How boundaries will keep your relationship together and your heart from falling out.

No is the most powerful word in the English language. It is the best, kindest, most versatile utterance in the history of human utterances. And it can save your relationships.

If the word no was a Russian tea doll, you’d find another word just inside, and that word is “boundaries.” As a gestalt therapist, I’ve seen how improving boundaries can help couples create happier, healthier and more dynamic connections.

Anybody with skin knows what a boundary is.

The borders of our skin mark where we end and where everything else begins. We almost always notice when this boundary has been violated because there is blood, pain and vital organs spilling onto the floor of our favorite coffee shop.

In addition to physical boundaries, we also have energetic ones. These are internal guides working to keep us honest. They convey how much emotional and physical space we need in order to stay in touch with ourselves, without unwanted influence from our environment.

We often override our boundaries because we’re afraid to disappoint others. Or perhaps, because we don’t have a clear sense of what we want and need in the first place. This makes it next to impossible to communicate our desires and limitations to our partners.

Poor boundaries can signal the death gurgle of your intimate relationships.

A relationship without boundaries is nothing but a bland porridge of confluence and confusion. Confluence, in a gestalt framework, refers to a fuzzy lack of contact in which there is no clear distinction of where one person ends and the other takes off. Without this distinction, it becomes easy to impose onto our partners, our fantasies about who they are, or to blindly accept their projections about us.

When we lack a sense of self, we tend to draw it from our partners. We get hooked on the relationship to give us an identity fix, which often leads to the abdication of our personal power, emotional wellbeing, ambitions and self-responsibility. We may even put ourselves in harm’s way just to save the relationship, as it has become our primary identity provider.

As we develop self-awareness, however, we gain a sense of our truest no’s and our most honest yeses. Awareness of our boundaries builds a path towards intimacy and safety in our relationships. As we grow to understand ourselves, we become better positioned to appreciate our partner’s uniqueness;  their wants and needs, their keep out signs, and their welcome mats.

Gestalt therapist and author Gary Yontefwrites, “The boundary between self and environment must be kept permeable to allow exchanges, yet firm enough for autonomy” (Yontef, 1993, p. 141),

If we can trust our partner’s No, then we can also trust their Yes.

This is an enormous gift, as we’ll no longer fear that they don’t really want to order in tonight or take us to that doctor’s appointment next week. Best of all, self-awareness, protects us from the toxic effects of resentment.

Here are 5 ways to build better boundaries in your relationships:

– Breathe. Notice your body sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Allow this to be the first step before making contact with your partner.

– Be direct, clear and gracious. A picket fence can work just as well as barbed wire.

– Remember that “no” is a complete sentence. No need to explain, defend or justify your needs.

– Back up your boundary with action. It might be hard at first, but keep at it.

– Start small. Build upon success by starting with boundary setting that isn’t too anxiety provoking, and then move towards more challenging boundaries.

Pilar Dellano, MA, is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, who’s successfully helped partners of all kinds build more satisfying relationships. For more information, go to