By Michelle, a loveisrespect advocate
If you’ve spent some time on our site or spoken with one of our advocates, you’ve probably heard the words “boundaries” and “expectations” thrown around a lot. Understanding these concepts and being able to talk to your partner about them is important for any relationship to be healthy.
But aren’t these two ideas pretty similar? What exactly is the difference between setting boundaries and defining expectations? What about broken boundaries vs. unmet expectations? It can definitely get a little confusing, so let’s get into it.
Our entire life experience is shaped by certain expectations. We make assumptions about how a situation should go, how people should act, even adjust our behavior to fall in line with what we think others expect of us. In relationships, sometimes our partners exceed our expectations, and we can be happily surprised. Someone whose previous partner was abusive may expect to be treated that way in their next relationship, only to find a new partner who is completely respectful and supportive. Other times, our expectations aren’t met, and that’s where we tend to get hurt. For example, maybe you expected that being in a relationship meant spending time with your partner every day, but your partner has a busy schedule, and you’re left feeling neglected.
The problem is that expectations are usually based on assumptions, and anytime we assume we know what our partner is thinking (or assume they know what we’re thinking), we get into dangerous territory. A lot of the time, having an unmet expectation doesn’t mean you were wrong, it just means that it’s time to check in with your partner. Some expectations though, like wanting your partner to put you before everything else in their life, can be unrealistic and may need to be adjusted. It’s also important to remember that it’s never okay to engage in hurtful or abusive behavior when your expectations aren’t met.
If you’re in a healthy relationship, we always recommend open, honest communication to find a solution to a conflict– and that includes conflict about relationship expectations. When we don’t communicate our expectations, we’re setting a standard for the relationship that hasn’t been agreed upon, and possibly even holding someone to a standard they didn’t know existed, which isn’t fair. We may not even realize we were expecting specific things out of a relationship until we don’t get them, and it can feel surprising, confusing, and even painful to realize you’re on a completely different page than your partner. That’s why it’s so important to talk through these situations together, to ensure that you both agree on what to expect moving forward.
Boundaries are typically all about personal comfort levels—they are where we personally draw the line between what is and is not okay with us. Boundaries serve as guidelines for our relationships, and help us understand how to act in order to make our partner feel most respected and supported. It can feel awkward, maybe even selfish, to talk with your partner about your limits, especially if a relationship is just beginning and you’re trying to keep things cool and casual. However, this is actually a really important and healthy step! Remember, your partner is not a mind reader, so communicating clearly about what you like and want in your relationship (and what you don’t like and don’t want) helps make sure everyone is on the same page from the start.
When setting boundaries, it can help to get really specific. Are there certain ways you wouldn’t be okay with someone else touching your partner, or with your partner touching someone else? What words do you want reserved only for your relationship (for example, saying “I love you” or calling someone “sexy”)? While it can feel uncomfortable to think about these hypotheticals, it’s much easier to talk about these situations before they happen, rather than after, once feelings are hurt.
A person’s boundaries can look different from relationship to relationship, and even at different points in the same relationship. As things progress, it’s normal and healthy to get more comfortable around your partner, and you may find yourself opening up to new experiences that might have crossed a boundary for you when you first started dating. Revisiting boundaries in a mutual, respectful way can be a really healthy behavior for partners to engage in, and that’s where open, honest communication comes in again.
So, what happens if your boundaries don’t match up with your partner’s? Navigating these differences can be one of the hardest parts of being in a relationship. Most times, nobody’s boundaries are more right or wrong than someone else’s, but everyone goes through different experiences that impact personal comfort levels. In a healthy relationship, it may be possible to talk through your differences and mutually agree on what the boundaries will be at this point in your partnership, and possibly revisit those agreements down the road. If you really can’t find mutual ground, though, that might mean it isn’t possible for the two of you to be in a healthy relationship right now, and that’s okay too. Sometimes people just aren’t on the same page when it comes to what they want and need from a partner, and that’s a valid and healthy reason to end a relationship. What’s never okay is pressuring, coercing, or forcing someone to adjust a boundary they aren’t ready to change. Disrespecting a partner’s boundaries or forcing them to do things they aren’t comfortable with is definitely unhealthy and can even be abusive.
So What’s the Difference?
By now, you may have figured out that boundaries and expectations go hand in hand. Our expectations help us think about what our boundaries are, and our boundaries inform our expectations. When boundaries are set, there’s an expectation that they will be respected, and setting boundaries helps us know what to expect in our relationship. Having agreed-upon boundaries and expectations gives partners a layer of security in the relationship that helps build trust. Once we know how we’re supposed to act in our relationship, we can trust our partner to hold up their end of the bargain. When boundaries and expectations aren’t clearly set, we might engage in monitoring or controlling behaviors to try to get our needs met, which isn’t healthy or fair to our partner.
We often go into new relationships with certain expectations based on boundaries of prior relationships. For example, if your past partner was cool with you tagging them in photos on social media, you might expect that behavior to be okay in your new relationship. However, it’s important to remember that your new partner is a totally different person, so it’s always a good idea to check in about their thoughts on a specific behavior, rather than assuming they’ll feel the same way your ex did. Similarly, just because a boundary existed in a past relationship doesn’t mean it automatically applies to this one, so make sure you are communicating with your partner about what you both want your relationship to look like.
When boundaries are broken or expectations aren’t met, partners may feel hurt, violated, disrespected, or even unsafe. If it’s safe to do so, we always recommend—you guessed it—open, honest, respectful communication to go over what happened, why it happened, and what should happen moving forward. If you ever feel like you can’t talk to your partner about how you’re feeling, that’s a huge warning sign that your relationship may be abusive. Try reaching out to one of our advocates instead to explore the situation further and talk through your options. Advocates can be reached 24/7/365 by phone at 1-866-331-9474, online chat at www.loveisrespect.org, or by texting LOVEIS to 22522.