A Psychologist’s Guide to Setting Boundaries Effectively in Relationships

The idea of breaking down any human connection into principles of programming may sound overly harsh and technical.

As a psychologist, I too would like to believe that there is more to relationships and love than anything we can formulate with algorithm and predictable formulas.

Does that mean that there is no room for behavioural knowledge when it comes to relationships? Not at all!

This article is written for those of you who find that setting boundaries, claiming your power and worth and establishing healthy balance in relationships have proven to be difficult.

I would argue that regardless of whether you believe that a relationship is a plain transaction between two people, or (like me) believe in a far more metaphysical dimension to relationships, there is little doubt that we teach people how to treat us and that any dynamic between two people requires a certain amount of behaviour modification to achieve a healthy balance.

Start a relationship ‘off balance’, and you will find that it is very hard to shift it back into shape.

It is a bit like shrinking your favourite cashmere jumper by washing it on high heat, it will not regain its shape no matter how much you stretch it, pull it or wear it.

When you have an insecure attachment style and struggle to trust and value your own feelings in relationships, setting a ‘healthy stage’ is going to be considerably more effortful.

This is when the behaviourism principles can be truly useful, as you will be a little less dependent on your feelings at any one time.

Instead, you place your focus on the behavioural interplay and more importantly, you consider the longer-term consequences of actions.

Ultimately, behaviours (ours and others) are the output of our inner world and our ability to follow through on intention.

If we disregard other peoples’ behaviours (all while favouring an emotional analysis of a situation) we are going to be setting ourselves up for pain in any relationship.

The principles of behaviourism

Where better to hear the definition than from the horse’s mouth:

B.F Skinner — the American Psychologist who is often called the forefather of behaviourism:

“The consequences of an act affect the probability of its occurring again.”

— B. F. Skinner

In its more radical form, we could infer that every behaviour we establish, is learnt by consequence following the original formulas of classical and operant conditioning.

Skinner developed a three-term contingency to shape behaviour: stimulus, response, and reinforcement

(A)ntecedent (B)ehaviour (C )onsequence

Stimulus — response — reinforcement

B.F Skinner ‘Operant conditioning’ in simple terms:

Furthermore, in his theory of Operant conditioning, he elaborated that any behaviour that is followed by positive reinforcement (rewarded), will likely be repeated.

On the contrary, any behaviour that is punished with an aversive consequence will likely stop occurring.

Finally, a behaviour that is followed by negative reinforcement i.e. the removal of aversive stimuli, is also going to increase the likelihood of that behaviour repeating.

This means that any behaviour of yours that removes a negative consequence for the other person, will be likely to repeat.

If your action removes, for example, a difficult feeling (e.g., fear of losing someone) for you — you will also be more likely to repeat that behaviour.

I find the concept of negative reinforcement to be a commonly misunderstood concept.

There is plenty more to behaviourism than this as we have not even touched on reinforcement schedules.

I will save those for a future article since they also relate perfectly well to relationships. For now, let’s stick to what we have above and put it into applied behaviour analysis of a real situation.

How learning happens in a relationship

‘Emelie’ had recently met a new man online.

She was extremely excited about him, despite the fact that they had only met up on a few occasions. She told me during a therapy session that she had already decided that ‘he was the one’. She could just feel it.

When exploring the relationship, one thing was clear. Her feeling about the relationship and this man had already become the driving force of her own behaviour in the relationship!

Sadly, as is far too common, this also meant that she was paying minimal attention to the way she was setting the scene with this man.

By feeling so invested already, she was also prepared to turn a blind eye to his behaviours, be it good, bad our outright ‘ugly’.

The mistake of reinforcing bad behaviours

Following on from their third date, Emelie felt elated and excited.

She couldn’t believe how well they connected. Strangely, the following morning something had definitely changed. For the last many weeks he had been sending regular ‘Good mornings’ and pretty much kept a flow of messages back and forth.

There was now an eerie silence. Every time she looked at the phone, the lack of notifications felt like a small punch in the gut. Emelie did indeed react to this emotionally.

On looking back, it was clear that her gut feeling at that point was telling her that something had changed.

Let’s break this down using behaviourism principles:

Emelie dismissed her own gut feeling.

Instead, she went on to send messages thanking him for the previous evening and let him know that she couldn’t wait to see him again. When he still did not respond, her fear of losing him kicked in.

Rather than pulling back, she instead went on to send him some lighthearted jokes later that afternoon.

Come the evening, when he finally responded in a fairly aloof and disengaged manner, she swallowed her disappointment about his behaviour, and asked him to come over for dinner and ‘extras’ that same evening.

Her thinking went: “Perhaps he is losing interest; I better give him what he wants…”

Where did Emelie go wrong?

Emelie acted with reasonable intentions here. She liked him. She did not want to lose him. And she was highly motivated to meet with him again.

But… by acting blindly on her feelings while disregarding his behaviour, she instead reinforced the undesirable behaviour of this man.

Her act of leaping forwards in response to his inconsistent behaviour meant she removed her own anxiety about the situation in the short term (negative reinforcement) and simultaneously positively reinforcing his non-committal attitude towards her.


Failing to await his contact, instead of contacting him several times.


  • He learns that not being forthcoming gets him more attention from Emelie (positive reinforcement)

  • She gets her anxiety removed short-term by reaching out (negative reinforcement)

  • His and her behaviours are both likely to repeat.

A double whammy!

If we believe the principles above, this means: He will get lazier. She will keep working harder.

Emelie’s example is fairly typical even if it is based only on a small behaviour change.

Whilst small, it is still an example of catastrophically ‘bad programming’.

