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Set Boundaries Without Being Controlling

In any relationship we can find ourselves upset or annoyed by another person’s behaviour. Often an open dialogue is enough to resolve our concerns.

Sometimes however, our concerns are ignored or brushed off and we are left questioning our right to demand change.

Direct Impact

There are two ways someone’s behaviour can impact us; directly or indirectly. A direct impact is when we suffer a consequence as the result of someone else’s behaviour.

With an indirect impact, we don’t suffer a consequence from the other person’s behaviour; instead, we are impacted simply because we disapprove of the behaviour.

When someone’s behaviour directly impacts us, it is reasonable to expect that the other person will make an effort to eliminate or reduce the impact.

It’s not always possible to eliminate all negative impact of one’s behaviour on others. For example, quitting a job may negatively impact an employer but we generally accept that we have a right to quit. At the same time, most of us appreciate that we need to minimize the impact by giving sufficient notice.

Most of us have experienced making a reasonable request of someone only to have him or her refuse to acknowledge the validity of our complaint, or if he or she does acknowledge the validity, to still continue with the offending behaviour. Sometimes he or she continues the offending behaviour even after repeated promises to change.

Examples of direct impact:

“When you over-spend from our account, we don’t have money to pay the bills.”

“When you’re late picking me up, I’m late for work.”

“When you make noise late at night, you wake me up.”

“When you’re rude to my friend, she stops coming to visit me.”

“When you leave your clothes on the floor, I trip over them.”

“When you smoke in the house, I breathe it in.”

When Someone’s Behaviour Directly Impacts You

As you know, asking someone to change and getting someone to change are two different things. Regardless of how reasonable your request, the other person may not agree or comply.

If you keep repeating your demands, at the very least you are accused of nagging. If you increase your anger and threats, you will likely have a full-blown power struggle on your hands. If you find yourself in this situation step back, reclaim your personal power, set boundaries, give logical consequences, and change the focus of the discussion.

1) Personal Power

Reclaiming personal power means focusing on what you do have control over and letting go of what you don’t have control over. We have no control over another person’s behaviour and when we put all our energy and focus into changing someone else, we end up angry, bitter, and hopeless. Let go of your search for the right strategy or approach to bring about the change you want in someone else.

The only person’s behaviour you control is our own. Focus on your emotions, thoughts, and reactions and let go of any that are ineffective and keep you stuck. Take responsibility for your own wants and needs and don’t leave it up to someone else to meet your needs. Seek out what you need only from those who are willing and able to give to you freely.

2) Setting Boundaries

A boundary is when you state how you expect to be treated and clarify what you will do if you’re treated in a way you don’t like.

The mistake many people make when setting a boundary is to focus solely on how the other person should behave. Since we have no control over another person’s behaviour, the most important part of a boundary is your clear position on what you will do if your boundary is crossed.

The boundary needs to be specific and something you can and will follow through on. A threat, no matter how much you mean it in the heat of the moment, is not a boundary if you are not prepared or able to act on it. A threat will weaken, not strengthen your position. It’s better to offer a small consequence that you can follow through on than a huge threat that you can’t.

3) Logical Consequences

There are two types of consequences; natural and logical consequences. A natural consequence is when someone experiences a negative consequence from their behaviour without anyone having to do or say anything. For example, the natural consequence of going outside without a coat is getting cold. A natural consequence of getting drunk is a hangover.

It is always preferable to allow nature to take its course so a person can learn from their own mistakes. However, as you know, some people don’t learn from their mistakes and sometimes their mistakes have consequences for other people. In this case, you may need to implement a logical consequence.

A logical consequence is one in which one person imposes a consequence on another that is directly related to the problem behaviour. For example, “If you swear at me, I will take your phone away,” is not a logical consequence because taking the phone away is not connected to the swearing. However, “If you swear at me, I will end the discussion,” is connected.

Examples of boundaries using logical consequences:

“If you drink, I will take the kids to my mother’s and return in the morning.”

“If you hit me, I will call the police.”

“If you’re late for dinner, I will eat without you.”

“If you’re not ready to go on time, I will leave without you.”

“If you don’t put your clothes in the hamper, I won’t wash them.”

Setting boundaries doesn’t always completely solve the problem, but it does give you control over how much the other person’s behaviour impacts you.

4) Change the Nature of the Discussion

If I ask my spouse not to invite people to dinner at the last minute and he continues to do so, the issue is no longer about bringing guests home unannounced. The issue is now that my reasonable request is not being respected. If I continue to argue about inviting people over, I ignore the bigger issue which is the lack of respect and consideration I feel.

If my discussion about lack of respect and consideration is not effective in bringing about change, I am left with only a few options. I can decide I don’t want to be in a relationship where I do not feel respected, and leave. Or, I can establish boundaries and consequences to minimize the impact on me. Just like love, respect is not something you can demand. Someone either has it or they don’t.

Even if you solve the direct impact problem, you may still be upset because you dislike or disapprove of the person’s behaviour. If the behaviour simply goes against your beliefs about proper behaviour, you are not directly impact, you are indirectly impacted.

Indirect Impact

Indirect impact is problematic in any relationship. We enjoy and feel closest to those who share our values and beliefs. The more intimate the relationship, the more important it is that we share similar values. We run into problems however, when we try to impose our beliefs and values on others.

Examples of indirect impact:

“I don’t like you drinking a glass of wine every night with dinner because I think it’s unnecessary to drink daily.”

“I don’t like you talking to your mother so much because I think you are too dependent on her.”

“I want you to lose weight because I don’t like the way you look.”

“I don’t like weed so you can’t smoke it.”

“Pornography degrades women so you’re not allowed to watch it.”

When we impose our values and beliefs on someone else we are often perceived as controlling and disrespectful.

When You are Indirectly Impacted by Another Person

Our values are an important part of who we are and it’s understandable that we want those closest to us to share our values.

Sometimes when we share our beliefs, the other person changes their perspective or agrees to respect our beliefs, even if he or she disagrees. For example, a husband may agree not to go to a strip bar out of respect for his wife’s values, even though he may not see anything wrong with it.

When you are indirectly impacted by another person’s behaviour, diplomacy, respect, and taking ownership for your own values, encourages effective communication.

Points to Consider When Discussing Beliefs:

The other person’s values and beliefs are just as important to him or her as your beliefs and values are to you. Try to determine the underlying beliefs that are dictating the problem behaviour.

Keep in mind that no one responds positively to manipulation, coercion, lectures, ridicule, threats or insults. Behaving this way is not effective in getting you what you want and it damages relationships.

You have the right to tell someone how you feel. Sometimes we think we are sharing our feelings when in fact, we are sharing our judgmental thoughts. Stick to feelings and let go of judgments.

In the end, you are responsible for meeting your own needs and wants, including finding like-minded people who meet your needs freely.

Relationships are successful when both people work hard to understand each other’s perspective, are open to influence, and compromise whenever necessary.

If these are your values and beliefs, you will be happiest with someone who shares these values and who is willing to put as much effort into the relationship as you are.

“You’ll know when a relationship is right for you. It will enhance your life, not complicate your life” ~ Brigitte Nicole, author of Lessons Learned in Life.

To learn more, or if you are interested in counselling services, please visit Validity Counselling's homepage,

Author: Jenny DeReis

Jenny is CEO and therapist at Validity Counselling in Prince George, BC. She has a Master's Degree in Counselling Psychology from the University of Calgary.

Jenny has intensive and advanced training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) from Dr. Charlie Swansen, author of several books on DBT . She has also received DBT training from the Behavior Tech Institute, and from DBT expert Sherri Van Dijk.

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