When (and How) to Set Boundaries

Our experts explain how to assert yourself—without disrupting the peace.

Photo by Bryan Mullennix / Getty Images

Real Simple’s modern manners columnist Catherine Newman, etiquette expert and author of the parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy, helps you set material, mental, and emotional boundaries when you're pushed beyond your limits. 

I’ve given one of my coworkers a ride home on a few occasions, as we live in the same area. I thought I was just doing her an occasional favor. However, now she asks me for a ride home several times a week. I think of my commute as a way to decompress from the day, and I don’t want to feel obligated to give a ride every time I’m asked. I know that her husband can pick her up, as I’ve seen him come to get her when I’ve declined. I’ve been telling her I’m busy after work, but she doesn’t seem to be taking the hint. Is there another solution? — S. B.

This is a deceptively deep question. Because if you can help somebody out (and be eco-friendly in the process) at a minimal cost to yourself, I’m inclined to think you should, even if it means tamping down your self-interest in the process. However, if the rewards of doing a good deed are not enough compensation and you still feel put upon, you can try a different tack. You are basically carpooling, but without any of the benefits to you, so why not ask your coworker to kick in for gas? This might be just enough of a bonus to make her company worth your while, or it might be just enough of a deterrent to your coworker to keep her from joining you. Another option is transparency. Say to her what you say here: “I’m so sorry, but my drive home is valuable decompression time for me. Of course I’m happy to help out in a pinch, but otherwise I really need that commute to myself. I hope you understand.” And the middle ground? Drive her, but make it clear that you’re not in the mood for conversation. Put on music or a podcast and say, “I hope it’s OK if we don’t talk. I prefer to tune out while I’m driving.” Then you can ignore her and still be carrying out an act of kindness.

"I am a very petite woman (five-one and 94 pounds), and I have been my entire life, due to a high metabolism and my genetic inheritance. On an almost daily basis, strangers and coworkers comment on how small and skinny I am. It makes me self-conscious. Often the comments are meant to be funny but feel mean. ("I hate you for being able to eat whatever you want and still be skinny.") Or people outright ask me how much I weigh. I never know how to respond." — E.M.

Curvy or narrow, tiny or big, women are constantly judged and objectified—via praise or shaming—and it almost always feels bad, for several reasons. Either we don't want to be reduced to the physical fact of our bodies, or a compliment sent our way sends shame somewhere else, or the cultural obsession with thinness is, obviously, doing so much damage to girls and women (and, yes, even to men). You might think of filling your emotional toolbox with various all-purpose deflections: "I'm just lucky to be healthy." "This body definitely gets me where I want to go." "Small but mighty—that's my motto." Your "admirer" would have to be a real jerk to hear a retort and still direct the conversation back to your weight. If it happens, I'd simply say, "I'd prefer to talk about something else." Given that these folks are probably projecting their own insecurities onto you, find a way to bolster them, if you can: "Tell me about your promotion" or "Did I hear that you're doing ballroom dancing? How cool is that!" You'll remind everyone that size doesn't matter, and there are far more interesting things to be talking about.

My two roommates tend to clutter the counters in our kitchen with their junk. I've talked to them about clearing the detritus and made room in the cabinets for their things, but they still don't change their messy behaviors. What can I do to make them keep the counters neater? Or should I throw in the towel and just clean up after them myself?" — D.K.

Maddening as this may be to you, it's a valuable learning experience: For the future, you'll know that neatness really matters to you in roommates and that you should choose your living situation accordingly.

In the meantime, no, you can't make your roommates be neater, but there are a couple of stopgap measures that you could try. Get a large basket and ask your housemates if stuff left on the counters could be tossed (by you) into the basket. (They can sort their own items out later, as they please.) Or give each person a labeled bucket and ask them to please corral their own things. "I'm sorry to focus on this issue," you might say, to mitigate any potential friction. "But having less cluttered surroundings would help me feel more at home."

One thing that I learned from living with the world's sloppiest person, who went on to become one of my dearest friends: Some of the most fun, easygoing people are also, well, messy. However, they can also provide balance in the lives of those of us who are more tightly wound and particular. If there might be a silver lining in your situation, by all means, look for it.

My husband and I own two cars. I have a friend from a one-car family who often asks me for a ride to work or to borrow my car so she can run errands during the workday. I always oblige but have begun feeling resentful. Even though she doesn't drive the car far, she never offers to put gas in the tank and seems to take it for granted. Additionally, her family used to own two cars but chose to sell one for the cost savings. Am I being unreasonable? If not, is there a polite way to let her know that I feel she is overstepping a boundary? — H.H.

I can see why you're irritated. Borrowing shouldn't entail any expense for the lender. Take the cocktail dress to the cleaners, have the vacation home cleaned, and, yes, fill the car with gas. Nonetheless, if your friend is struggling to pay the bills or is significantly less well-off than you are, you might simply help as you're able to and let it go. See yourself as donating to their cause, not being taken advantage of. If, on the other hand, you believe that you're subsidizing the voluntary frugality of a parsimonious (and inconsiderate) financial equal, say something. "As you know, it's expensive to keep two cars. If you're going to keep borrowing ours, we would appreciate it if you would chip in for gas." If you prefer to stop lending the car, look into your insurance policy. Car insurance often sticks with the vehicle, not the driver, so you can probably make an honest case that yours won't cover her use of it.

