Are boundaries in marriage a reasonable option for the suffering spouse in a difficult marriage?
I remember the day my husband-then-boyfriend announced the third person in his life. “Our relationship,” he said. “It’s like a living person, separate from you and I, who needs consistent attention.”
It was a radical revelation and I was arriving at that conclusion too, albeit more slowly. Us was a separate organism.
And much as we professed devotion to one another, it was our actions and attitudes, especially in moments of conflict that determined if us lived or died.
Unfortunately, the beautiful ideal did not cross over to marriage. At least not in its entirety. Walking all over each other in the name of “my rights, my needs, you promised, you took a vow,” took center stage.
And much as our reasoning made sense sometimes, our approach did not. My aggressiveness and his retreating, to be exact.
I have since learned that ours is not the only relationship to suffer amnesia. Many spouses embrace the idea of boundaries and etiquette during courtship only to fight it in marriage.
But it’s true; whether explicitly defined or not, healthy couples abide by certain relationship rules, especially in conflict. It’s rare “anything goes” in these relationships.
Drawing boundaries and offering grace
When I think about my relationship with God, which speaks to my earthly marriage, I see a loving limit. “Here is what failure (sin) looks like, Grace says. Here’s what I’ve done to rescue you from sin (death of Jesus on the cross). This is how you move from failure to victory (repentance)”
I don’t consider the line-in-the-sand unfair or disrespectful. I see it as a channel through which I take personal responsibility for my failure and which leads to an amazing relationship with God.
The purpose of boundaries in marriage is not to lock each other out but to create a safe environment where spouses can take personal responsibility for negative behavior so love can thrive.
So couples, especially those in the newlywed years where storms are frequent and long, learn how to talk without trashing each other, take up their responsibilities without being “followed-up,” and stop wearing each other out in the name of conflict resolution.
Galatians 6 1-3 outlines how brothers and sisters in the Lord ought to help each other grow (and a husband and wife are first brother and sister in the Lord)
Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.
Since I got married, I work a little less to figure out when I have failed because my husband is divinely-ordained reflector and help.
In fact, I was reminded of that last week when we visited a new church. We are in the process of looking for a new home church after a recent move and after the church service, I started to review the preacher’s parting words.
My husband asked me to stop. “You are comparing this church to our former church.”
I didn’t think I was and I sped on.
“Babe stop it, you are being critical.”
Me, critical? No way.
I was getting upset at him, but as we got into the car and drove away, God caught up with me, and it became apparent to me that I was indeed criticizing.
My husband saw me fall into the hole of criticism and tried to help me out.
Moreover, in seeking to help me, he tried make sure he did not fall into the same temptation by engaging my questions and observations. He drew the line and decided what he wasn’t going to listen to.
And that’s how couples help each other grow. Marriage is in fact a refining instrument, and as such spouses have a responsibility to spur each other towards godliness.
So how do we define limits in marriage? How do you, gently and humbly, call out chronic negative behavior and attitudes in a difficult spouse?
Here are five guidelines.
1. You involve your spouse.
As newlyweds, my husband was the retreat-er and I was the resolver. Whenever we had conflict he retreated into an impenetrable cave and I assumed position outside the shut doors to try and get him out.
I was feeling the weight of his shutdowns as I am sure he was feeling the weight of my over-the-top enthusiasm to resolve all misunderstandings in one sitting.
But eventually it fell on me, after countless meetings with mentors, prayers, fears and tears, to quit agitating for conversation. I was convinced that God was calling me to a place of peace.
But we were in the middle of a storm and “can we talk?” always included my over-talking and his distance. But bless his heart, my husband agreed to a sit-down.
Perhaps your husband will not agree to a face-to-face. Then pursue other means of communication, like writing a letter or email. And the next time they burst a boundary, refer to the email/letter you wrote.
If you cannot approach your husband because you fear his reactions, consider involving a mediator (a mentor, pastor).
“But my husband won’t listen, let alone agree to anything.” Well, at least you did your part.
You cannot force him (ref #2) but as the spouse who is feeling the weight of boundary-bursting, you get to decide what crossing the line looks like, based on experience. And then you go ahead to respectfully observe the limits.
2. You cannot force your spouse to observe boundaries
Now, just because you created a safe space does not guarantee your spouse will respect it. That’s why the boundary is there to begin with, because they are struggling to keep a habit in check.
Consider how you treat someone who crosses the line, in the real world? If they are adults, you treat them as such. You talk it out and hope they get it. If they continue to offend you on purpose, you draw the line.
If it’s a colleague at work, you request a different cubicle down the hall. But you don’t get on their face every day, demanding they treat you right.
Your husband is an adult. You hope he heard you when you expressed your desires; now it’s up to him to grow and change.
