“Boundaries mark the limits of behaviors that are acceptable to you, where words or actions beyond that limit cause you harm or make you feel unsafe.” Melissa Urban, The Book of Boundaries
Many of us have carried the thought that there shouldn’t have to be boundaries inside of a healthy marriage.
- But if boundaries are the way that we keep ourselves safe, why wouldn’t they be productive to have inside our marriage?
- And if boundaries are the way that our partner knows how to get the best from us, then wouldn’t it be helpful to our partners to have that roadmap?
For most of us, when we attempt to set a boundary inside our marriage, it comes out with a lot of controlling energy.
- “Stop doing that.”
- “You shouldn’t drink so much.”
- “Don’t you think it’s time to turn the TV off now?”
We tell our partners what to do and what not to do.
We tell them why our way is right and their way is wrong.
Sometimes we can get downright bossy.
But setting a boundary is not the same thing as attempting to control other people (which is impossible). Instead, think of boundaries as a way to express what YOU will do in response to their choices, actions and behaviors as it relates to YOU. It’s about your behavior, not your partner’s.
If you’ve never established boundaries inside your marriage, then we need to start at the beginning with a few basic tools:
Know Where to Set a Boundary
Your first clue that a boundary needs to be set is when you start to feel anxious around your partner, or feel yourself wanting to avoid them. It could be avoiding a certain topic with your partner, or feeling anxious every time you hear the garage door go up.
That anxiousness or avoidance is a good sign that a boundary needs to be set. At this point, you have the responsibility to identify what specifically needs to change so you can feel safe (or at least less anxious).
Know How to Set a Boundary
The best boundaries are short and to the point. They are anywhere between 1-3 sentences. Anymore than that and now you’re justifying your reasoning for setting a boundary, as though you need their permission, which you don’t. Here are some examples:
“I could use some time alone, so I’m going to go take a bath and read.”
“I have a challenge I’m facing that I would like to share with you, but I need you to simply listen and provide support. At this time, I’m not open to suggestions on ways to fix the issue. Are you able to do that?”
“If you decide to make fun of me in front of family and friends again, I will take the car and drive myself home immediately and you can find your own way home.”
Know How to Enforce a Boundary
Everyone thinks that you set a boundary one time, and then once the other person knows, it should change from that point forward. But that rarely happens. Think about the times when you’ve tried to create change in your life, even when it was something you were excited about and committed to changing. It probably took you a few times of trying and failing before the change took hold, didn’t it? This process is the same.
A wise friend once told me: the challenge with boundaries isn’t stating the boundary once in the most direct and clear manner possible, it’s enforcing the boundary over and over again. But feeling safe and healthy inside your most intimate relationship is worth some consistent effort, so expect to have to revisit the boundary a few times.
At some point (usually by the third time the boundary isn’t respected), you may have to set consequences for what will happen the next time the boundary is disregarded.
- It can be leaving a conversation.
- It can be refusing to engage unless you two can speak respectfully.
- It can be no longer sharing certain things with your partner.
- It can be no longer participating in an activity or an event that you previously did together.
- It can be ending the relationship entirely.
You get to choose the consequence. But remember that a boundary is only a boundary when there’s a consequence associated with it. Otherwise, it’s just complaining. And complaining gets us nowhere long-term.
Expect a Reaction
If you’ve never set boundaries before inside your marriage, this will be new and potentially not terribly welcomed. Your partner is going to notice. Sometimes, that noticing will take the form of a look of shock or confusion, while other times you may be met with irritation or “you’re so selfish.” That’s okay. You want them to notice that something is different, so that they can make more conscious choices for themselves and your relationship.
Your marriage is your most intimate relationship, so you’ve got to feel safe in it in order for it to thrive. I wish someone would have taught us how to do this when we were 15 years old, but better late than never.
Boundary-setting is a topic of conversation we have all the time inside my program, The Decision. If you’d like to become more adept at setting healthy boundaries for yourself, maybe you should consider joining us. Here’s your next step.