Boundaries are often considered in romantic and sexual contexts, but they’re critical to every relationship — especially friendships. Because we all have many different types of friends — our best friends, friends from home, friends with similar academic interests, friends we travel with — our relationships among friends become very different. We don’t interact with each friend the same way because we expect something different from each relationship. What behavior and actions we want (or don’t want) in each friendship constitutes our friendship boundaries.
What are friendship boundaries?
Like boundaries in any relationship, friendship boundaries often deal with the emotional and the physical. There are some universal boundaries, like no physically abusive behavior and no using a friend for pure personal gain. While these boundaries may seem like common sense, if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable in your friendship, it’s important to reiterate these boundaries, even if you feel like they’re obvious.
Boundaries beyond universal move into personal preference. Consider communication: how often do you want to talk to your friends when they’re not around you, and how much do you want to share with them? It’s okay to want to keep information to yourself or to want to share everything that’s ever happened. Once you become familiar with your own preferences about things like communication, physicality and emotional wellbeing, you can start to put these boundaries into practice.
Boundaries can fall into two categories: wants and non-negotiables. A “want” boundary is something you’d prefer in a relationship. While they’re your own desires, they’re flexible and you can be in a healthy relationship without them being completely and fully met. "Non-negotiable" boundaries, however, must be met in order to have a fulfilling and healthy relationship. These are items that have to do with your physical and emotional safety, and they cannot be changed or violated in any way.
Why are friendship boundaries important?
Setting friendship boundaries is a way to protect yourself from emotional and physical behavior you aren’t comfortable with. They create relationships that avoid discomfort and any harm to personal safety.
Yet boundaries can also work in the positive. They help you make the most of your friendships, whether it’s with a life-long best friend or a coworker who you’ve become friendly with. Letting your friends know your boundaries helps them understand how to best connect and communicate with you. They know how much you’d like to communicate, how to best spend time with you and what you’re comfortable discussing and doing with them. They can interact with you better and give you the space (or no space!) that you prefer. Boundaries are therefore a way to demonstrate your specific needs, and setting them allows others to help meet them.
How do you set boundaries with friends?
1. Consider your own boundaries.
To understand what kind of boundaries you want to set, consider your optimal friendship. How much do you want to communicate with your friends when you’re not with them? How often do you want to see them, schedules permitted? When you spend time with them, how do you expect the time will go? All of these questions can help you decide what kind of friendship you want, and what boundaries you need in order to make your dreams realized.
2. Make your boundaries known.
While a conversation might be the most effective way to let your friend know your boundaries, make sure the discussion is open and constructive. You don’t need to list your every want and desire, but rather collaborate with your friend about how you hope the relationship can proceed. While you want your boundaries to be heard, make sure to listen as much as you speak. Understanding how your boundaries affect your friend is just as important.
Once you’ve agreed on boundaries, you can start to set your boundaries a little more clearly. There’s no need to nag a friend who’s getting used to a slight change in your relationship. If you’ve asked for a boundary for less online communication, take your time responding to your friend’s messages instead of feeling burdened to answer immediately. By treating situations as you’d hope your boundaries would make them, you can start to set and actualize them.
4. Enforce your boundaries.
If you’ve been more subtle about setting your boundaries, a friend may not pick up when they’ve crossed a line. Instead of getting angry, use your frustration to kindly ask what you’d like instead. Offer solutions that give you control and stay within the limits of your boundaries. If you’d like someone to call you less during the day, ask them if you can initiate calls when you’re ready and excited to talk. If you don’t want someone to pay you a surprise visit, ask them if they can shoot you a message before they’re at your door.
5. Understand compromise.
Everyone has different expectations for their friendships, which means their boundaries might not always line up with the person they’re friends with. One friend might want to share everything and anything about their personal life, but the other may want to keep to themselves. Sometimes, there are boundaries that can’t be crossed. If a friend is unable to respect them, it may be time to reconsider the friendship.
This is why it’s important for both friends to communicate their boundaries and respect one another’s needs. Just because there’s disagreement doesn’t mean the friendship can’t be healthy or sustainable. There may be a compromise that works for both friends’ boundaries — one that can be found through healthy communication and checking in.
Friendship boundaries allow you and your friend to be safe in your relationship, protecting each individual from actions and behavior that might be uncomfortable or even abusive. Beyond basic safety, these boundaries can also promote your comfort and happiness within your friendship. When you make your boundaries known, set them and enforce them, you optimize how you interact with your friends. The boundaries ensure that you can be your authentic self at all times, whether on your own or with the best of friends.
Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoëkaplan.com.