How to set marriage-strengthening boundaries with your spouseWritten by Vicki Hooper
What's inside this article
Boundaries are an expression of values. They define what I will do and won’t do; what I allow and don’t allow; what is okay and not okay for me. When done well in marriage, boundaries also create a sense of safety and freedom for both spouses. Healthy boundaries help us become who God designed us to be and allow our marriages to be as he intended.
All healthy marriages have boundaries; unhealthy marriages don’t. Some of us may avoid boundaries because we believe that love means we shouldn’t have boundaries at all. Or perhaps we’re afraid boundaries will only limit and divide us. However, boundaries exist in all areas of our lives and are there to keep us safe. Think about stop signs and traffic lights, work hours and budgets, schedules and property lines – life goes better with these boundaries in place.
Are boundaries biblical?
The Bible is full of boundaries. God told Adam and Eve to not eat from that specific tree. He gave the people of Israel the 10 commandments. The book of Proverbs is full of ideas for creating boundaries. For example, Proverbs 25:17 advises us: “Seldom set foot in your neighbor’s house – too much of you and they will hate you.”
When Jesus lived on earth, he had his own set of boundaries. He knew he needed time away from people to rest (Mark 6:30-32), to be with the Father, to grieve (Matthew 14:1-3), and to make decisions (Luke 6:12-13). In Luke 4:28-30, when Jesus declared he was the Messiah and the people, believing he was a heretic, angrily forced him to the edge of a cliff with the intention of pushing him off, we read, “but he passed through the crowd and went on his way.” He set a boundary that said, “You will not do this to me.”
What are boundaries in marriage?
Boundaries are vital to a healthy marriage, and they honour the two individuals in the relationship. A boundary tells my spouse what I desire and what will help me feel loved and safe in our relationship. For example, I am an introvert. I am not a morning person and my brain does not come online first thing in the morning. Thus, I have set a simple boundary with David, my extroverted husband: No deep theological or intellectual conversations first thing in the morning or at least not until after my coffee and quiet time. When that boundary is kept, the morning is more enjoyable for both of us. When it’s crossed, it may be humorous for David because I don’t make sense, but I’ll say things I regret and feel foolish and frustrated. This boundary creates safety for me in our relationship, and it allows David to know more about me.
Some boundaries are made by each spouse and some we make together for the health of our relationship. For example, in regard to finances, some couples set a limit for personal spending – if either spouse wants to purchase an item over $100, they talk about it first. There are boundaries to protect our relationship where we agree to not have individual friendships with someone of the opposite sex – these boundaries create safety and a sense of security for our marriage.
Healthy Marriage Model
At Hope Restored marriage intensives, we teach couples the Healthy Marriage Model. This is a guide when it comes to setting healthy boundaries in marriage. There are three primary boundaries in a marriage: my yard, my spouse’s yard and our covenant marriage boundary.
Each person has a boundary of personal responsibility, and we call it “my yard.” This is my personal space where I am responsible for my actions and how other people treat me, as well as caring for myself emotionally, spiritually, physically, and mentally. When one of those areas is unhealthy, I am personally responsible to do something about it and to set boundaries for myself. My spouse cannot make a boundary for me; it is my job. Boundaries are good self-care.
Here are some examples of personal boundaries:
- I will exercise daily for 30 minutes.
- I will have a daily prayer time.
- I will not ignore emotional hurts but will talk about them respectfully.
- I will not work past 6 p.m.
- I will commit to healthy eating.
We make personal boundaries to establish healthy friendships, work limitations, time for ourselves, etc. Generally, they are not set to keep people out, but to care well for myself so that I can engage in relationships wholeheartedly.
However, if a relationship is abusive or hurtful, stronger boundaries are necessary: I will not allow you to yell, swear and call me names, and when that happens, I will leave the house. If this boundary is crossed or not respected, there are actions you can take. First, restate the boundary or remind your spouse calmly and clearly of what you desire. Next, discuss the consequences for when a boundary is crossed over and over. And lastly, follow through with the consequences.
I cannot enter my spouse’s yard or cross their boundary without their permission. Too often spouses have falsely believed that on our wedding day, saying “I do” means “I can,” giving me permission to tell my spouse what to do or who to be. My spouse’s yard is a sacred place and not even God enters it without permission – he sees it as free will.
When a couple interacts, they don’t go into each other’s yards, they enter an interactive space where they do things together and build their relationship by talking, playing, working together, being intimate, etc. Conflict occurs here, but it is also where, as a couple, they set boundaries together for the health and safety of their marriage. Together, spouses decide boundaries for finances, communication, relationships, children, intimacy, recreation, work and privacy. A boundary may be needed around in-law relationships and could look like: When in-laws want to come for a visit, we will talk about it before a decision is made.
Respectful boundaries that honour each spouse will allow you both to relax, feel safe and love each other well, and in turn, this strengthens the covenant marriage boundary, creating security for the relationship.
How to create and maintain boundaries
When considering personal boundaries, I want to ask myself some questions: What is important to me? What do I value? What boundaries will help me feel safe, and to relax and engage more freely in my marriage? If I find myself impatient with my family at the end of the workday, a boundary could be: I will take a short 15-minute rest when I come home after work. Being lovingly present is important to me and this boundary helps me be just that.
Mutual boundaries are set to create safety and security for both spouses, so first take time to talk about what is important to each of you. Ask each other: What boundaries will protect and enrich our marriage? It’s likely you already have some, but a discussion together will help build understanding and prevent any confusion in the future.
Boundaries, both personal and mutual, are expressions of our values. They encourage us to build a healthy relationship and to feel safe and secure in the marriage. If boundaries are difficult for you to make or keep, find a trusted other, such as a counsellor, to help. For further understanding, I recommend reading Boundaries and Boundaries in Marriage by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend.
Vicki Hooper is a Certified Clinical Counsellor with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association. She has an extensive background in teaching and ministry settings prior to becoming a counsellor in 2013. She earned her Master of Education in school counselling through Liberty University. Vicki and her husband have been married over 25 years and are parents to two grown children. She currently works as a marriage therapist with Focus on the Family Canada's Hope Restored marriage intensives.
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