Most people have heard of boundaries and understand that it’s good to have healthy boundaries in marriage. But as with any psychological concept that enters the public sphere, its application can be quite twisted from its intended form.
Sometimes people will cut off members of their family, labeling that action as “setting a boundary”. Or others will use boundaries as a way to manipulate friends into doing what they want. By applying the term “boundaries” to these actions, people often are just using a generally accepted keyword to try to validate their actions.
At their core, boundaries are indeed necessary for healthy relationships, helping you navigate your complex dance with other unique individuals. When used appropriately, they help you move closer together to other people rather than moving away.
This is why it’s crucial to look at how you can create boundaries that uplift and strengthen your relationships and apply them in healthy, productive ways.
What Are Boundaries?
The term “boundary” defines the rules and limits you set in a particular relationship in order to establish a sense of safety. Safety in this context refers to an appropriate balance of closeness or distance in the relationship. In marriage, you typically set boundaries to define where you feel safe and able to be close with your spouse.
If a rule isn’t set, it isn’t a boundary. This can be a perfectly valid choice for your situation. For instance, you might simply make an observation (“I love it when you do this when we have sex”) or make a complaint (“When you drink, I can’t have honest conversations with you about our marriage.”). In these cases, rather than setting the boundary, you are stating something and letting your spouse react as they choose.
But if the issue is important enough to you and your marriage, making that observation or complaint might not be enough. You might choose to set a boundary.
For example, you might say that you will no longer discuss your marriage as a couple if your spouse is under the influence of alcohol. Or that you might be willing to experiment with your spouse’s sexual fantasies if they agree to stop when you say, “Stop.”
In each of these cases, the purpose of the boundary is to increase connection by establishing rules that will protect you and preserve your sense of safety.
Why Are Boundaries Important in Relationships?
Safety is fundamental for creating trust. If you don’t feel safe with your spouse, you can’t experience trust. And if you can’t trust your spouse, then you can’t develop intimacy. Boundaries help you feel safe enough to experience a deeper relationship with your spouse.
Typically, boundaries will define ownership and responsibility, which are closely related to self-esteem. When you establish boundaries, you are saying that you value not only your relationship with the other person but that you value yourself.
Boundaries help define what each person in the relationship is responsible for. A boundary between you and your spouse says that each of you is responsible for your own bodies, words, emotions, attitudes, values, and preferences. By establishing these boundaries and agreeing to abide by them, you create a strong foundation to build emotional intimacy together.
In marriage, boundaries clarify what you prefer or need from your spouse. Agreeing to the boundaries you set shows that they respect you. And by setting the boundary, you show that you respect yourself enough to tell them what you need from them.
If you think about it, marriage vows are a public form of boundaries. Each of you agrees to basic terms that are essential to your relationship to create safety, to create a foundation of trust, for intimacy.
Vows are an example of an explicit boundary as you are clearly expressing them to one another. Implicit boundaries are boundaries that are held without being stated. For example, you might expect that your spouse will work and provide for the family. Implicit boundaries like this are just as important to the relationship, but may never be discussed until they are threatened or broken.
This is why you need to be clear with your spouse who you are, what you want, what you believe, what you value, and even what you cannot allow or endure. Without establishing these things about yourself, you might gravitate towards the unhealthy response of trying to be like your spouse instead of being who you are.
For example, if your spouse, an introvert, needs a significant amount of solitude in order to recharge, you might try to do that with them when both of you have low energy. However, if you are an extrovert, you won’t come out of that time of recharging refreshed and energized. You will simply be frustrated and drained as a result.
But if you know and have communicated with your spouse that as an extrovert, you need to spend time with other people to recharge, you might both collaborate on how you can meet that need in order to bring a more energized version of yourself to the marriage.
These boundaries will help you with self-definition, self-care, self-esteem, comfort, and safety. That often seems selfish, and sometimes saying that you wish to establish boundaries conjures up images of building walls, of cutting people off from you, or of stonewalling.
This is only the case if you are using boundaries as a way to excuse your bad behavior or to isolate yourself.
The goal here needs to be directed towards improving your relationship. For instance, joining that prayer group might be helpful for you specifically, but it also helps you to have the energy and passion you need to be a great partner to your spouse.
You are setting boundaries that allow you to give yourself more fully and completely to the marriage in an expression of healthy independence and interdependence.
Setting Healthy Marital Boundaries
We’ve put together a worksheet that will help our supporters establish boundaries in their marriages. In it is a step-by-step guide that will walk you through the process of identifying, describing, and communicating necessary boundaries in your marriage. Head to Patreon to support us and get access to this helpful guide.
How to Set Boundaries in Marriage
1. Communicate Openly
It can be very difficult sometimes to explain your boundaries to your spouse. You might feel like you are being selfish, or you might be afraid of hurting the other person. So take some time to collect your thoughts and feelings, then start that discussion with your spouse even if it’s difficult and scary.