Here’s what I wrote in my book Blues to Bliss;
“As you work on your communication blues, you will eventually address the unhealthy undertones in your communication and put boundaries and rules for healthy communication. For example, if in the past he has yelled or walked out in the middle of a conversation, you want to call that out. “I want you to know that I feel disrespected when you walk out in the middle of a conversation.” Click here to find out more
We cannot control our spouses but we can control ourselves and reinforce the safe environment needed for marriage to grow.
If your spouse yells out of habit, you are not obligated to sit and listen to the tirade. You can walk out of the room, after a loving reminder.
If he is chronically late, you don’t have to wait and simmer in anger every.single.time. Think up and discuss solutions. And then follow through. Take a cab, catch a ride with a someone else if possible, or discuss a second car.
If he’s watching pornography, refuses to get help and expects you to be fully available in the bedroom, you can draw an intimacy line, perhaps with the help of a mentor. Affirm your love and commitment, and to the honor and purity of your relationship and bring up your unwillingness to participate in its defilement.
3. Boundaries spring from prayer and humility
I had never been more prayed-up, cried-out or more broken than when I approached my husband to talk boundaries. God had painted a clear picture of my own missteps and compared to mine, Tommy looked like an angel!
I was painfully aware of how much we both needed God.
I was humbled to the place I was willing to do my part – keep praying, only initiate conversation when appropriate, keep cooking and cleaning and being a blessing to him – even if he wasn’t ready for a turn around.
I was willing to do marriage for God’s glory, not my comfort or happiness.
When I approached my husband, I was offering our relationship back to him, “We’ll continue to struggle unless you do your part. But I will strive to do my part.”
So before you run out to create boundaries with your husband, spend time with God. Figure out what He wants you to do through reading His word and prayer. And when God begins to shine his big light on your own heart, don’t make excuses.
God always starts with our heart, even as He works on the issues on the table. Develop the pliability you wish to see in your husband. Do the thing you wish to see your husband do; total surrender to God.
4. Boundaries are unpleasant, often painful.
If boundaries in marriage sound like a genius plan to insulate yourself from the pain and disappointment of a difficult marriage, you may have misread the post.
Because when you consider everything else I’ve said in this post, particularly #2, you see how drawing and walking out boundaries is an uncomfortable experience for both spouses.
Walking out our boundaries was harder than running after my husband. I wanted to talk talk talk but had to learn to zip up and pray.
And of course, the hardest part about boundaries is the fact that the rest of your marriage continues. Just because you have a limit in one area of marriage doesn’t mean the rest of your marriage stopped living.
In as far as possible, you seek to live in peace with your husband. (Romans 12:8) You cook, clean, remain pleasant and respectful. Even when you need to reinforce the limits. You persevere with a good heart and attitude.
5. Boundaries have a purpose
The reason some couples struggle with the idea of boundaries in marriage is because they see limits as the end, not the facilitator.
But the purpose of boundaries is to help spouses become more like Christ so the marriage can thrive; they are a vehicle to get a marriage to a healthier place.
Boundaries help define habits and behavior when we can’t define them for ourselves. They bring peace to the spouse who has to bear the brunt of negative habits and attitudes.
They create room, so the struggling spouse has clear-er vision. Boundaries force us to walk in tough love when we’d rather hide, or do our thing.
Other things to consider;
– Communication style. You can have a godly idea but kill it with execution. For example, telling your husband “God told me to draw boundaries with you” might trigger defenses and add more fire to the squabble.
When my husband and I had our conversation, the word “boundary” never featured in our discussion. So think about the end goal – to heal and restore your marriage. Leave out everything that would shoot down the goal.
– Not all habits call for boundaries. Some habits call for our own growth, not our spouse. Say, your husband doesn’t like to cook. Perhaps you need embrace the fact that you’ll be doing more cooking than you envisioned.
– Involve a mentor. Drawing boundaries with a spouse is a delicate subject. It’s a good idea, if you are unsure, to involve a mentor or counselor.
Today’s post is not an exhaustive list, but I hope it gets you thinking about how to steer your marriage to a healthier place. If abuse and infidelity are involved in your marriage, please check out these posts – 1, 2
My friend Barb Raveling wrote an excellent post titled, 10 Tips for When Your Spouse Won’t Change. Please check it out
If you enjoyed this post, consider sharing it with a friend!
Are you vexed because your husband won’t change? Wondering how to positively influence his life? My book Blues to Bliss might help. I wrote it with the newlywed wife in mind. If you are imperfect girl married to an imperfect guy, this book is for you. Learn about the book, and find the purchase links – Click here
* I was to continue with part two of last week’s post, but I feel like God dropped this post in my heart to share this week. So I’ll continue with the previous week’s post in the coming week.