Setting boundaries can be daunting, but it doesn’t mean loving someone any less or giving up on a relationship. In my experience, it’s a healthy part of nurturing love, whether it’s familial, platonic, or romantic. I used to think that real loving relationships required people to be there for each other, whatever the cost to their own well-being. While that may sound grand in theory, in reality it establishes expectations that are difficult to meet. Trying to keep up that standard of selflessness can end up hurting a relationship. Setting boundaries can be uncomfortable, but it’s worth it.

Setting clear boundaries can be uncomfortable, but it’s worth it.

I learned this the hard way during my first long-distance friendship. As we navigated our new lives in new countries, it became harder to be part of each other’s lives. Between ourselves, we navigated time zones and class schedules, but there were so many other factors in each of our own worlds. We wanted to meet new people, make new friends, and explore the new cities we would be calling home. And those weren’t solely exciting experiences, they were also at times stressful and anxiety-inducing. How did our friendship fit into this? I think the key is that we wanted the best of these experiences for ourselves and for each other too.

This understanding laid the foundation for honest communication about times when we couldn’t be there for each other. The most important part of this was the messages we’d send each other when we were hurting. Petty rants are one thing, but wanting to unload something incredibly emotionally draining, to whoever it happened to and to whoever is listening, is another thing. When it’s the latter, I make sure to ask my friends if they’re in a position at that time to talk about what’s wrong. They do the same for me as well.

It can be something as simple as: “Hey, I’m struggling with homesickness. Can I vent to you? Are you in the headspace to listen?” It’s like an emotional disclaimer of the subject matter. It sets a boundary of not expecting someone to always have the “emotional/mental capacity” to talk about something with me. And vice versa. Haven’t there been times when you wanted to be a good friend but simply didn’t have the energy to engage with something? It can be a testament to the strength of a friendship when we take these steps to respect one another. Of course, this only means anything if we’re ready to hear the word, “No.”

“No,” doesn’t mean, “I don’t care.”

“No,” doesn’t mean, “I don’t care.” It can be a caring, honest act that encourages me to seek support from someone who can be mentally and emotionally present for me. This may be another friend, a partner, a family member, or a counsellor. Among my friends, “No,” often comes with a later date and time that we can dedicate to being there for each other.

This is a more realistic commitment than always being available to talk and listen. Having the conversations to set these emotional boundaries may seem awkward or, in their worst light, an excuse to blow someone off.

However, in my experience, they can be sincere, open ways to care for myself and the people I love.

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