5 Tips for Communicating Boundaries With Your Partner

There's a lot of work that goes into a healthy relationship. It's important to learn how to communicate boundaries with your partner.

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Leah locked eyes with her husband Josh and went in for a hug. It had been one of those days. Looking to anchor herself in his strong embrace, his arms cradled her in a protective cocoon. She nestled into that spot on his chest reserved only for her as his arms softly rubbed her back. She exhaled a heavy breath. As she released her stress she thought to herself, why did today have to be so difficult? Why was my new manager riding me so hard? Urg, why do the neighbor’s dogs bark so loud, and…wait, why are Josh’s hands on my ass? 

As his embrace shifted from helpful to handsy, Leah could feel herself growing increasingly annoyed. This was not what she wanted, how could Josh not understand that she just wanted to be held. Her day had been draining and she wanted restoration through intimacy, not objectification. She rebuffed his wandering hands, which left them both feeling rejected and invalidated. 

Later that week, Leah and I unpacked the exchange in our session. She pondered, how is it possible that two people who are usually in-sync could attach such different expectations to a hug? We process that it is healthy that love changes over time but without acknowledging healthy boundaries and engaging in effective communication, relational cracks can turn into craters.

The secret to a solid relationship is learning the choreography to emotionally tango with your partner. This dance begins as a solo performance. Before you ignite a mutually gratifying partnership, you need to look inward and develop an understanding of what makes you feel loved in your relationships. Understanding your underlying needs is the first step to effectively articulate them. 

Learn to speak the same love language 

There are five commonly identified ways of expressing and receiving love. They were coined as Love Languages by Dr. Gary Chapman, and include words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and receiving gifts. Until you and your partner learn to speak the same language, your love needs remain unsatiated. 

See which of these styles speaks to you, or take a quiz to learn your Love Language:

  • Words of affirmation: not only hearing expressions of love, but sharing the substance behind the affection that strengthens your connection. 
  • Quality time: receiving undivided attention without interruptions of cell phone, family or other chaos, allowing you to feel like a top priority and worthy of intense focus.
  • Physical touch: can range from a gesture of security to a romantic rendezvous. It triggers the brain’s production of oxytocin, a love hormone, that is associated with sexual gratification and relationship building.
  • Acts of service: there may be nothing more romantic than your partner handing you the perfect cup of coffee in the morning. Gestures to make your life easier can be expressions of deep intimacy.
  • Receiving gifts: tokens of affection, whether unplanned or anticipated can demonstrate thoughtfulness and effort. 

Seasons of love

It is also essential to remember that needs change over time. So while it is normative that passionate romance fades into loving companionship, to keep the spark alive you need different ways of stoking the fire. If your partner seeks this connection through physical touch, he will view your signals through this lens which may leave you feeling ungratified and unloved. The source of your underlying desires is rooted in your attachment style, your family modeling and individual experiences. 

If you’re struggling to strengthen your intimacy, follow these five steps to restore the euphoria:

  1. Identify your intimacy style. Think about what stimulates your feelings of love and affection. Understand what made you feel psychologically safe and cared for in earlier relationships. 
  2. Share this insider insight with your partner. Be direct and ask for what you want. Be as clear as possible, state “I feel deeply loved by acts of service, like when you make me coffee”.
  3. Treat your erotic drives with self-compassion. It’s okay to not be in the mood for physical intimacy. It would be worse to ignore your feelings and push yourself because you will wind up resentful or sexually unfulfilled.
  4. Practice makes perfect. Satisfying your partner’s romantic requests may push you outside your comfort zone, but talking about them is an important first step. Break down the desires into the smallest possible bits and practicing in a safe space can build your resolve. If they need physical touch, try sitting next to each other on the couch and holding hands for 3 minutes.
  5. Check in with each other regularly. Ask your partner what can I do to make you feel loved tonight? 

Where do we go from here?

As my patient Leah deepened her insight into her romantic drives, she uncovered why she was so turned off by Josh’s sexual advances. His effort to distract her from her stressors and failed attempt to make her feel sexy, instead made her feel unheard and invalidated. This conflict was not a reflection of a sexual incompatibility, rather they needed better communication. We explored more effective ways of nurturing her needs and expressing them to her partner. We also examined ways for her to feel sexy and support her sexual desires on her own terms. Recognizing opportunities for interpersonal improvement is a healthy way to grow and transform, leading to a richer, more meaningful relationship.

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