How do set appropriate boundaries in a new relationship?
May 30, 2016 2:52 PM   Subscribe

I'm in a wonderful new relationship but I need help with communicating, setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries and getting the space I need while getting to know this person better.

Snowflake details:
I'm a man and I met this woman about a month ago. We hit it off really well and have been dating for about 3 weeks now. We share a lot of interests and values and find each other very attractive. We've been talking about making things exclusive and I think there is serious long term potential so I really want to make this work.

The issue: I don't know how to bring up the fact that I need more space. The past 2 weeks she's stayed overnight at my place almost every single day (probably 5 days a week) and even when she doesn't stay over we'd still see each other at some point during the day. I'm fairly introverted and I like to have time to recharge and just relax by myself. Additionally I'm pushing off certain errands/chores/hanging out with friends to accommodate time with her.

I'm also scared because I know I have a history of deferring my needs and not communicating properly what I want. My previous (and only other) relationship started in a similar way where we were seeing each other all the time. My ex basically moved in after 2 weeks and I quickly lost the ability to see friends or have any hobbies or personal time as I was expected to dedicate all my free time to seeing her and help her out. As an example I once had to cancel a doctor's appointment because she didn't wake up in time to catch her bus so I had to leave the doctor's office to go back home, pick her up and drive her to school. Whenever I brought up the fact that I needed some time for myself with my ex, we would have a huge argument and I was told I was being selfish and not taking the relationship seriously. Having no prior relationship experience, I thought that this was normal and so I went along with it. Eventually (2 years into the relationship) I did start talking to a therapist and slowly learned to stand up for myself a bit more but when I did that it was the beginning of the end of that relationship and she eventually broke up with me.

I'm not saying this new woman is going to respond in the same way, but I'm terrified that I might push her away if I ask for more space, or that it will cause a rift early in the relationship. I really do enjoy the time that I spend with her but I'm just worried that I'm going down the same path again. I want to reassure her that I love spending time with her, but I just can't spend ALL my time with her. I want to learn from my mistakes and develop a healthy relationship early but I don't know how to bring it up in a way that doesn't sound like I'm accusing her of monopolizing my time or that I don't enjoy the time we spend together. Also since she does not have a car and lives at home with her parents and has a stressful relationship with them, I know that I am helping her out a lot when I can drive her or let her sleep over and I want to be supportive but I don't know when I should put my foot down and I don't want to seem like I'm unwilling to help out.

Any advice, anecdotes or resources are extremely appreciated.
posted by smurfzambo to Human Relations (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
"I'm going to need to do X tomorrow. I'll miss you! What do you want to do [day after tomorrow?]" (repeat as appropriate until mutually suitable rhythm established.) She has no way to know you don't her around 24/7 if you have been inviting her to stay 24/7.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:55 PM on May 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

Yeah, make a firm date and then tell her you need X day to yourself.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:16 PM on May 30, 2016

First, it is not your responsibility to make sure that she has a parent-free place to hang out or a ride to places she needs to go. Those are her problems - she had them before she met you, she would have them if you weren't dating. Furthermore, she shouldn't be dating you as a solution (she's dating you because she likes you, not to get away from her parents, right?) , so anything you can do to help is a bonus. This means that if she likes you, she will still like you if you aren't the solution to all of her problems. (So it is Ok to say no sometimes)

Second, it sounds like, when she says "Can I stay the night?" you hear, "if you love me, you will let me stay the night" instead of "this is what I would like to do, what do you think?" If she is deserving of your long-term love, she will care about what you need and want just like you care about her needs and wants. So, for this to work, you owe it to her to be more forthcoming about your side. Otherwise, either she is constantly trying to guess if she is imposing or not (which can be crazy making for her) or your needs are ignored until the frustration builds up and explodes in some unhelpful way.This early in the relationship is OK to just say "no that won't work", no apology needed. However, if it feels right you can also, "That doesn't work very well for me but if you are really in a pinch, let me know and I will see what I can work out" And if it turns out that she thinks her needs ALWAYS come first, then you know she isn't really a keeper.

Third, have a conversation with her about being on introvert and needing down time / alone time in order to recharge. Look around the internet for information on the care and keeping of introverts. (Pinterest and Facebook are full of this stuff) Find one or two that fits you and share it with her. This may be a strange idea to her - for an extrovert, being with people that they care about fills them back up. Two different styles - neither one better than the other but if your natural styles are different it takes communications and compromise to figure out what works.
posted by metahawk at 3:17 PM on May 30, 2016 [10 favorites]

Try this for a very simple introduction to introverts and their needs:
How to Love an Introvert

and here is a good definition of an introvert

brain differences between introverts and extroverts. Please note the bit at the end where they say that this is actually continuum - you just put people neatly in one box or the other.
posted by metahawk at 3:24 PM on May 30, 2016

I hate to say it, but you may just need to date more independent women. She's going straight from relying on her parents to relying on you. I understand some of this may be due to finances and circumstances beyond her control, but some of it is also probably due to her personality/personal problems. Of course you're worried about setting boundaries - part of the big appeal of dating you is probably your "rescuing" her from her parents.

