Relationship Tips

How To Set Healthy Boundaries With Friends To Preserve Your Mental and Emotional Well-Being

Erin Bunch

Photo: Getty Images
Boundaries are not just a critical component of self care—they’re also the cornerstone of any healthy relationship, including those you have with even your closest of friends. Often, boundaries are built into a friendship at its foundation, but sometimes, new boundaries are required as the relationship progresses over time. This is when things get tricky, because it typically means that one friend is asking another to change something about their established dynamic. That’s not an easy thing to do, but it can be critical for preserving the emotional well-being of one or both parties.

Since more people are struggling with mental health issues right now than ever before, there may presently be an increased need for boundary setting as a psychological  survival mechanism. If you’re currently experiencing issues with a friendship, the problem may be a lack of communication around your needs, whether they’re new to 2021 or just no longer possible to ignore. Before you jump to cutting problematic individuals out of your life, testing out new boundaries may work to mend what ails. “Having boundaries in a friendship is not just about saying ‘no’,” says licensed therapist Cori Hill, MS, NCC, LPC, LMFT. “It’s about managing walls, but also managing doors and windows—essentially navigating the space between you and another person.”

Below, Hill and other experts unpack the when, why, and how of setting boundaries with your friends to keep yourself sane.

Common reasons for boundary setting with friends

1. You are overwhelmed and underwater 

In *normal* (read: non-pandemic) times, you might have one or two friends in need of support at any given moment. These days, however, it can feel more like everyone you know is in need of help—all while you’re likely struggling, too. This can be tricky to navigate, as you don’t want to tell a dear friend you can’t deal with them right now, even if you have very good reasons for feeling as though you can’t. But sometimes you truly do not have the bandwidth to take on someone else’s struggles, in which case you have no choice but to prioritize your own needs first.

“It’s really important to remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup, and especially given all that is going on nationally and globally right now, a lot of us are very pretty drained,” says Hill. “You can say, ‘I really want to be here to support you right now, but I just don’t have the bandwidth to show up for you in the way that you deserve’. That might lead to a conversation about a support group, or a therapist, or other coping strategies beyond just one-to-one interactions that require a lot of emotional energy.” 

In this case, you can caveat to your friend that this is a temporary boundary required by the extraordinary circumstances of the times rather than a permanent shift—you aren’t planning, in other words, to forever refer them to therapy rather than lending your ear.

2. Your availability has changed 

Even when the world isn’t in utter chaos, sometimes a friend can ask more of you than what you’re able to give or have been able to give in the past, says Dr. Franco. For example, if you’re at a certain life stage wherein other demands are exhausting your bandwidth—e.g. kids—you might not be able to devote the same amount of time or resources to your friend as you did in your pre-motherhood life.

3. The relationship is too one-sided 

It’s common, say both Hill and Marisa Franco, PhD, a psychologist and friendship expert, for friendships to require new boundaries when they’re out of balance. “When one person is giving so much more than the other person, there can be a desire to set a boundary so that one person doesn’t feel like they’re under-benefiting in the friendship,” says Dr. Franco. The goal of such a boundary, says Hill, would be to ensure a mutually-beneficial relationship.

4. You don’t feel safe to share 

“Boundaries around trust are probably the most foundational to a friendship,” says Hill. “You have to be able to trust that you can be vulnerable and that what you share with your friend is not going to go further than the ears you intended to hear it.” Often, friendships are predicated on this innate trust; however, if the trust has been broken, it may be necessary to establish boundaries around what you are willing to share moving forward, or what your expectations are around sharing confidences in the future.

4. You find their politics difficult to stomach 

This is a tricky one; given the current climate, some people are opting out of friendships with people who hold certain political perspectives, full stop. If you feel you want to keep the friendship, however, but find it difficult to do so peaceably when politics come up in conversation, Franco says you may want to set a boundary around those discussions—as in, ask for certain topics to be off limits.

Alternatively, you may want to set boundaries around interactions with your friend that are contingent upon them compromising. For example, if someone you’re friends with doesn’t believe masks help protect from the COVID-19 virus, you might want to set a boundary stipulating that if they want to see you, they wear a mask.

5. You don’t appreciate their teasing 

Sometimes friendships can be so close that one party loses sight of the other party’s sensitivities. This may force you to set boundaries around teasing or jokes at your expense, says Dr. Franco.

6. You have different communication styles 

Not everyone feels comfortable communicating in the same manner when they’re not in a shared space. Some people prefer texting, while others may be more comfortable with calls, for example. Whichever camp you’re in, it might make sense to set a boundary if you find yourself stressed by the type of communication you’re being consistently asked to engage in.

