Boundaries don’t have to stifle the romance.

When we think of a whirlwind romance, we typically think of a relationship that lacks boundaries and, as blissful as it is, feels way out of our control. But the truth is, boundaries don’t inhibit romance—they protect us from getting hurt.

Boundaries are your key to defining and enforcing the terms of your relationship that will benefit you and your significant other. Zach Brittle, licensed therapist and certified Gottman therapist, says that boundaries “provide security and freedom” in a relationship. They allow you to dictate the pace of your relationship in order to ensure that you aren't headed for a broken heart or a commitment you aren't ready for yet. They can also help you express your needs within the relationship.

How exactly do you set boundaries that keep you from losing yourself in love? When I work with my patients who are struggling to maintain healthy relationships, I offer them these five rules to follow for setting boundaries in relationships.

01. You need to understand why you’ll benefit from the boundaries you set (otherwise you won’t stick to them).

Just like your New Year’s resolutions, your boundaries won’t stick around for long if you don’t take the time to identify the why behind the boundaries you are setting. Where do you tend to get into trouble when it comes to relationships? Do you tend to devote yourself completely to a guy from the very beginning only to find that it’s one sided? Or maybe you go too far in the other direction, put a wall up, and run at the first sign of vulnerability. Whatever it is, identify where you run into trouble and use this as you begin to set boundaries.

02. Remember, you can’t set boundaries on another person. You can only control what you do.

While there might be countless qualities you wish you could change in your significant other or in your dating prospects, the only person’s behavior you can change is your own. Sorry ladies, it isn’t possible to turn your man into an Edwardian-era letter-writing romantic. But, you do have the power to change how you interact with and respond to him. Rather than seeing it as a limitation, think of how freeing it is to know that you don’t have to worry about “controlling” someone else’s behavior and that you only have to worry about what you do. This might require confronting some unpleasant realities about yourself (e.g., I always get too physical when I have too much to drink), but it will help you to zero in on how you can change your relationship behavior for the better.

03. You need to make boundaries clear from the very start.

Once you know where (and why) you need to set boundaries, it’s important to be clear about just what those boundaries are. It is important to be as specific as possible when you are identifying what your boundaries need to be. Vague boundaries, such as “I won’t move too quickly in a new relationship,” leave too much room for making excuses and not enough accountability. On the other hand, setting specific boundaries, such as “When I’m first getting to know a guy, I’ll wait for him to follow up with me after the first date instead of texting/calling first,” will help guide you and hold you accountable.

04. You need to be accountable to the boundaries you set (you can’t blame it on him).

Once you’ve set boundaries for yourself, you are also in charge of holding yourself accountable when it comes to enforcing those boundaries. Unfortunately, you can’t rely on others to enforce them for you. It’s not your boyfriend’s fault that you can’t say “no” when he asks you out on the night you designated to spend time with your girlfriends. Remember that boundaries provide the limits you need to feel confident in yourself and your relationship so they are worth the willpower required to enforce them.

05. You have to be comfortable saying no and potentially disappointing others when you set those boundaries.

One of the hardest things about setting boundaries for many of my clients is the fact that it often means saying no. My clients tell me that they don’t like disappointing others (which generally happens when you tell someone no) and this can be a significant stumbling block when it comes to setting boundaries. But remember, you are setting and enforcing these boundaries to protect your freedom and your heart, not to make everyone else happy.

Use these five rules to guide you as you start a new relationship (or strengthen your current one) to provide the structure you need, not only to protect yourself from getting hurt but also to increase your chances for relationship success.

Photo Credit: Erin Woody