Marriage creates a deep and lasting unity between two people. Two individuals who have separate personalities, distinct histories, and backgrounds come together to form a new social unit. Maybe that doesn’t sound romantic or profound, but it is one of the best gifts that God has given humanity.The poetic words of our forebearer Adam when he saw his wife Eve for the first time help us to grasp some of that depth and awe at the mystery of marriage – “At last!” the man exclaimed. “This one is bone from my bone, and flesh from my flesh! She will be called ‘woman,’ because she was taken from ‘man.’” (Genesis 2:23). In coming together in marriage, these two people complement one another, enrich one another, and they are now one.
Considering this, it feels odd to talk about having boundaries in marriage, because surely you establish boundaries with strangers and those people you want to keep “outside,” right? When we think of boundaries, the images that come to mind include walls, fences, and other markers that indicate where you can and cannot go. Boundaries seem to emphasize that something is off-limits, and they seem to be an enemy of intimacy. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Healthy relationships need to have boundaries. In fact, boundaries are a great thing to have in all your relationships, not just your romantic relationships.
The importance of boundaries
We are complex beings, with unique histories, hopes, pain, fears, needs, and goals. One of the main reasons why it is good to have boundaries is that it acknowledges the fact that you are two different people. As bonded and united as the people in a marriage might be, they are still two individuals.
The needs of the one may not be the needs of the other, and to confuse or ignore that can lead to a lot of unnecessary pain and sorrow. Boundaries provide a sense of self and maintain a healthy separation between us and other people. As one person has said, “Boundaries indicate where you end and where I begin.”
Far from being limiting or restrictive, boundaries create a space within which to freely express one’s needs and values while also honoring the needs and values of their partner. Without healthy boundaries, it is easy for people to interact with one another in ways that create unhealthy dynamics such as conflict, codependency, anger, anxiety, and more.
Being able to set healthy boundaries is a prerequisite for emotional well-being because it helps you to know how best to love and serve one another in a relationship, and it also clearly communicates areas of sensitivity and importance, as well as alerting one another to deeply held values that need to be respected.
Different types of boundaries
Each human being is multifaceted, and so can have boundaries across a vast array of areas. Some of the areas in which a couple may decide to set boundaries include sex, finances, how they spend their time, spirituality, work, emotional and physical space, friendships, outside influences (in-laws, etc.), and privacy.
A couple might have social boundaries such as whether they each need to check in with one another before going out with friends, whether they have only mutual friends, or maintain relationships that are separate from the other spouse. Is it okay, for instance, to have friends of the opposite sex, and if so, what are the parameters of such friendships?
To establish boundaries, you must communicate clearly what is important to you, set clear consequences for what happens if those boundaries are violated, and recognize the fact that boundaries can shift and may need to be revisited from time to time.
Boundaries can be violated in several ways. If you’ve set clear boundaries about what you’re comfortable with doing during sex, for example, and your spouse pressures you to have sex in a way that makes you uncomfortable, that will need to be addressed.
Or perhaps you’ve agreed to certain boundaries around privacy such as agreeing not to share passwords or go through one another’s phones, and then your spouse opens your phone and goes through your messages without your permission or knowledge.
You may have spoken about money and agreed that you will be transparent about your income and not hide any debt or financial transactions from one another, and then you may find that your spouse has hidden their year-end bonus, or they made a purchase and did not inform you about it.
Another possible boundary you may have set is that when you talk to one another, you do not shout, call one another names, or slam doors on one another. That boundary might be violated if during a fight with your spouse they decide to shout at you and threaten violence.
To protect one another’s privacy and to regulate how you interact with your extended family, you may have agreed to limit how often you visit with them or circumscribe how much other people within the family should know about what’s going on in your relationship. Sharing details with family without having cleared it with your spouse might then be a violation of the boundaries you’ve established in the relationship.
How to address broken boundaries in marriage
In any given marriage, the boundaries that a couple has set for their mutual edification and to meet their needs can be violated. This can happen as a one-time occurrence, or as a pattern of behavior. Additionally, a variety of circumstances can lead to the violation of boundaries, and some of them may not be malicious or intentional.
Boundaries get violated, and they can collide or clash. Rather than taking this as a cue to ditch the boundaries, it may be an opportunity for you to take stock of the situation and reassess where things stand. Here are a few things to do when the boundaries in marriage clash or are violated.
Don’t assume they were broken deliberately.
As with most things in marriage, you can make assumptions about what your spouse has said or done, or you can simply ask them. Sometimes a lack of clarity is responsible for the clashing of boundaries. In that case, could you be clearer with what you need?
Or sometimes the boundary was violated, but for a good reason – for instance, the boundary of privacy and not looking through one another’s things may need to be violated if certain financial transactions show up that indicate one of you is having an affair or has an addiction.The delicate balance between boundaries necessary to retain one’s sense of self and using boundaries as cover for sinful or unhealthy behavior is one each couple should navigate carefully. Boundaries should not be created or enforced to thwart accountability or preserve selfishness. As you redraw or set about establishing boundaries, it’s important to keep this dimension in mind. Ascertain what happened. Don’t make assumptions about what your spouse did and why.
Reaffirm or redraw boundaries.
When a boundary is violated, you need to reaffirm it and communicate once more why that boundary is important and what it constitutes. In some instances, you may have to ask yourself if there is a new boundary that needs to be erected, or if an old one needs to be redrawn slightly differently. Remember, boundaries, like relationships, can and do change, so you shouldn’t hesitate to adapt as necessary to a situation that better reflects your life and your relationship.
Restate possible consequences.
Along with redrawing or restating boundaries, what again needs to be made clear are the consequences of that boundary being violated. If the boundary you’ve set is that when you’re in the car with your spouse they need to avoid speeding when you are a passenger in the car, you can set a clear consequence about what will happen should it be violated. That way, everyone is clear about what they expect from one another, as well as what the consequences are if things go awry.
Consequences aren’t meant simply to be stated – without follow-through, you can risk compromising yourself further and neutering other boundaries you may have set. Following through with the consequences you’ve set is also about helping each other be accountable for what you’ve committed.
Setting boundaries in marriage can be complicated work, and in some cases, you may need to seek help from a professional such as a licensed marriage and family therapist to assist you. They can help you not only to identify your boundaries, but they can provide you with the tools and vocabulary not only to demarcate your boundaries but also to set fitting consequences for when those boundaries are violated.
“Holding Pinkies”, Courtesy of Jasmine Wallace Carter, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Rings”, Courtesy of Megapixelstock, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “In Love”, Courtesy of Diego Rezende, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Irritation”, Courtesy of Pavel Danilyuk, Pexels.com, CC0 License