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Setting Boundaries with Your Spouse

I was recently asked how to set personal boundaries in a marriage.

What are boundaries? They are the acts we won't tolerate from other people.

"If you hit me even once, I will call the police and file a complaint."

"If you are more than 15 minutes late to meeting me, and you don't let me know there is a problem, I won't be there when you arrive."

"If you leave less than $2,000 in our joint bank account without my consent, I'll deposit my next $2,000 of income to a private bank account, because that's the bare minimum I need to feel secure."

Some boundaries you'll never need to talk about. Most people live by the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, in this case: Don't do to others what you wouldn't let them do to you.

Boundaries are about what you absolutely do not want done to you, not what you expect your spouse to do.

The Golden Rule takes care of all sorts of boundaries, like not pointing a gun at you, intentionally stomping on your foot, stealing your car, forcing you into sex, cutting your internet connection while you're typing a report, and lots more.

Problems arise when what you don't want happening to you would not bother your spouse or might even feel like a good thing to your spouse.

One example I recall is a young man who said something on the dance floor to his new girlfriend, who took offense. She started crying and walked outside, which is where I was standing. He ran out, apologized, and hugged her, and she bolted like a spooked cat. When he followed, she screamed, and I suggested he wait while I went to talk to her out in the parking lot.

It turned out she had a very abusive childhood and could not tolerate being held while she was upset, because it felt like dangerous captivity to her. That's a boundary he could not even imagine anyone needing: no hugs when I'm upset, or I'll scream and run away.

I know other people with illnesses that make ordinary playful or loving acts really unpleasant. They, too, have boundaries that require a bit of educating for a caring spouse.

I can't stand to share a kitchen when I'm cooking. Before I even know it, I'm growling at anyone who dares to wander into the kitchen then, even to help. I need a "nobody else in the kitchen or I quit cooking" boundary.

Some people have a "nobody else in the bathroom while I'm in there" boundary. And some of them marry people who find showering together or brushing teeth together intimate and pleasurable.

Whenever we have a boundary that's unfamiliar to our husband or wife or, worse, one that makes no sense at all to them, it's impractical to expect one-trial learning of our boundary. We need to repeat it a few times and forgive them for forgetting it.

When the boundary is unfamiliar, and our response to crossing it is vague (like "Don't do that!" or "Stop it!"), it's possible our spouse won't even recognize it as a boundary and will playfully tease us about it. (No one likes being teased about a boundary.) Or they may pick up on the wrong "that" or "it" and never again do something you didn't even notice, while continuing to do what sets you off.

So, how do you set a boundary with your spouse? Lovingly. Clearly. Specifically. And perhaps a few times, until he or she can remember this wonderful eccentricity of yours that is not part of their Golden Rule. If it continues, stay cool and spell out exactly what will happen when it's crossed again. Skip the "Do it again and I'll take your head off!" hyperbole. Make your promised response specific and relevant to your reason for needing a boundary. And do that thing you promised the very next time it happens.

All of us want to be loving spouses. When we succeed, it feels wonderful. But none of wants to follow a laundry list of arbitrary rules, especially in our own home. Eventually, once your spouse comes to understand how much you depend on this boundary to feel okay, protecting your boundary will stop feeling like an arbitrary rule and start feeling like an intimate understanding of you and a way to protect you from harm.

As long as you don't make your spouse guess which protections you need, you'll get there. And it will feel good for both of you.

Comments

Great article! The distictions you're making between general Golden Rule and individual specific boundaries, between teaching and ultimate deadline, are tricky - and very useful. Thank you, I'm going to put this into practice!.

Thank you, Jana!

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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