If you ever wanted to raise a person into becoming entitled, lazy and unappreciative, this would be how to do it.

By effectively rewarding his disengagement, he will be more rather than less likely to do this again.

Obvious as it may seem, Emelie actually thought that by being forthcoming and proactive, she would encourage him to come forward. But the opposite happened.

How to apply the principles correctly to teach people to do right by you (or else you do right by yourself!)

Let’s use the example of Emelie again for the purpose of illustration.

Had Emelie instead recognised that his sudden and unexplained withdrawal was not something she would like to reward, she could have done the opposite to what she did.

Rather than trying harder, she could have held back. Allowed him to reflect over whether he was invested enough to actually make the effort.

A message would have gone to his brain suggesting: “By being inconsistent, I am not going to get to see this woman. Either I try harder, or I don’t and I will face a consequence (hearing less from her).”

In order to make these principles as simple for you to apply as possible, let’s put them into a few simple rules of thumb:

  • If he/she is doing something that is great and wants to see more of it e.g., having regular contact, showing up when they say, keeping commitments etc — REWARD IT!

  • If, on the other hand, he/she is doing something that is NOT to your liking and you feel needs to be modified create conditions that are unrewarding. In essence, make very sure that your behaviour towards them doesn’t fall into any of these two categories:

Positive reinforcement e.g., calling more often, giving more love, trying harder


Negative reinforcement: removing their consequence e.g., doing so much ‘work’ that they don’t need to do anything, not allowing them the time to process where they went wrong or even providing them an opportunity to feel bad for something they’ve done by rushing to a resolution yourself

If he/she is doing something that feels wrong, is hurtful or makes you feel less valued, make sure that whatever you do, your behaviour is not rewarding either by creating a good feeling or removing a bad one for them!

An important note

I am not in favour of using ‘punishment’ or any level of game-playing to attempt to put an end to a behaviour, or even to try and modify something that you are not happy with.

If someone’s behaviour is so terrible that it needs to be punished then better accept that this person, for whatever reason, is not able to behave appropriately in the relationship with you.

Should this be the case, implement only the ultimate punishment of losing out on you altogether.

But not with an intention of returning to ‘see if it worked’ and if they still pine for you.

If you do that, all that you will do is create a false sense of punishment followed by a felt reward when you return, and indeed still send a message of being OK with the bad behaviours.

What if someone does not care enough to adjust for you?

When working with clients, one of the observations I’ve made is that people are often keen to implement the above, as long as they see hope that their ‘programming’ is working out favourably.

But what happens when it doesn’t?

What if the fact that you withdraw attention, or alternatively speaking up assertively (in response to someone taking you for granted) does not produce any effects at all and the person seems indifferent?

This, very sadly, is something I see quite a bit.

Should this be the case, please trust that you have dodged a ‘deadly’ bullet that would have killed your spirits through self-doubt and feeling compelled to chase for attention and loving acts that would have definitely weaned sooner or later regardless.

Having a poor response to your efforts of rewarding good behaviours and removing rewards for unwanted ones, does not equate to you not being worthy of the efforts, or that you did anything wrong!

In fact, it means that you chose yourself over someone’s flakiness or inability to be clear on intention. Even if they preferred someone else and would have done the right thing to them, you have to trust that this is not something you would have had control over. You can only be yourself!

Anyone can set up a behaviour modification ‘program’ — but be prepared that not everybody is going to respond in the way that you want them to.

If someone is indifferent or disinterested in making even subtle changes to accommodate your needs, chances are that having a balanced relationship with this person will turn out tricky.

Our feelings about someone may differ from our views of their behaviours.

Have you ever had strong feelings of love and attachment for someone, yet not been pleased with how they treat you or their behaviour in general?

When that happens, many things can be at play.

Our attachment system might be ‘firing up’ which could be bad news if you have an insecure attachment style and are prone to confuse feelings of panic and anxiety with feelings of love and butterflies.

It could also be that the chemistry is strong that you are prepared to rationalise their actual behaviour in fear of missing out on these highly addictive feelings.

Example of reasoning based on ‘feeling’ followed by positively reinforcing unwished-for behaviours:

“I know he isn’t calling me but I can feel that he really likes me though…so maybe he is just shy or hasn’t had a moment to get back to me. Let me just call him instead…”

The healthier response that prevents reinforcement of unwished-for behaviour: “Yes, I might not feel like his behaviour is aligned with my emotional experience of this person; however, I also note that if his flaky/inconsistent/bad behaviour gets reinforced, then I am in for a losing battle regardless!”

Regardless of what you ‘feel’ that someone is doing, by trusting their behaviours and taking them at face value we tend to produce a far more accurate ‘read’ of someone’s willingness and ability to commit to a relationship.

By acting on behaviours and staying away from overinterpretation will make for far more mature and mutually loving relationships.

The Takeaway

Setting a healthy scene in a relationship requires us to analyse behaviours (rather than fixating on our feelings).

By ensuring that you follow the principles of behaviourism you can break down your own as well as other peoples’ behaviours and ensure you are providing positive reinforcement only on the behaviours that you would like to see more of.

Even when doing so might mean that you get to sit with your own discomfort for a bit.

A helpful way to think about behaviour modification: If any given behaviour from them is of concern, make sure you check how you respond by asking yourself “Is my response here going to make them more or less likely to repeat this behaviour?”

The key is to have your eyes on the longer term.

Lots of behaviours can produce powerful short-term emotional rewards either for yourself or for them.

These will provide a prompt to repeat the behaviour, even when such do not meet your long-term needs.

In those instances, please disregard the short-term feeling and ensure you adjust your behaviour to fit with your longer-term needs and expectations.

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