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Setting good boundaries makes you a better friend. These 3 keys will get you started

Adam Tschorn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Dating Advice

LOS ANGELES -- In the classic TV sitcom "Seinfeld," the boundary-violating friendship is played for laughs. When across-the-hall neighbor Kramer, practically the patron saint of overstepped boundaries, forages fridges, borrows clothes or barrels uninvited into Jerry's apartment, it's comedy gold. In real life, though, setting boundaries with friends is no laughing matter.

That has a lot to do with the less rigid, more free-form nature of the nonmarital, nonfamilial friend relationship itself. Bright-line no-fly zones are harder to set and maintain when expectations and boundaries vary wildly from friendship to friendship, and doubly so when they shift over time within the same friendship. (It's a lesson many of us learned through the last two years of polarizing politics and the COVID-19 pandemic.)

As daunting as it can seem, learning how to successfully set clear boundaries with your friends is important for two big reasons. First — and this may seem counterintuitive — it makes you a better friend.

"Everyone thinks, 'Oh, a boundary means me setting limits, creating distance,'" says Beverly Grove-based psychotherapist Allison Perks. "Actually, boundaries are the best way to create closeness and connection. When you communicate clearly and directly with friends about what's OK and what isn't, you know the lay of the land with them so you can behave in a way that creates trust in the friendship … [and] so you can feel trusting of them in the relationship."

Second, as James Guay, a West Hollywood-based therapist points out, these low-impact, more casual bonds also serve as training wheels for some of those big, higher-stakes relationships. "[Friendships] are sometimes the most consistent relationships of our lives, and they are fertile ground for learning how to be in more sexual, romantic relationships," he says. "They're good practice."

Armed with the knowledge that mastering these boundary-setting skills will make you a better friend now and a better partner later, your next step might seem clear: Grab that boundary-violating bestie by the hand and book an hour with a couples counselor, right?

 

The reality is that's about as likely to happen as a Jerry-and-Kramer-share-a-shrink "Seinfeld" plotline (although given the series' finale, it might've fit perfectly into a 10th season, am I right?). Therefore, we've sought solid, actionable boundary-setting advice from Perks, Guay and therapist Reshana Watson, whose L.A.-area practices focus on relationship counseling. Their takeaway? The path to better boundaries — and better friendships — begins with three simple steps: communicating, compromising and reevaluating.

1. Communicate (early)

Good communication is a no-brainer in any relationship, and Perks says the best approach is to start that boundary-setting conversation as early as possible — and definitely before things start to go pear-shaped. She offers the scenario of an upcoming dinner party.

"You've mentioned to your friend that you're having some friends and family over for dinner, and they say, 'Oh, I'd love to come. What time is it?' You can say, 'You know, for this gathering, I've already decided on the mix of people that are going to be here. I care about you as a friend, but this is not an event that you're invited to.' Be clear and direct about what you need. You are not responsible for how they feel and how they respond."

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