This doesn't mean this reationship is hopeless but if she's not 100% busting her butt to apply for jobs, get a car, etc. within one month, I would very seriously reevaluate this relationship before you get in too deep.

Some people need a push to start becoming independent and you may motivate her to do that- however, some people are never really motivated enough and generally mooch for quite a while. How young she is may also be a factor. I would not advise you to date a very young woman totally dependent on her parents, if you want the relationship to be a lasting relationship of equals entered into for the right reasons.
posted by quincunx at 4:04 PM on May 30, 2016 [16 favorites]

We hit it off really well and have been dating for about 3 weeks now. We share a lot of interests and values and find each other very attractive. We've been talking about making things exclusive and I think there is serious long term potential so I really want to make this work.

I’d say you’re putting the cart before the horse here, deciding that there is long-term potential before you have gotten to know each other.

What I mean is that you see long-term potential on the basis of attraction and a few nice conversations. If you’ve only dated for 3 weeks, there was no time for circumstances to test your and your gs's values and show whether they're compatible. You've painted yourself into a corner by deciding you are in for the long haul. So now you are struggling with expressing your need for space because you fear it might break your fledgling relationship, even though you already think it has long-term potential.

But, guess what, if this breaks your relationship, it is proof that it had no long-term potential! THIS is how you know that you two have long-term potential – by finding … space … for both your needs.

As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, not in talking about it. Don't decide something has long-term potential whilst avoiding anything that might test your assessment.

Given that you are in the early stages of your relationship, I’d go with fingersandtoes’ understated wording – no need to immediately elaborate on your introversion.

For more about how important it is to be aware of your values and to walk away from relationships in which you'd have to betray them, check out Baggage Reclaim. Additionally, this along the lines suggested by quincunx might be of interest, even though it's written from a woman's point of view.
posted by miorita at 5:41 PM on May 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm terrified that I might push her away if I ask for more space, or that it will cause a rift early in the relationship.

You just need to face this fear. State what you need and trust that she's the kind of person to say "of course honey! You need a break. How about I see you in a couple days?" Don't place maintaining the relationship over being yourself or you will end up feeling suffocated and resentful. This is all part of learning whether a relationship is for real or not.

You can't control her reaction, just say what you have to say as nicely as possible.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:54 PM on May 30, 2016

Here are some examples of nice ways to say it:
"I've been having WAY too much fun the last couple of weeks... I need to spend tomorrow paying bills, but let's get together the next day."
"I won't be around tomorrow because I'm hanging out with OldFriend -- I don't want to do that thing where you start a new relationship then suddenly disappear on your old friends."

I'm not crazy about saying "I need more space" because that phrase is the classic prelude to a breakup and it doesn't sound like that is what you want. I'd try saying what I wanted in a low-key way and see where that goes. If she seems upset you can talk about what had happened in the previous relationship and how you're working on communicating what you need. If she's worth it, she'll be supportive of that.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:09 PM on May 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Trying to go backwards on the relationship escalator can be tough, because now that she's used to spending all of this time with you, trying to backpedal and reset your dynamic can inadvertently send the wrong message.

I like the idea of setting boundaries with the scripts that fingersandtoes and Ruthless Bunny suggested. It's communicating that you need time to yourself to handle your life and affairs without making a big, potentially fraught thing out of it. I'd definitely try this first.

If she's REALLY not getting the hint and you may need to talk with her frankly about it. Assure her that you really enjoy her company and spending time with her, but let her know that you know that you really need quiet time to reboot and get errands done. Tell her what sort of schedule for hanging out and overnights will work better for you in the long run.

Important: Reiterate that it is precisely BECAUSE you like her so much that you are having this difficult conversation, because you do not want to fall into the trap you had with past relationships where you didn't communicate your needs or set boundaries adequately, and it caused relationship problems. It may be an awkward talk, but I think framing it as "I think you're great, but I know myself well enough to know that our current pattern isn't sustainable for me right now, and I very much want it to be" will help take any sting out of it on her end.
posted by helloimjennsco at 7:15 AM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm terrified that I might push her away if I ask for more space, or that it will cause a rift early in the relationship.

Here's the thing though, if she is not the kind of person who can abide giving you any space, then there SHOULD be a rift in the relationship, and earlier rather than later. I know you really WANT to make this thing work but that can blind you to the actual reality that it may not be workable.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:40 AM on May 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

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