7. You feel like you’re always on call 

You might also need to set a boundary around how available you are by text or phone. If you feel that someone has an expectation that you’ll always pick up or respond immediately, it might make sense to overtly reset that expectation.

How to set boundaries with a friend

1. Open a dialogue

Rather than immediately jumping to acting on a new boundary—for example, ceasing to return texts because they overwhelm you—Dr. Franco recommends opening a dialogue with your friend about the relationship dynamic. She suggests explaining to your friend what it is that’s bothering you and how you would want it to change, and then asking the friend for their thoughts. “Talk about the dynamic before acting out a boundary on behalf of the dynamic,” she says.

2. Be explicit

“To set solid boundaries, you have to be able to explain what the problem is,” says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. “’I need you to stop acting like everything is about you’ doesn’t give them anyplace to go with it. ‘I need you to listen to me more often instead of doing all the talking’ gives them something to work with.”

3. Nip the problematic behavior in the bud as early as possible 

“Start setting boundaries when you first notice a problem instead of waiting until you’re ready to explode,” Daramus suggests. “It’s scary, but it’s not as bad as repairing things after a huge argument.” 

4. Use “I” statements 

Instead of focusing on your friend’s problematic behavior, Dr. Franco instead recommends centering the conversation around how it makes you feel. “Instead of, ‘You’re being overwhelming or aggressive,’ try, ‘I’m feeling uncomfortable’ or ‘I’m feeling nervous about expressing myself in this relationship,” she says. “It’s really about understanding your internal world and sharing it with them so they can better meet your needs rather than telling them about themselves or trying to diagnose them.” Hill adds that you want to make it clear that the boundary isn’t a punishment; instead, it’s about you trying to get a need met.

5. Emphasize the value of your friendship

No matter how you frame it, boundary setting can still feel hurtful, especially when the friendship has had a long run. To soften the blow, Hill recommends emphasizing how important the relationship is to you, and that you’re having this boundaries conversation specifically because of how much you value the friendship. If you didn’t care, after all, you might prefer to walk away rather than engage in difficult conversations.

5. Offer alternatives 

You may also be able to sweeten the new deal by offering an alternative to whatever you were offering the friendship before that you no longer feel you can give to it. For example, Dr. Franco says that if your new boundary is not immediately responding to messages, you can suggest replacing that behavior with a standing phone date. “That way, you’re offering an alternative that might still meet their needs,” she says.

6.  Consider a compromise

Sometimes, you may need to meet your friend in the middle, as they could have a boundary that is in direct opposition to yours. For example, if you prefer phone communication and they prefer text, you may have to work out a solution that’s comfortable for both of you. Or if the boundary you’re trying to set with your roommate is that they must do the dishes if they want to continue living with you but they hate doing dishes, you could potentially trade chores with them so they’re doing all the laundry while you handle the sink situation, says Daramus.

7. Be assertive 

While you want to be kind, and ensure the focus is on your feelings and not blaming the other person, you also want to make sure they know you’re serious about the boundaries you’re trying to set, says Hill. “If you’re minimizing your need for the boundary, you’re setting a weak boundary which means you’re probably going to spend more time reinforcing it, or you’re going to end up frustrated that it’s not being honored,” she explains.

What to do if the friend doesn’t respect your requested boundaries

1. Outline consequences 

If your friend disrespects (or forgets to respect) your boundary, all three experts recommend adding a consequence. “Without a consequence, a boundary is kind of just a suggestion,” says Hill.

For example, Daramus says that if you’ve asked your roommate to stop borrowing your clothes without asking and they continue doing so, you can tell them that if it happens again, you’re moving out. “Phrase it in a way that they still have a choice to minimize defensiveness,” she adds.

Importantly, Dr. Franco adds that you must follow through on the consequences, too, so it makes sense to propose ones you’ll actually enforce. “Make sure that it’s not just an empty threat,” she says.

2. Avoid situations where the boundary comes up 

Sometimes, no matter how well you communicate a boundary, the other person just isn’t willing to meet you there. If you don’t want to end the friendship over it, Daramus suggests accepting that there may be some situations in which your friendship no longer works or activities in which you can no longer participate together. “Maybe they like to talk while you’re watching TV, and you can’t stand it, so that’s one thing you just don’t do together,” she says. 

3. Consider moving on from the friendship

It’s difficult to significantly alter an existing relationship dynamic, and if your new boundary is a big one, the friendship may not be able to evolve to accommodate it. “Any relationship that is continuing works based on the boundaries that are currently in place,  and so unfortunately we do risk potentially losing a relationship when we set boundaries,” says Hill. While this can be heartbreaking, she says that the alternative might be remaining in a friendship that no longer serves you. “A relationship that’s healthy for you will be sustainable when you set boundaries that are healthy for you,” she says. 

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