My roommate and I have been sharing an apartment for about nine months. Not long ago, she installed a lock on her bedroom door. She now locks her room whenever she leaves the apartment, even for short periods of time. I'm offended by this behavior because it seems as if she doesn't trust me. Should I bring up the matter with her? — C.G.

Yes, you and your roommate should talk. You're assuming that her behavior is a veiled accusation, but in actuality there are several other possible reasons why she has taken to locking up when she leaves.

A bedroom is often the only private space in a communal living situation, and it's not unusual or unreasonable for someone to want to reinforce that boundary. Perhaps you have friends over to the apartment whom your roommate doesn't know well enough to trust. Or she may have a history of bad experiences with former roommates.

Whatever the reason for her caution, you won't know unless you talk to her about it. "I've noticed that you've started locking your room," you can say. "I would hate to think that I've done anything to betray your trust." Chances are, she will tell you something that puts your mind at ease. Or, more awkwardly, she'll express a concern—maybe she's been missing her iPad or some jewelry—and you'll have the opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding.

We lucked out when it comes to the neighbors on both sides of our house. Both families get along very well with ours. However, every time my six-year-old twins go outside, they somehow end up in one of the neighbors' yards or vice versa. I'm glad that they get along so well, but I don't want to impose on other parents or supervise their children all the time. How can I set some boundaries so that every trip outside doesn't turn into a playdate? Sometimes I just want to hang out in the yard with my own kids. — T.Y.

You're right to feel fortunate. There is something wonderfully old-fashioned about a roving group of neighborhood pals. It's also a phenomenon that will probably come to an end once your kids get a little older and are less interested in backyard play-dates. Until then, there is no reason that you can't broach your concerns with the other parents. Focus on your worry that you are imposing, since mentioning your aversion to watching their children might be taken the wrong way. "I love that our kids are all friends," you can say. "But I never want my children to be a burden on you." This thoughtful sentiment will give the parents a chance to voice similar worries—or not, given that some people find it easier to manage their own kids if there are friends around to occupy them.

In addition, it's fine to say to these little neighbor playmates, when the situation arises, "Unfortunately my kids aren't available right now, since we're trying to have a little bit of family time. But, hey, try coming around tomorrow instead!" In the process, you can explain this desire to your own children, so they can start to learn the concept of intentional boundaries. You don't need a fence; you just need clear communication.

Our home is on a slope and has a great view of the coastline. Sadly, the house below us is not well maintained. It's sorely in need of paint and repairs, plus the owners are storing tons of unsightly stuff in the backyard—an old, nonfunctioning RV, an upside-down sofa, and other junk. This is hurting our property value, and I've had to install bottom-up/top-down blinds to keep my blood pressure in check. How can we approach the neighbor? — S.T.

First of all, check your town's regulations on property maintenance. There may well be laws requiring homeowners to keep up the appearance of their dwellings in various ways. In that case, you can call town hall and ask to speak to someone about the neighbor's infractions. (Bonus: Then it's the municipality's problem to deal with, not yours.)

However, if there are no rules governing this sort of thing, you'll need to have a chat with the neighbor. Start by assuming he is blissfully ignorant of the eyesore clutter in his yard or the rundown appearance of his home. Be as delicate and as gracious as you can: "I know it's your backyard, and I'm so sorry to be meddlesome, but we are in love with our coastal view, and I'm wondering if there's anything you would be willing to do to help us keep it clear. We're more than happy to help in any way."

If he is amenable, you can look into splitting the cost of a haul-away service or sharing the labor of a dump run or a tidying-up. Given your attachment to the view, this would be money well spent.

And if he is not? Leave it alone. Ultimately, a well-placed fence or shrub is going to be much easier to live with than an irate neighbor.

How do I politely ask someone to stop letting her dog pee on our grass? We have a neighbor across the street who will walk over to our front lawn to have the little (female) dog do her business—on a daily basis. I've already asked her not to have her dog pee on our side lawn because our very big (male) dog can smell that and pulls hard on the leash to get over to it. Is there an acceptable way for us to also ask her not to use the front lawn as her dog's litter box? — J. L.

I usually like to approach negligent pet owners as if they're innocently unaware of what's happening—like Oops, totally unbeknownst to you, your dog has been pooping in our begonias! Your neighbor, however, is not just in the know; she is blatantly facilitating the dog's urinary transgressions. I confess that I've only ever concerned myself with the solid leavings of our neighborhood dogs, but if the pee is bugging you—and your canine—say something. "We appreciate that you've kept your pup from peeing in our side yard, but that request goes for the front yard as well." Then describe your dog's territorial unruliness, which she, as a fellow dog owner, may sympathize with. This gentle approach is preferable to posting a No Trespassing sign or building a fence. You would be well within your rights, of course, but that would create an even more unneighborly relationship.

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