Better boundaries in marriage mean more respect, more love, and better communication
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. It will keep on draining until you have no love left to give unless you learn to effectively use boundaries. Used properly, boundaries will prevent conflict and improve your relationship.
Misconceptions about Boundaries
Boundaries are one of the most poorly understood aspects of a healthy relationship. Many people think that using boundaries in marriage means telling our spouse what we don’t like, or it is something that we try to get others to do. Telling people what we don’t like is not a boundary. It is actually complaining and rarely results in improvement. Trying to get other people to do/not do things is being controlling. Usually that only creates power struggles. Boundaries, on the other hand, are us taking responsibility for change. Because there is no attempt to control the other person, power struggles are avoided. Boundaries give you the power over your decisions, while your spouse still retains the power over his or her decisions.
What Is a Boundary?
Simply stated, a boundary is an action you either take or refuse to take, whether you communicate it or not. For example, screening your calls before you answer them is an action you take. So, it is a boundary. If instead, you tried to get other people to stop calling you, that would not be a boundary. Boundaries are about controlling what you do; they are not about controlling other people’s behavior.
Another example of a boundary is hanging up on, or walking out on, someone who is putting you down. That’s a behavior that you do. Walking out or hanging up are actions that are under your control. If instead, you were to tell the other person, “I don’t like it when you put me down. I want you to stop putting me down and never do it again,” that is not a boundary. It is assertive, clear, and direct. But it is not a boundary. Telling your spouse this virtually ensures that you will be put down the next time your spouse is angry.
Boundaries in Marriage Should Be Used First for Severe Situations
If your spouse is being abusive or threatening, then by all means, use a boundary first. If your spouse is cheating on you, then boundaries need to be used soon after you discover the affair. The reason that boundaries 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. And then, you will get blamed for being the cause of your spouse’s behavior. Your spouse is not going to say, “Gosh honey, I didn’t realize it would upset you if I called you a *!$&, or messed around with one of my coworkers. Thank you for letting me know. It won’t happen again.” You married a real person–not a fairy tale character.
Boundaries in Marriage Should Be Used Second or Third 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, or showing up late), boundaries should not be used first. Instead, loving communication should be used first.
Loving communication is not criticizing or complaining (those are not loving). 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?”
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, but in a loving way’–“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.
Boundaries Will Make Your Spouse Angry, But Can Save Your Marriage
Whether you communicate your boundary or just go ahead and do it, it will make the other person angry. Secure people understand this and can tolerate such short term anger for the sake of improving their relationship. Insecure or “needy” people, however, will try to prevent their spouse from becoming angry by not using boundaries. The choice is between short term anger and long term deterioration of the relationship. If you don’t use boundaries in marriage, or wait too long to use boundaries, 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 boundaries (and have probably used criticism, complaining, or shutting down instead).
Boundaries Are an Everyday Part of Life
When you refuse to eat that second piece of cake or to drink and drive, it is you using a boundary (deciding what you will or will not do). When you refuse to lend your car to a teen who is doing poorly in school, you are using a boundary (deciding what you will or will not do). When you resist the temptation to flirt with someone on Facebook or decide to spend time with your spouse, even when you are tired, you are using boundaries (deciding what you will or will not do). Without boundaries, we could not maintain our physical, mental, or spiritual health, and we also could not maintain good relationships with others. As any people pleaser will tell you, always doing what the other person wants will result in worse relationships with others. If you just give and give and give, eventually you will resent the other person so much that you will not care about the relationship anymore. Boundaries are the fix to many relationships that are leaking love.
Boundaries Are Not Enough
Boundaries in marriage and relationships always have to be counterbalanced with a lot of love. Just as giving, giving, giving can destroy relationships, so can boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. When I work with a man or woman whose spouse is having an affair, I help them to have very strong boundaries, and an equally strong amount of love. 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 several ways of showing their spouse love.
Boundaries, Like Love, Don’t Require Your Spouse’s Cooperation
I’ve been in the business of reconciling relationships for 20+ years. I have helped turn around countless relationships where my client’s spouse was controlling, withdrawn, or rejecting. I never helped my clients to do this by having them convince their spouse of anything. Instead, I trained my clients to stand strong in both love and boundaries, to make the first move, second move, and third moves that brought respect and love in return in their relationships. And, I did it without their spouse’s knowledge or consent. Love must be tough, but most of all, it must be loving.