To see how this might play out, let’s look at another sample scenario:
You notice that whenever you visit a certain friend together, your spouse tends to make fun of you in front of them. It’s “just teasing” but it does sting a little or, at the very least, it feels uncomfortable. A boundary could be set by telling your spouse that if that behavior continues, you will not be able to accompany them on such visits. Let them know that you are doing this so that you can continue to feel respected and valued by them.
This isn’t a selfish action. After all, you are setting this boundary in order to build your relationship. And you aren’t doing this to hurt them.
Remember that despite the fact that you aren’t trying to hurt them (if you are, you need to take a step back and reevaluate this boundary), sometimes hurting them is unavoidable. This is especially true when you are limited or prohibiting a certain kind of behavior. When you say you won’t go with your spouse to visit someone if they keep making fun of you in that context, they might still feel hurt because of that boundary, even if it is reasonable.
There is an element of confrontation to a boundary like this, so it’s quite likely that your spouse will react to it. But if you clearly and openly communicate the boundary without trying to establish blame or victimhood, you might help them understand the boundary without triggering their defensiveness.
2. Follow Through
For some people, this might be the hardest part of the process. As anyone with kids knows, it’s easy to threaten children with consequences, but it can be much more difficult to follow through on the consequences when the situation warrants it. It can be even harder to follow through on consequences when a spouse violates a boundary.
If you don’t follow through, it can be worse than never setting boundaries. Your spouse might use that as a justification or even validation for their violation. After all, they might think, if you really thought it was a violation, you would have followed through on the consequences.
However, sometimes it is important to take a look on the boundary you are setting. After the violation, you might examine the boundary and see that it was too vague or the consequences were too high for the situation. Based on your evaluation, you might choose to make an exception. Just be 100% sure to carefully consider this choice and explain it to your spouse.
Otherwise, you will typically want to follow through on your boundary. If you had enough self-respect to assert the boundary, you should feel enough self-respect to see it enforced.
3. Be Clear on Responsibility
Effective boundaries reflect where the responsibilities for certain actions lie. It is quite common for people to take less responsibility than they should, so take a step back and look at the boundary you have set. Look out especially for areas where responsibility should fall to you, but instead, you lay all the blame on your spouse.
What decisions might have you have made in the relationship that contributed to this contention? Is the entire burden of your feelings and desires placed on your spouse? Is there a chance that you might have been at least partially responsible for the boundary violation?
These can be difficult questions to ask, but necessary to form healthy and fair boundaries in your marriage. Be careful not to set up your spouse for failure by creating a double bind or no-win situation.
There needs to be a way for them to change, a way back to relating again. Again, boundaries should be set up in a way so they can move towards you: boundaries are not meant to create an impenetrable barrier.
An example of a double-bind situation would be if you decided to no longer be sexually intimate with your spouse (and to not discuss it) but still have the boundary where you expect your spouse to not to find sexual fulfillment outside the marriage.
You would be breaking your side of the marriage covenant while expecting your spouse to uphold theirs. In many ways, you aren’t dealing with a boundary anymore, because there is no way this situation that leads to being closer together.
A boundary has to take into account the things that are your responsibility, their responsibility, and your joint responsibilities. And it needs to be clear on whom these responsibilities lie.
4. Choose Enforceable Consequences
First of all, not every boundary requires a consequence, at least not initially. And if you do choose to enforce a consequence, you need to carefully ensure that the consequence fits the violation.
Go back to the example of the being mocked by your spouse. As part of your boundary, you might have decided together that the consequence would be you calling them out for making fun of you, followed by leaving the event. But what if your spouse set up a joke about you, saw your face, then realized what they were doing and stopped?
Do you still enforce that consequence? If you do, are you being too harsh? If you don’t, are you condoning their disrespect?
Because consequences need to be proportionate to the violation of the boundary. It’s common to have a boundary set too rigidly with too high of a consequence. So when a milder form of the behavior crosses the boundary, you aren’t sure what to do.
It can be helpful to have a spectrum of consequences to choose from in response to the violation. Having a little flexibility in enforcement is important so you can select an appropriate consequence that fits the situation.
If your spouse catches themselves making fun you and apologizes, perhaps no consequence is necessary. If they make a single joke at your expense and don’t realize it, perhaps the consequence is you taking them aside and telling them what they are doing. If they continue to ridicule you after, maybe that’s when you choose to leave the party.
When dealing with addictions, in particular, the discussion of boundaries and consequences will naturally become more detailed and nuanced than in other situations. This is because an addicted spouse might have a minor slip up, a relapse, or completely give in fully to the addiction again. Each scenario warrants a different level of response and it would be helpful for you to work with your therapist to create a robust, reasonable set of boundaries.
Boundaries set in the context of addictions are an excellent way to show how they are made for increased intimacy and relationship. In essence, boundaries say that you are willing and desiring to be in a relationship with them as they recover from their addiction. But that desire is limited by your safety and self-respect.
