What to do when you can’t walk away from a relationship

Have you ever been in a relationship where you felt stuck; where both leaving and staying seems impossible?

You love your job, but you absolutely hate your boss. You have bills to pay. You can’t just up and leave. Jobs like yours are a one in a million.

Your dad is a narcissistic jerk, but you still spend holidays with him because he’s your dad.

Your spouse loses their temper every now and then and throws dishes and slams doors. But most of the time it’s great, and the kids would be crushed by a divorce.

When we find ourselves in these types of circumstances, it can feel hopeless. And maybe a little selfish – it could be worse, right?! You could be unemployed. Your parents could be deceased. Your spouse doesn’t physically assault you. Maybe you’re just being too sensitive?

When things get tricky

It’s easy to know how to set boundaries with a relationship that doesn’t have so much investment. If a new friend demands you skip your kids’ soccer game every Saturday to go golfing, you simply say “no” and distance yourself from that person.

But what do we do with those relationships when there’s more at stake? This can be the hardest situation we encounter when integrating boundaries into our day-to-day lives.

The good news is boundaries are never impossible. Certain relationships just require more thought, attention, and creativity.

The first thing to do is to rethink how you define “boundaries.” We tend to associate boundaries with just saying “no” or ending all contact. But boundaries are more complicated than that. Each relationship is unique, and therefore every boundary is going to look different.

Boundaries determine what space you take up in the world. They are a clear marker between where you end and others begin. Even if you are in conflict with someone you see every day, you can set boundaries

Tips for setting boundaries when you feel stuck:

Get really clear on what space you take up in the world.
This means, get to know yourself. What feels safe to you? And remember that safety is not just about your physical well-being, but your emotional well-being as well.

Determine what is yours to carry, and what’s not.
You are only responsible for your own “stuff.” Whether we are talking about your workload, housework, parenting, or your personal decisions or issues, it’s important to figure out what actually belongs to you, and what doesn’t.

Figure out what overwhelms you.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s probably because you are carrying other people’s load in addition to your own. Consider what areas you’re feeling overwhelmed, and then determine what responsibilities you can share with someone else, or just let go.

Are you keeping good boundaries with yourself?
It’s possible that you are the one putting all that pressure on yourself. Before you have a confrontation with someone else, consider what part your own issues are playing. Do you feel a need to control? Do you worry how you’ll look to others if you let go of certain roles or responsibilities?

Remind yourself that boundaries are an act of love.
When we shift our internal narrative from the idea that boundaries are “mean” to the reality that boundaries are “honest,” we can feel more confident in setting limits. When we set a boundary, we are sharing our whole, honest self with people. And, when we gently refuse to take on the responsibilities of others, we are communicating to them that we have confidence in their ability to take care of their own stuff.

The flip side of this is, when we take things on that should be tended to by others, we are communicating that we don’t believe in their abilities. When we hide our frustrations and take on what should be someone else’s load to carry, we aren’t being fully honest with others.

How others react or respond isn’t your responsibility.
Once you’ve got a good handle on what’s yours to carry and what part your own issues may be playing in the conflict, it’s time to set some boundaries. This might feel scary, but remember that you can only control your own stuff. You can’t control other people’s reaction. If you’ve carefully considered what is fair, you express your boundaries calmly and clearly, and the other person still flips out, that’s on them.

Remain calm and be kind.
The tone you take when setting boundaries can be the difference between a peaceful resolution and complete chaos. Approach your boundaries conversation in a calm, courteous manner. Speak in an even tone, and don’t raise your voice. Avoid a tone of condescension or frustration. Don’t talk down to people or accuse. Just calmy state your boundary in a way that honors both yourself and the other person. 

Resist the urge to overexplain.
It’s tempting to go overboard with explanations when we are setting boundaries, especially when we anticipate we are going to get some pushback from the other person. Before you have the conversation, practice exactly what you’re going to say. It may be helpful to write it down, and then practice it with a safe person, or even to yourself in the mirror.

Here are some examples:

“I’ve been feeling overwhelmed with my workload lately. I’ve been taking on too much and we need to rethink the distribution of projects so that I can do the best work possible.”

“There is a lot of negative energy in our office these days, and it diminishes productivity. I’d like to discuss ways to resolve disagreements in a more positive way.”

“I enjoy talking to you, but it’s overwhelming when you call me multiple times per day. Let’s set a time once a day for you to call that works for both of us.”

“We’ve decided to spend the holidays with a few close friends this year. I know this is different than what we usually do, but all the conflict at our family gatherings isn’t good for my marriage or our kids.”

“I understand that you’re frustrated, but when you raise your voice it scares me. I’ll be a better listener if you calm down before you begin a conversation.”

These conversations don't have to be scary!

Unfortunately, the most uncomfortable boundaries conversations occur in relationships that are not healthy and balanced. It is dysfunction and imbalance that creates the discomfort in the first place.

But, when handled in a gentle and loving way, boundaries can heal a relationship. People often feel relieved when someone speaks up and addresses the issue. And if they don’t, that’s a sign that this is a person who may need to be loved from a safe distance. If you have the hard conversation and nothing changes, it’s time for you to evaluate ways to alter the environment.

Sometimes we are too close to a situation to think clearly. This is a good time to enlist some extra support. Don’t feel like you must solve this problem alone! A trusted friend or family member, or a therapist may be able to help you figure out your options. Chances are, things aren’t as hopeless as you think!


If you are afraid for your physical health and safety, this is not a boundaries issue, it’s an abuse issue. You should never feel physically unsafe with others, and you should never have to fear retribution in the form of gossip, screaming, or isolation from others. If you do not feel safe to express your wants and needs, share your fears with someone you trust, and keep seeking support until you find what you need. If you don’t have a safe support system, call the domestic violence hotline at (800) 799-7233.

Learn more...

To learn more about the Redefining Love Way, I encourage you to browse the site. Have questions? Feel free to email me at sara@sarabethwald.com, or schedule a free discovery call. 

For more information on how to join the Redefining Love Community, please visit redefine-love.com/coaching.

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