It would be hard to write about this topic without mentioning the #MeToo movement, which has brought up all sorts of questions regarding setting boundaries in dating (the Aziz Ansari allegations are just one example). It seems that now is as much a time as ever to begin laying down some ground rules with your dating partner or partners from the get-go (and we don’t only mean physical boundaries, either). And what about if you’re already in a relationship? Communication is key, and you should still broach the topic and have an honest conversation even if you’ve been together for a while.
Although we can always change our mind and some of our boundaries become more flexible when we get closer to someone, it’s key to start a relationship with clarity, says relationship psychotherapist Leslie Malchy. “A hand on the arm can be a welcome source of intimacy and comfort to one person or a privacy violation to another,” she explains. “Communicating what we need is a way of protecting ourselves in relationships and protecting others from the pain of hurting us.”
Below we’ve rounded up the five healthy steps for setting boundaries in dating. Go on—it’s time to put yourself first.
Decide how you feel.
Take time apart from the person or people you’re dating to think about what sort of boundaries are most important to you. (How often you’ll communicate with one another and how frequently you’ll see each other are just two simple boundaries to start to get your wheels turning.) “The problem with many of us who have weak or leaky boundaries in relationships is that we become so enmeshed, so encompassed by the other person’s ‘stuff’ that we have no idea what it is that we ourselves are feeling,” says self-love coach and writer Jennifer Twardowski. “By taking the time to break away, reflect, and really check in with yourself, you are then consciously making the distinct difference between yourself and the other person [or people].”
Find a neutral playing field (or time).
When you’re having a serious (and private) conversation like this, it may be best to do it at one of your places, especially if the topic of physical intimacy is going to be brought up. Although a neutral place like a coffee shop would be ideal, it doesn’t necessarily make sense here. And since it’s challenging to keep the place neutral, you can try to keep the timing neutral. For example, if the talk is premeditated, have it while you aren’t already disagreeing about something else and when you’re both feeling level-headed.
Come prepared with nonnegotiables.
Brainstorm the boundaries that you have to set in your relationship for it to work for you. Think: What do you need without a doubt to keep you comfortable and confident while dating this person or these people? Are there things that physically you will never feel okay with? Is there a certain number of times per week you want to touch base with the person or persons you’re dating? These nonnegotiables can run the gamut, but identifying them early on will help you learn whether the two or more of you are compatible in the first place. Here’s the truth: If a potential partner isn’t okay with respecting your nonnegotiables, then it’s time to walk.
Listen, listen, listen.
After you’re done discussing your needs, it’s time to listen. There are two or more people in every dating scenario, and each deserves to be heard, including your person or people. If you don’t understand what you’re hearing, it’s time to ask some questions. Chances are that it’s not going to go over well in a few weeks (or months) if you said a boundary of your partner’s or partners’ was okay but you never understood it in the first place.
Be good to yourself.
Realize that by trying to set boundaries in dating, you’re protecting yourself, and that’s a good thing. If your discussion brings up any backlash or feelings of guilt, then you need to take care of yourself, says Twardowski. Leave and go outside or practice yoga if that’s more your style. “Do something to help yourself get re-centered, and don’t spend too much (or any) energy focusing on what happened,” she says. Speaking up for yourself should never make you feel bad, and if another person makes you feel this way, they don’t deserve to be dating you.
If you’re not sure you feel ready to have this conversation with the person you’re dating quite yet, practice on a friend. After all, the more you communicate your needs, the more it will become second nature.