Boundaries in Marriage and Relationships

Boundaries are the effective alternative to arguing or pleading with your spouse to change. Stop losing respect and get back to a better relationship. 

boundaries in marriage graph
Boundaries are what we use to stop damaging behavior when talking fails

Do your marriage problems get worse when you talk about them with your spouse? If so, you may have learned to keep your mouth shut rather than make your problems worse. But, you know what keeping your mouth shut does? It slowly drains the love you feel for your spouse.

What if you had a way to stop your spouse’s damaging behavior within two weeks? That is the power of having the right boundaries in your marriage.

Boundaries help when talking doesn’t

Talking is very important in relationships. But talking about problems sometimes leads to increased conflict. It’s important to know when and how to talk about marriage problems. It’s also important to know what to do when talking is not enough. The good news is that other than talking, there are some really good ways to improve your relationship. Using boundaries is one of them. Helping your spouse to enjoy your relationship is another. These two methods go hand in hand to solve many marriage problems involving disrespect.

Misconceptions about boundaries

Misconception #1: Boundaries mean telling people what to do or how we feel

Boundaries don’t involve telling people what we don’t like (criticizing), nor is it trying to make someone do something (controlling). These behaviors only create conflict and distance. How often does letting your spouse know what you don’t like about his or her behavior result in good connection? Or change?

Misconception #2: It is possible for people to violate our boundaries

Boundaries are actions that we take. They are completely under our control, so others cannot disrespect them. On the contrary, they build respect. Changing what we do always changes what our spouses do. Words often just cause conflict. By focusing on our behavior, we don’t cause arguments or power struggles. We end them and prevent them. No good relationship can thrive without boundaries.

Boundaries never include shouting, commanding, arguing, complaining, threatening, or nagging.

Misconception #3: Boundaries are a lot of work

Boundaries usually result in change within two weeks. Compare that to years of complaining, arguing, or just feeling downright angry about your spouse’s behavior. If a boundary is used the very first time a damaging behavior occurs, it often can be stopped immediately. For well established behaviors, two weeks are usually enough to get to significant improvement.

Misconception #4: Boundaries damage relationships

A lack of boundaries is very damaging to relationships. When you allow people to mistreat you in any way, they lose respect for you. They also feel more powerful than you and care less and less about you. Parents who allow their children to do anything end up with kids who hate them. The same goes for other relationships.

What Is a boundary?

Simply stated, it is an effective action you either take or refuse to take, to end a damaging behavior. Communicate them, if they won’t be readily understood from the action alone. Many times our actions communicate better than words. Boundaries are always used for good. Use them to protect yourself and your relationship. Take actions that prevent your spouse from hurting you.

Your relationship will become better–and your spouse will enjoy it more, too. When we refuse to buy alcohol for our addicted spouses, or refuse to live with a spouse who is having an affair, we are helping them to have a better relationship with us. That angers them in the short term, but it benefits them in the long term. Two weeks of boundaries can often do what 20 years of criticizing cannot.

Why boundaries work when words fail

Imagine that your spouse puts you down regularly. It makes you upset and you want your spouse to stop. So, you decide to tell this to your spouse, as follows:

I don’t like it when you put me down. I want you to stop putting me down and never do it again,

It would be assertive, clear, and direct, but would not result in permanent change. Your spouse already knows you don’t like to be put down. What you say tells you are upset, but doesn’t motivate behavior change. What you do, shows that you are upset, and will no longer tolerate the behavior. In the case of damaging behavior, changing what we do changes what others do. Changing what we say does not. And, simply being upset does not.

Hanging up on, or walking out on, someone who is putting you down. These actions that are under your control can eliminate put downs. Refusing to ride with someone who drives dangerously would help to keep you safe in a way that simply complaining would not.Done consistently, it would change this dynamic. If instead, you were to tell the other person:

Boundaries are your best response in severe situations

If your spouse is being abusive or threatening, then use a boundary first. If your spouse is cheating on you, then you need to establish good boundaries right after you discover the affair. The reason they must be used first in these situations is because your spouse knows he or she is being disrespectful and damaging the marriage.  You don’t have to convince and persuade your spouse that what he or she is doing is wrong or harmful. Attempting to do so, rather than taking action, will lose you respect.

Loving communication should be used first for less severe situations

When your spouse is doing something you don’t like, but is not immediately threatening or damaging (for example, with overspending, forgetting, showing up late, or spending a lot of time on social media), boundaries should not be used first. Instead, loving communication should be used first.

Loving communication never includes criticizing or complaining. Criticizing and complaining are needy behaviors that make your spouse love you less  Loving communication is telling your spouse what you want and why it is important for the both of you.  For example,

Honey, would you make a budget with me so that we can make sure we have enough money to do some really fun things together?

