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How to Set New Boundaries with Your Ex

Going through any form of separation is tough. However, it’s even harder to navigate your post-break-up life when your ex is pressing your buttons and continuing to interfere with your life. This is where boundaries come in. They help you and your ex learn how to navigate your new relationship after separation.

What are boundaries, and why are they important?

Boundaries are rules or limits you set with other people or yourself. These imaginary lines help you keep your relationships with others – including ex-partners – respectful, caring, and supportive. 

Whether you realize it or not, you likely set boundaries with people on a daily basis. When you tell your boss you’re unavailable after working hours or politely decline a last-minute dinner invitation, you’re setting boundaries. When you ask noisy neighbors to turn their music down, you’re setting a boundary. 

No matter how small these gestures seem, boundaries are important for your mental health and physical well-being. They help you avoid stress and burnout and inform others of your limits. They also help you avoid becoming a “doormat” and letting others take advantage of you, which is vital to your sense of self-worth.

Without healthy boundaries, emotions like anger and resentment can set in. Over time, these feelings can lead to unhealthy communication and damaged relationships.

Setting boundaries with an ex

When you decide to end a romantic relationship with someone, boundaries are especially important. Setting firm boundaries communicates your expectations for the future with your former partner. It helps you both move on in a healthy way. Boundaries can also help you stay on good terms and keep your conversations productive during and after divorce.

Blurred boundaries

Without clear boundaries, you and your ex may fall into old patterns of behavior. This makes the separation more difficult, which only exacerbates the heartache and grief you’re probably already feeling. Many separated couples find it difficult to truly move on until these boundaries are in place.

Navigating your changing boundaries

Just like every other aspect of our lives, the boundaries we set with others change over time. For example, as we grow more comfortable around certain people, we might let our guard down and loosen the boundaries we previously set with them. Similarly, when we experience a break-up or divorce, the boundaries we previously established with a partner change in the other direction.

Change is difficult for everyone, especially in situations like separation and divorce. But no matter how uncomfortable these changes are for you and your former partner, it’s important to remain firm on any new boundaries you set – and to respect boundaries set by your ex-partner as well.

Communication is key

These “growing pains” in your new relationship with your ex can be easier to manage with clear, concise communication. You may both need reminders about what is and is not appropriate as you move on. As long as you both agree to actively listen to each other and communicate with respect, you can handle these changes in a mature way.

If you see your former partner struggling with changing boundaries, try to remain calm and consistent. Restate your boundaries as often as required, even if you sound like a broken record. Eventually, your calmness and consistency will help them understand the new boundaries of your relationship.

If you’re the one having a hard time with the changes in your relationship, remember what is in your control and what isn’t. You can also rely on your support system when you need to vent or cope with your emotions.

Actionable steps you can take to create healthy boundaries

Setting boundaries with anyone can be hard, but doing so with a former partner can be incredibly difficult. Here are some actionable steps to create healthy boundaries with an ex.

Identify the boundary (or boundaries) you need to set

Before you establish new boundaries with your ex, you must decide what boundaries need to be set. These boundaries may involve communication, space, privacy, and more. Whatever helps you feel comfortable and allows you to move on is worth noting. 

Also, think about what boundaries you will need in the long term to help you live your life and possibly form new healthy relationships. This may involve setting boundaries regarding mutual friends or social media. Although these boundaries can change over time, it's worth considering everything you can in the beginning because it's far easier to adjust boundaries as you grow more comfortable than to inflict harsh boundaries when you realize you’ve been too lax.

Be straightforward and clear

When setting boundaries, use concise, assertive communication. Cryptic or vague statements set the stage for misunderstandings and arguments. So, even if it feels harsh, it's best to be straightforward.

Don't apologize or imply that your boundaries are an imposition. They’re not. To do so would be to undermine yourself and set the premise that your needs and desires aren't important. It would also leave room for your ex to push the limits or ignore your demands.

Use “I” statements,” not “you” statements

It’s all too easy to place blame on your former spouse during divorce, but this approach puts the other person on the defensive and turns boundary-setting into accusations and arguments. Instead, approach this process from the perspective of yourself, not the other person.

“I” statements are a form of assertive communication that focuses on the speaker’s feelings, beliefs, and needs rather than the listener’s behaviors or thoughts. Instead of saying, “You need to stop text messaging me,” you might say, “I need some space. Could we pause text message communication?” This helps focus the conversation on the person speaking, which avoids defensiveness and arguments.

Learn to say “no”

Although setting boundaries is about telling other people what you need, it sometimes involves placing limits on what you will do for them. This means you must say “no” if you aren’t comfortable with the demands a former romantic partner places on you. For example, you can say no to phone calls or spending time together, and you can choose not to respond if your ex pries into your personal life.

Keep emotions out of it as much as possible

When emotions run high, it’s easy for simple conversations to escalate into disagreements. But there’s no rule that says you must express emotions when setting boundaries – so don’t. You may find that your ex is more responsive when emotions are removed.

For example, let’s say you run into your ex at a party hosted by mutual friends. During the conversation, they keep trying to touch you in some way. You might want to scream, “Stop touching me!” but doing so would only make the situation worse. So, instead, you might say, “It’s nice to see you, but I don’t feel comfortable with you touching me. If we can’t just stand and talk, then I’d like to leave.”

Safeguard yourself

There are some situations, such as abusive relationships, where setting boundaries yourself is neither safe nor beneficial. In these instances, it’s better to simply remove yourself from the other person as much as possible and take advantage of the legal system for the rest. You will want to make sure you’ve got measures in place that keep you safe, even if you aren’t directly interacting with your ex.

Boundaries and co parenting

Many couples set tight boundaries or even go no-contact for a clean break with their ex after a divorce. However, most co-parenting couples have to continue their relationship to some degree in order to raise their children together. If your ex is still part of your life for this reason, boundaries are especially important.

Healthy co-parenting boundaries include the following:

  • Adhering to the parenting plan and custody schedule
  • Keeping all communication strictly on the topic of your child
  • Staying out of each other’s personal lives
  • Agreeing not to badmouth each other in front of the kids

Remember: You deserve to have your needs met, and you have the right to set boundaries with your ex in order to gain closure, heal, and move on with your life.

Suggested reading: Managing Difficult Divorce Conversations When You Hate Conflict