Fluid vs. Rigid Boundaries: Here's The Difference & When To Use Each One
Setting boundaries is a healthy way to express your needs and set limits with others. There are several types of boundaries, and the way people enforce them can range from fluid to rigid. It's rare to lean on one method entirely, since different circumstances will call for stricter or looser limitations. Here's how mental health professionals describe the difference between fluid and rigid boundaries.
What are fluid boundaries?
"Fluid boundaries are boundaries that are flexible," licensed psychoanalyst Babita Spinelli, L.P., tells mbg, meaning, a person will assess the situation and allow for some wiggle room when appropriate. "An individual with fluid boundaries creates more room in a healthy way, emotionally and physically," Spinelli says.
As long as it's not a toxic relationship, fluid boundaries allow a person to set parameters around a situation without controlling or manipulating it. This type of boundary-setting leaves room for productive, hard conversations where each individual can both accept and respect the other person's feelings and nonnegotiables, Spinelli explains.
"Fluid and clear boundaries are game-changers," mental health counselor Ilene Smith, M.A., writes for mbg. "They reduce stress on our relationships and increase our ability for self-care, attunement, and well-being."
Examples of fluid boundaries:
- Parenting: Teaching kids right from wrong but allowing them to make mistakes and form their own opinions.
- Sex: No new positions without talking about it first.
- Roommates: Communicating a need for personal space but finding time to be social and communal.
- Work: Accepting that you may work late but setting a reasonable hour to stop.
When to use them.
Fluid boundaries make sense in situations where you want to set some parameters and ground rules, but you're willing to be flexible or consider each case as it comes up. They're great for healthy relationships of any kind (romantic, friendship, familial, etc.) when there is active listening, empathy, and understanding. In romantic relationships, Spinelli says, healthy couples can use fluid boundaries to navigate new situations. This may include a new move, the next step in their relationship, exclusivity, or more.
What are rigid boundaries?
The opposite of fluid boundaries is rigid boundaries, where there is little to no flexibility. "In rigid boundaries, an individual lays out strict boundaries," Spinelli says. "The person is firmly walled off so that no one can become close to them emotionally or physically."
Along with unhealthy situations or fear, people with a certain personality type (controlling, narcissistic, or emotionally unavailable) may be more inclined to set rigid boundaries, she adds. When used inappropriately, rigid boundaries may lead to barriers to intimacy.
Examples of rigid boundaries:
- Addiction: No alcohol in the house if you're in recovery. Calling a sponsor when there is a clear urge to drink.
- Parenting: Teenagers cannot have drugs or alcohol in the home. No drinking and driving. No staying out past a certain time.
- Affairs: Zero contact with the affair partner.
- Sex: No anal sex, period. No sex with people outside of the relationship.
When to use them.
Rigid boundaries make sense when something is truly a nonnegotiable for you. There are many reasons someone might choose to set rigid boundaries, from ensuring physical safety to responding to unhealthy past experiences, Spinelli explains. For example, "A person who is in a domestic abuse situation or one with a partner with an addiction would assert rigid boundaries. Individuals who have also experienced sexual or physical abuse in their past would also lean toward rigid boundaries," she says. Additionally, if a partner has been cheated on, they may set rigid boundaries while trust is being rebuilt. Once that safety starts to return, they may become fluid again.
The bottom line.
Rigid and fluid boundary setting can be situational or dependent upon a person's personality. Reflecting on your own needs through journaling, spending time alone, or seeing a therapist can help determine which situations may warrant one or the other.
Overall, "In situations where an individual is in an abusive or toxic situation, it is important to lean toward nonnegotiables or rigid boundaries to ensure safety," Spinelli says, whereas, people in healthy, understanding relationships can likely lean on fluid boundaries.
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.