Next comes more assertive communication

If such loving communications fail, you can become more assertive, but factual, rather than attacking.  Something like,

We need to make a budget and keep our expenses down or the stress from our debt will start to hurt our relationship.

If this level of communication also fails, then the next step is to communicate your boundary. Such communication is not necessary with severe behaviors because your behavior makes it clear. Here is an example of a boundary communicated lovingly:

Honey, I love you and don’t want debt to tear our relationship apart.  That’s why I’ve decided that if you keep spending past our budget, I’m going to put my income in a separate account.  Then, I will pay my share of the bills and decide by myself how to control the rest.

After stating your boundary, never argue about it, but always keep it. Notice that the boundary is stated in form of a decision that you have already made. It is not up for discussion or debate. It is the way things are going to be. No matter how lovingly you communicate, your spouse will feel angry or get angry. Don’t let that draw you into an argument. Allow your spouse to be angry and not agree. Agreement is not required.

When you establish boundaries, it will make your spouse angry at first, but then create change

Setting boundaries in marriage requires you to be secure

There is no way to use a boundary in a way that your spouse will like. Secure people don’t fear making their spouse temporarily angry. The anger will go away after the bad behavior stops, and the relationship improves. Insecure or “needy” people, however, will try to prevent their spouse from becoming angry by not using boundaries. Their relationships do not improve and become more distant as time passes.

The choice is between short term anger and increasing distance in the relationship

If you don’t use boundaries, or wait too long to use them, your marriage will be at the point where your spouse really doesn’t care what you do. Such a reaction from a spouse is not an indication that you are wrong to use a boundary–it is an indication that you have waited too long to begin using one (and have probably used criticism, complaining, or withdrawal instead).

Boundaries are an everyday part of life

These are examples of everyday boundaries:

  • refusing to eat a second piece of cake
  • not driving if you had more than one drink
  • making a to do list every morning
  • accepting social invitations, even when you don’t feel social
  • refusing to lend your car to a teen who is doing poorly in school
  • deciding to be aloof whenever someone other than your spouse flirts with you

Refusing to participate in bad things is just as important as accepting good things. Without doing that, we could not maintain our physical, mental, or spiritual health, and we also could not maintain good relationships with others.  Our actions rather than our words are the key to reversing damage whether we are losing weight or making friends.

Boundaries are not enough

Boundaries in marriage and relationships always have to be counterbalanced

The amount of love you show your spouse must always outweigh the boundaries you use. If not, your boundaries will create resentment in your spouse rather than respect. When I work with a man or woman whose spouse is having an affair, I help them to have specific, strong boundaries, and give them many ways to create connection. When I help a man or a woman to deal with a critical, complaining, controlling spouse, I have them use good boundaries, but I also teach them many ways of helping their spouse feel loved.

Boundaries can’t be used to start a good behavior

When we want our spouses to do good things, like spend time us, we need to create a desire. What is it that will make your spouse want to spend more time with you? Or to have more sex with you? What made him or her want to do those things with you earlier in your relationship? Becoming attractive to your spouse and using good connection skills are the bulk of marriage work.

Marriage counseling is often not the answer for stopping a spouse’s damaging behaviors

If you want to go to marriage counseling to work on your spouse’s damaging behaviors, you may be disappointed. First, no matter how bad your relationship is, your spouse is not likely to want to go to counseling if matters are mostly their fault. Convincing your spouse to go to counseling is likely to make things worse. Although counselors do their best to be impartial, that is hard to do if one spouse is obviously doing very damaging things.

Individual counseling or coaching for you is the best way to get your spouse to change

What do Do When He Won't Change
A book to help you have boundaries with selfish, angry, unhappy, or withdrawn husbands

Since Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote the book, Boundaries in 2004, counselors have been using boundaries more and more with clients, but mainly in individual work. Some things are hard to do when both husband and wife are present. Therefore, marriage counseling is most helpful when both spouses want to accomplish the same thing. The same is true for talking together at home. Then you will have a spirit of cooperation and be able to do constructive problem solving.

Relationship coaching focuses more on skills

drawing of couple in conflict
Restoring Love with Difficult Partners (Coaching Package)

Counseling is a good choice when you need a lot of emotional support. Coaching is a better choice when you mainly need skills. Time in coaching is spent giving you strategies for creating change in your relationship. Coaching does not require the participation or knowledge of your spouse. Just as parent training works by training you rather than your child, coaching works by training you to help (and connect with) your spouse. If you would like one on one help to restore love with your difficult spouse, I have a difficult partner coaching package you will want to review.

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