Boundaries in Marriage
By Rex Allison, LPC
In an earlier post, I shared about the general importance of boundaries in relationships. As you can imagine, the stakes are even higher when it comes to understanding and setting healthy boundaries within a marriage.
In their book “Boundaries in Marriage,” authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend illustrate it well.
“In the simplest sense, a boundary is a property line. It denotes the beginning and end of something…If you know where the property lines are, you can look up who owns the land. In relationships, ownership is also very important if I know where the boundaries are in our relationship, I know who ‘owns’ things such as feelings, attitudes, and behaviors as well.”
Have a lack of boundaries caused problems in your marriage? Do you struggle to take responsibility for your own attitude and thoughts in your interactions with your spouse? Do discussions regularly dissolve into heated arguments with blaming and name calling? Boundary issues in marriage can manifest in a variety of ways such as breakdowns in communication, lack of conflict resolution, selfishness, and lack of ownership when it comes to attitudes and feelings.
While the issues that couples are dealing with are unique to them, the reason for establishing healthy boundaries remains the same and I often highlight the “triangle of boundaries” for couples so they can see how boundaries promote greater growth and freedom not just restriction for restriction’s sake.
Ownership and Boundaries
Cloud and Townsend highlight this triangle of boundaries in the opening chapter of their book.
“God created us free. He gave us responsibility for our freedom. And as responsible free agents, we are told to love him and each other. This emphasis runs throughout the whole Bible. When we do these three things—live free, take responsibility for our own freedom, and love God and each other—then life including marriage, can be an Eden experience.”
Therefore the triangle is:
So setting boundaries is not setting up your marriage to be a dictatorship with the more domineering spouse ruling over the docile spouse. It’s setting both you and spouse up for a healthy cycle of freedom, love, and responsibility, building a relationship that will honor God and build up His kingdom.
As Cloud and Townsend outline in their book, each spouse is responsible for the following (full list in the book):
Once you begin to understand who owns what attitudes, behaviors, values, etc., you can begin to set appropriate boundaries. However, one great barrier to setting basic boundaries are couples’ own communication styles.
There are three main types of communication styles: aggressive, passive-aggressive, or authoritative/assertive.
Both aggressive and passive-aggressive communication styles stem from a desire for control. The aggressive communicator mistakenly thinks, “The only way I can control this person/situation is bullying them into doing it my way,” and the passive-aggressive communicator mistakenly thinks “I am powerless to confront you, therefore I must sabotage you.”
Both styles inhibit the type of honest conversation we just outlined where spouses takes responsibility for their own behavior or state a need clearly. If you are too busy grappling for control over a person or situation, you’ll miss your spouse’s needs, you’ll lose perspective, and you’ll likely overlook your own needs.
So what communication goal should couples have? I work with my clients to move toward an assertive communication style. With an assertive communication style, that person has come to recognize that they can feel in control in a variety of settings without grappling for control over people.
I give a similar homework assignment to both the aggressive and passive-aggressive communicators: start with “I” statements. Instead of blaming negative feelings or situations on the other person, the ball must come to rest in their own court with statements like “I feel, I think, I believe.”
A healthy marriage is not made of perfect people, but rather of imperfect individuals who can take responsibility for their own values, attitudes, and choices and grow together with another healthy individual. Because you have outlined boundaries, each person is free to grow and love one another to the fullest extent. There will be disappointments, hurts, and setbacks along the way, to be sure, but growth is possible. Freedom is possible. Deep abiding love between husband and wife that is secure against the tumultuous world is possible.
Your marriage is a top priority, and it’s never too late to get started working on that relationship. Call today to schedule an appointment with Rex.