Confused about Boundaries? 5 Key Principles You Can Use to Master Them

Although the effective use of boundaries can mean the difference between a good relationship and a bad one. Many people are confused about what boundaries are and how to use them.

disconnecting husband with fingers in his ears
The correct use of boundaries can help you get closer rather than getting tuned out.

Have you tried to get your spouse to stop doing something by using boundaries? If it hasn’t worked, it’s probably because you were not using boundaries correctly. A screwdriver is the right tool to use for tightening a screw, but only if you use the correct end.

You can’t have a good relationship without good boundaries. If you are too tough, your spouse may reject you. If you are too soft, your spouse won’t respect you. How can you have a balance that will create change without damaging your relationship. This post will show you.

1. What is a boundary?

Boundaries can be physical or behavioral, but they have one purpose only. Physical boundaries prevent harm by preventing physical behavior. So, a railing at the top of the cliff is a boundary to prevent you from falling over. A seatbelt is a boundary to prevent you from flying through the windshield in an accident. A safety cap on a medicine bottle is a boundary to prevent children from eating the pills.

Behavioral boundaries are also for the purpose of preventing harm. A disruptive child may be removed from a classroom. That is a boundary for both the sake of the child and the class. Allowing children to be disruptive will lead to long term problems for them, as well as others. In a caring society, rioters will likewise be removed to prevent property destruction, and to protect them from retaliation if they continue.

Boundaries in marriage serve the same purpose. They prevent your spouse from doing ongoing damage that would ultimately lead to marital destruction and be bad for your spouse as well. We don’t do our spouse any favors by allowing unchecked physical, emotional, sexual, or financial abuse. We also don’t do our spouse any favors by allowing addictions or affairs.

A boundary is not a message. We can inform someone of a boundary, but giving information alone does not prevent bad behavior and so is not a boundary. For example, a sign outside of a bank saying, “You are not allowed to rob this bank,” would not prevent robberies. Security, vaults, and alarms would still be required. Telling your spouse not to disrespect you is not a boundary because it does not prevent your spouse from disrespecting you.

2. When do we use boundaries?

The more severe the behavior, the sooner boundaries must be used. If I have a client who is being sexually or physically abused, we must implement boundaries right away. Those can cause severe and irreparable damage to oneself as well as to the relationship. The boundary for these situations are things like separation, restraining orders, and not being alone with perpetrator.

If the behavior is damaging, but not severe, then it is NOT the first step to make the relationship better. This is true for all relationships. When I help my clients to improve their relationships with their badly behaving spouses, we have to consider first the condition of the relationship. The worse the relationship, the more important it is to strengthen the relationship first, before using boundaries.

In a bad relationship with an adult or a child, here is the sequence for relationship improvement:

  1. Stop all damaging behaviors that you are contributing to the relationship (end neediness). 
  2. Use skills that will help the other person to enjoy having a relationship with you (build connection).
  3. Use boundaries to deal with remaining destructive behaviors.

If you leave out the first two steps, then your boundaries will add additional stress to an already damaged relationship. The more valuable we are to someone, the more they will care about our boundaries.

We do not use boundaries if the behavior is not damaging. If the other person is doing something you don’t like, but if left unchecked will not do severe harm, then you don’t use boundaries. Using boundaries for disliked, but not damaging behaviors, will cause more damage. Your boundaries will also appear to be unreasonable, and will be received more as criticism by your spouse.

If a boundary will do more harm than good, then it is not used.

3. How many boundaries can we use?

While it is tempting to use as many boundaries as there are damaging behaviors, we must not. Instead, you have to identify the most damaging behavior and use a boundary for that, while also maintaining the good aspects of your relationship. While it may seem like it would take longer to improve your relationship this way, it doesn’t. It is the fastest way to improve your relationship.

The more boundaries we use, the less effective they become. Boundaries require that people make changes. If you have tried to change yourself, you know that is hard. It is no less hard for your spouse. Requiring your spouse to make multiple changes at the same time will lead to frustration and distancing. Your relationship is more likely to fail.

4. What can’t I use boundaries for?

Boundaries are only used for stopping behaviors. They can’t be used in isolation for starting behaviors. For example, if you require your spouse to date you to prevent you divorcing, then you may get compliance. Compliance is not the same thing as connection. Compliance, in the absence of emotional connection, brings resentment.

You could, for example, require that your children spend time with you or else you will withhold their cell phone. They will give you resentful compliance, but at the expense of your relationship. It is good to limit cell phone use, but not in order to make your kids spend time with you. For that, you would need to work on your emotional connection to your children. The same principle applies to your spouse.

5. Boundaries require back up plans

Two conditions make relationship boundaries effective. The first is your spouse caring about your relationship. The more valuable to you are to your spouse, the more your spouse will care about your boundaries.

The second condition is your ability to use a more severe boundary if your initial boundary does not create change. Walking away from verbal abuse may be your first boundary. Initiating a separation may be your second boundary. Refusal to ride with a spouse who behaves badly in the car may be your first boundary. Refusing to go out with your spouse at all may be your backup boundary.

Without a backup boundary, difficult spouses will simply wait for you to get frustrated and give up. When you have a backup boundary, you will use it only a limited time (e.g. two weeks), and then move on to your backup boundary. This prevents you getting frustrated and helps you to continue to treat your spouse well. Remember, you must use connections skills to keep your relationship good while also using your boundaries.

Resources for further study:

Boundaries, a book by Cloud and Townsend.

Overcome Neediness and Get the Love You Want, by Jack Ito. I wrote this book to help you with stopping any damage you are doing, which is the first step to dealing with your spouse’s behaviors.

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