That’s why there are consequences.
How to Set Boundaries for In-Laws or Parents
It’s important to take a step back and note how complex boundaries can be in this context. Your relationship with your spouse can be heavily strained when your parents or in-laws cross a boundary. Things become tense because each of you will see your parents with more compassion and understanding than you see your in-laws.
These boundary violations can become particularly heated around parenting philosophies. This is because these philosophies are innately tied to issues of identity and purpose, which affect both you and them deeply.
So when creating boundaries for in-laws or parents, there are three things you need to remember:
1. Your Primary Loyalty
Always remember that first and foremost, your loyalty should be to your marriage. While your primary familial loyalty was once to your parents, it is now to the new family that you have created.
In light of that loyalty, you need to work together with your spouse to identify the issues involved and to set a clear, respectful boundary.
For example, if your mother-in-law takes over the kitchen when she visits, you might try something like, “Mom, we love that you want to help us out by cooking and we know you really enjoy it, but we’d appreciate it if you’d let my wife take the lead in our kitchen. If you want to help, she’d really appreciate it if you could bring a salad for tonight’s dinner”.
This is a gentle, but firm boundary that shows your mother-in-law the terms on which she can engage. Without a boundary, there will simply be resentment and anger on both sides, which could lead to an end to you inviting her for dinner at all. There is no kindness in withholding a boundary.
But by providing a way for her to continue to maintain her connection with you, you are kindly giving providing a space for everyone to love each other. While she might react poorly to this boundary in the short term, in the long term, it will provide a better foundation to build your relationship with your mother-in-law.
Note here that the boundary does not cut off your mother-in-law. Kind boundaries are about setting the terms of establishing loving connections. This is why they are a good and important thing.
Also, remember that boundaries should not be set in the context of trying to control another person’s behavior. There is some give and take than needs to happen in dealing with one’s in-laws, particularly at the start of the marriage.
However, setting boundaries becomes appropriate when something is overwhelming. It can become important to set a kind boundary to allow people to relate with you in a way that’s healthy for everyone involved.
2. It’s Just an Opinion
Always remember that so many differences between generations boil down to one fact: everyone has an opinion. Particularly about parenting. And as much as parents and in-laws might treat their opinions as facts, the truth is that their views on parenting are only opinions. Understanding this will help you in your relationship with them.
If an in-law strongly argues that you are feeding your child the wrong diet, remember that it’s just an opinion. You don’t need to follow their advice. You don’t need to argue with them to change their mind. And most of all, you don’t need to see it as a critique of you.
While we can’t stop an in-law from talking, we can control how we hear them, and how we react to it.
In many cases, a stated boundary might not even be necessary. Perhaps you just need a mental boundary to help you process your in-law’s criticism. By choosing to treat their criticism as an opinion and nothing more, you can create a healthy emotional distance.
But if the criticism is distressing to you, you might need to state a clear boundary. You can say, “You are welcome to come over, and it is clear that we have different values and priorities in diet. We appreciate how you raised my spouse and for all the meals you made for them. But if you can’t respect our values and let us parent how we choose without criticism, then we are not going to be able to have you over for meals.”
3. They are Just People
Another mental shift you can do is to stop thinking of your in-laws as parents, but as people you are gradually getting to know. Often people have too high expectations of their in-laws. However, adjusting how you see them will help you embrace them for who they are rather than what you want them to be.
Remember that to your spouse and your in-laws are family. They have a deep connection together that you should respect and honor. While this needs to be balanced with the loyalty between you and your spouse, keep in mind what your in-laws mean to your spouse.
To do that, you need to be more nuanced and understanding in setting a boundary. What might be a soft and gentle boundary to you might be harsh and unforgiving to your spouse and to their parents. Do your best to be as kind as possible in setting boundaries with your in-laws.
Always remember that a boundary is not about setting terms in order to disengage. It is about setting loving terms in order to engage more fully and intimately in a relationship, whether with your spouse or with your in-laws.
Barnett, Jeffrey E., Arnold A. Lazarus, Melba J. T. Vasquez, Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter, and W. Brad Johnson. “Boundary Issues and Multiple Relationships: Fantasy and Reality.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 38, no. 4 (2007): 401–10. https://doi.org/10.1037/0735-7028.38.4.401.
Gilles, Gary. “The Importance of Boundaries in Romantic Relationships.” MentalHealth.Net, 2019. https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/the-importance-of-boundaries-in-romantic-relationships/.
Numen, Liz. “Setting Boundaries in a Relationship.” Break the Cycle, 2014. https://www.breakthecycle.org/blog/setting-boundaries-relationship.
Tartakovsky, Margarita. “Why Healthy Relationships Always Have Boundaries & How to Set Boundaries in Yours.” Professional. PsychCentral, October 10, 2018. https://psychcentral.com/blog/why-healthy-relationships-always-have-boundaries-how-to-set-boundaries-in-yours/.
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