couple holding hands

What are Boundaries

Boundaries are important both personally and in relationships. They are limits that we set for ourselves as individuals in terms of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in regard to how others relate to us. They protect our personal sense of individuality and sense of "self" so that we are not overrun by the demands and expectations of others. A sense of yourself as an independent person with freedoms, responsibilities, and limits is essential to engaging in a healthy relationship. In marriage, it is crucial to be a whole and complete person in order to engage in a mutually interdependent relationship with your spouse.

Understand Misconceptions about Intimacy

In the 90s movie, Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise gives the famous line to Renée Zellweger, "you complete me" proclaiming his view about their relationship. This is an inspiring movie line and can seem like the ideal for many of us in regard to romantic love. However, believing or expecting that another human being will complete us emotionally can be an unhealthy and unrealistic expectation. A healthy marriage consists of two complete and independent adults who seek to share all of what life has to offer together. If you seek the other person to complete you, that each emotion that your spouse has must be yours too, that when your spouse is upset that you must be upset too, that it is your responsibility to make them happy, then an enmeshed relationship is the result. Marriage partners that are "too close" and completely rely on one another for their well-being have an enmeshed relationship with little room to breathe. In contrast, marriage partners that have no awareness of the other person's needs, few mutual hobbies, little time together, and little sense of emotional connectedness are on the opposite end of the spectrum in an estranged relationship.

Reach the Ideal of Mutual Interdependency through Boundaries

In contrast to the enmeshed or estranged marriage, boundaries can assist with setting an appropriate line between where I end and you begin as a person. You are not me and I am not you in marriage. We are not extensions of one another. Instead, a healthy marriage consists of a mutually interdependent relationship where both partners are complete persons, with boundaries, who complement and support one another on their distinct journeys in life. Famous author and psychiatrist, Scott Peck, illustrates this healthy interplay well in his best-selling book, “The Road Less Traveled.” He compares the healthy interplay between the individual and the couple in marriage to the importance of a well-ordered base camp in launching a mountain climb. In marriage, base camp is the home from which we each launch out into the world to pursue our gifts and passions. It is crucial to nurture, organize, and invest oneself to the care and maintenance of base camp while simultaneously preparing to climb our individual career or life mountains. This is a balancing act for all couples. Too much expectation and focus on base camp may cramp each individual in the relationship from maximizing their gifts and callings in life outside the home. The opposite is true. Spouses who focus all their attention on their careers, dreams, hobbies, and pursuits outside of base camp jeopardize the stability of their marriage. Just like an expert mountain climber, a healthy spouse seeks to balance the needs of their climb with the importance of the family and home base. Boundaries help us to set the limits needed to strive for such a balance.

Teach Others How to Treat You with Boundaries

I often hear concerns from clients about how others treat them, including their spouses, children, and coworkers. A crucial understanding when considering this is that we teach other people how to interact with us based on how we handle our boundaries. For example, if we allow our spouse to swear at us and we do the same in return, this becomes an established norm in the relationship. If we allow our students to be 15 min. late every day when taking them to school then this becomes a norm in the relationship. As we allow certain behavior from others, it will be assumed that it is acceptable. The best way to confront behaviors which are undesirable or inappropriate is to set boundaries with love and respect. "I'd appreciate it if you did not swear at me when we are having conflicts and if this continues, I will need to take a timeout from the conversation." "Son, I am leaving at 745am this morning and would love to take you to school. If you choose to miss this time, your bike is in the garage and the tires are full so that you will have alternative transportation to school." Don't worry, your student will not be riding his bike to school often because if you follow through and he knows that you are serious, he will adjust his behavior and be on time each morning. Boundaries prevent us from feeling used or stretched too thin with our limits. Psychology researcher, Brene Brown, said this about boundaries, "Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others." Boundaries assist in maintaining a healthy respect for each partner’s individual needs, as well as the needs of the partnership.

Clarify What Types of Boundaries are Important

The first step in setting healthy boundaries in your marriage is identifying the areas where boundaries are important. For example, sexual boundaries help us to feel safe and comfortable in a very intimate and vulnerable aspect of marriage. These boundaries may include what types of interactions we are comfortable with, as well as the timing and frequency of sexual intimacy. In the realm of emotional boundaries, this could include setting certain limits during conflict to make it more constructive. For example, spouses may agree that aggression, yelling, name-calling, and casually throwing out the threat of divorce are all boundaries in the context of their disagreements. In another example, a spouse may set the boundary that they would prefer not to have any discussions about important or potentially conflictual topics after 9 PM at night as this can negatively impact sleep. Boundaries regarding external relationships is also an important aspect of a healthy marriage. What are the boundaries regarding friends, time spent at work, holiday plans with extended family, and interactions in social media? It is important to discuss each partner’s boundaries in these important areas to clarify expectations and set a tone of mutual respect in the relationship.

Learn to Communicate Your Boundaries with Your Spouse

When communicating your boundaries in marriage, it is important not to assume the other person can read your mind regarding what is important to you. Try to tell your spouse about your limits in respectful and loving ways well in advance of anticipated difficult situations. Gently remind your spouse when a boundary is either intentionally or unintentionally crossed. Talk about these kinds of matters when things are going generally well versus solely addressing them in the heat of the moment. Each of these communication strategies can assist in developing a healthy dialogue in your relationship about one another’s boundaries and needs. In conclusion, the practice of setting healthy boundaries in marriage can lead each of you to a partnership in which the needs of one another and the partnership itself are appropriately valued and respected. This approach can greatly enhance your satisfaction and fulfillment during the entire course of your marriage.