one thing you can’t manipulate. It is fixed and finite. And how you use it will define the quality of your relationships. Setting boundaries protects your time together so you stay together. Take time for catching up, intimate sharing, going out together, and physicality.

Doing life together requires a lot of catching up. And there are many moving parts you'll need to keep in sync. Staying in sync will protect you from drifting into parallel lives. This takes real-time communication. Who is doing what, when and where? The complexity is multiplied with kids and challenging dual careers. Intimate sharing does not need to be saved for candlelight events. If this is your mindset, it probably won’t happen.

The over-used but helpful definition for intimacy “into me, see” defines the openness that mature loving couples learn to live in. Show your partner appreciation while they scurry around the kitchen getting ready for the day. Send your lover a mid-day text saying looking forward to seeing your face tonight. True intimacy is being in tune or attunement with your partner's mood rhythms.

Do you know when to say or text an encouraging word at the right time? Can you help your partner get out of an emotional funk with some reassurance that they are loved and desired? That's connection or attunement. How else do you connect?


couple laughing outside taking a selfie

Photo: AlessandroBiascioli via Shutterstock

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6. They buffer against addictive behaviors.

Most of us struggle with some addictive behavior at some time in our lives. But when we talk about addictions, the first things we think of are drugs and alcohol. There are many other addictions. Addictions are a way of creating an artificial, non-sustainable mood state. They are often a way to cover emotional pain and loneliness.


When you go to your favorite addiction to feel better, you rob your partner of the opportunity to give you the love and support that will help you feel better. Addictions always cause relationship disconnection and isolation. There are many ways to set boundaries to keep you from developing addictive behaviors.

I tell clients nothing good happens after the second drink. So, set a boundary regarding how much alcohol you will drink in a day. And stay away from pornography. It lights up the brain like a Christmas tree and can lead you into a cycle of craving. Set a boundary regarding how much you will gamble in a particular month. Gambling is highly addictive, not to mention expensive. It's often done in secret and can cause relationship problems.

You can also become addicted to work. If you are finding that you are never working enough hours or making enough money, you may be addicted. Are you a workaholic? Is your performance at work your way of feeling better about yourself? Your work will never fill your need to be validated by your partner. It is good to excel at what you do. It is not good to become obsessed with working and earning more. Set boundaries regarding how much you work.

7. They control their digital media consumption.

Digital media consumption can become an addiction. How much time do you spend with your electronics? Do you scroll your social media while you're out to dinner? Or do you look at your phone or the TV when your partner talks to you?


The digital world is likely intricately woven into your life. It is critical to set boundaries with it. Agree that neither of you will be on your phone during meals. Turn off the TV and put down your phone when your partner tries to talk to you. Even driving while your partner devours digital media can feel isolating. So when together, talk more and do digital less. Try to do recreational activities and blackout digital use. Communicate to each other how the relationship takes precedence over all outside interruptions.



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What are the foundations for a healthy attachment?

Emotional connection is the vital ingredient for secure attachment. And an emotional connection is created through a process of having transparent, compassionate, loving conversations. Couples who get into negative cycles of conflict have difficulty with these emotionally connecting conversations.


Dr. Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy was created to help couples escape the cycle of arguments and create secure attachment bonds by having emotionally connected conversations. (There is a wealth of information about how couples can do this in our book Emotional Connection, Dr. Johnson's book Hold Me Tight, as well as books by Stan Tatkin.)

Many couples who show up in my office in relationship crisis have no idea how their boundary problems have led them down a slippery slope that threatens to end their relationship.; Making your primary relationship primary is the most significant overarching boundary you can set.

Attachment science teaches us people, like all mammals, are wired to pair bonds. This means we have an inborn instinct to make one other person our most trusted go-to person to meet our most intimate needs. It's in your wiring! When your primary relationship is lost or threatened due to relationship problems, you will experience profound fear and anxiety. Your brain will throw you into very primitive fight-or-flight emotions. This is because your primary relationship is crucial to your health and well-being on so many levels. Any threat to this primary relationship will compromise your immune system and create a greater risk for cardiovascular disease.


Your risk of anxiety and depression will increase, and your pain tolerance will decrease. It can be traumatizing and give you Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Making your primary relationship primary means putting it first.

This is a big deal. But it doesn't come easily for everyone, even though this is crucial for a healthy relationship. Many people don't grow up in homes where this is modeled. And our culture often gives us mixed messages about the importance of primary relationships.

There is a strong link between healthy relationships and setting boundaries. All pair-bonded healthy relationships require setting clean and clear boundaries. All of us will become jealous and insecure if our partner is sloppy or inappropriate with boundaries that affect the relationship.


How are the boundaries in your relationship? Do they communicate that you love your partner? And that you are committed to protecting that love? The ways to set boundaries for healthy relationships listed above are not all-inclusive. How you and your partner set boundaries for your relationship will ultimately depend on what works for your relationship.

Let me challenge you to make time and have a conversation. Begin with the seven tips above and check for holes in your safety net. But don't stop there. Make it a part of your life to be mindful of everyone and everything that impacts your most valuable asset — your relationship. Keep. It. Safe.

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Dr. Michael Regier is a clinical psychologist, marriage counselor, and executive coach with over 30 years of experience working to help couples repair unhappy marriages and create forever love. He and his wife Paula are authors of the book 'Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love.'