Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

5 Bogus Facts about Boundaries that Everyone Thinks Are True

You have to set boundaries in relationships.

Everyone knows that.

But what if you don’t?

Since boundaries are places at the edge of countries where soldiers with guns stand to defend their territory, you’ve gotta ask yourself: Do I really want those in my marriage?

I know I don’t.

Barbed wire and gun turrets don’t do much for intimacy.

You might be thinking, “That’s a different kind of boundary,” but in my early marriage there wasn’t much difference. I meet lots of other women who are as confused as I was.

They say, “I set a boundary. I let him know it’s not okay to stay out late drinking with his friends and leave me at home alone with the kids.”

Or, “I told him he had to end his friendship with that woman at work because that was violating my boundary.”

Or, as I used to say, “I don’t appreciate being spoken to that way and I won’t accept you violating my boundary.”

Of course, I want to honor myself. I want to say how I’m feeling and what I want. I want to feel important and desired.

I want to be treated well.

Today I have all that in my marriage. But setting boundaries never helped me get there.

Here are 5 bogus facts about boundaries, and what to do instead: Click To Tweet

1. Boundaries Make Relationships Better.

In the bad old days when I was setting a boundary, it came out of feeling angry (or if I’m more honest, I was actually hurt) and therefore, by the time I got around to speaking my truth, it came out laced with sarcasm, criticism and resentment.

For example, if I said, “I don’t appreciate being spoken to that way and I won’t accept you violating my boundary,” that included a pretty loud subtext that he was a jerk and he had just ticked me right off.

I was a big, fat hypocrite who was criticizing him for being critical and blaming him for blaming me.

That pretty much guaranteed that I wasn’t going to get a good response, like an apology or a hug, because that’s not how human beings are made.

Even if you’re married to a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, I promise he would rather run into enemy fire than try to hug you when you’re on the warpath.

When I feel criticized I get defensive, and that’s true no matter how right the other person is. It stands to reason that my husband reacts the same way.

Criticism has never improved our relationship. Not a single time.

Therefore, to teach someone else how to treat me and still preserve the intimacy I value so much, I speak only for myself and avoid criticizing him.

I say what I mean, but I don’t say it mean.

One way to do that in this example would be simply to say “Ouch!” and nothing more. I’m honoring myself by admitting I’m hurt but not criticizing or blaming my husband.

It takes some getting used to, but the response is so much better than I ever got from “setting a boundary.”

2. Boundaries are a Way to Take Care of Yourself.

Another common pothole I used to fall into a lot was taking on my husband’s problems as my own, instead of trusting him to figure things out himself (as he had for 32 years before I met him).

This resulted in me applying myself to things that were not my concern or my area of expertise, even though they exhausted and stressed me out.

For example, I took it upon myself to help him find a better job, which meant I appointed myself his career counselor, redid his resume and (you’re welcome!) found job leads for him.

When he didn’t appreciate any of that, I was upset!

I set a boundary by saying, “Well you can just do all of this by yourself without my help then because you don’t appreciate anything I do.”

In retrospect, I’m sure he was relieved! Except for the part where I explained what a jerk he was for not thanking me profusely.

As you can imagine, that didn’t exactly make him feel lovey-dovey toward me.

These days I stay out of that kind of trouble by minding my own business in the first place. That saves me from having lots of completely unnecessary resentment.

If nobody asks me for help, then that means they don’t need or want help. If they did, they would tell me.

Even if they’re hinting about it, I don’t have to read anything into that, and I typically don’t.

That’s because I trust that other people are the experts on their own lives and can speak for themselves when they want something from me. That includes my husband.

I listen and even sympathize at times, but I stay away from putting myself in charge of solving my husband’s problems unless he asks directly, and sometimes even then I use a magical phrase to stay out of trouble.

What is that phrase, you wonder? Glad you asked…

3. You Shouldn’t Let Your Boundaries Get Crossed.

If you think of your own limits as a mere mortal woman (instead of gun turrets), and if you think of acknowledging those limits before you’ve exceeded them—not after—then this one is actually true.

In the old days, deciding that my husband had crossed my boundaries was license to rip into him.

But in retrospect, there could be only one person truly responsible when I was overwrought, depleted or otherwise bent out of shape because my limits had been violated: me.

I’m the one who sold myself down the river by staying up too late to take him to the airport, or getting too lonely because I was waiting for him to come home when he was out with a friend, or working too hard to pay all the bills that I feared he couldn’t handle.

These days I’m pretty good at asking myself if I’m going to be resentful before I do something, and that serves me very well.

If anyone asks me to do something that will leave me overwrought, depleted or bent out of shape, I respond with this magical phrase: “I can’t.”

Being brave enough to disappoint my husband at times is worthwhile because it helps me keep my dignity, stay pleasant most of the time and avoid a blowup.

It bears repeating: If I go past my limits and my husband happens to be in the vicinity when I decide to overdraw my energy account, getting angry at him won’t somehow restore my self-respect.

At all.

But acknowledging my limits to myself up front has been a lifesaver and a marriage saver.

4. Boundaries Make Others Straighten Up.

This one just isn’t my experience—not the way I used boundaries or the way I see other women using them, which is as a way to try to control someone else.

That’s because boundaries are secretly ultimatums or threats. It’s human nature to rebel against an ultimatum or a threat.

Being threatened brings out the “I’ll show you!” in all of us.

I remember thinking that if I made threats it would make my husband realize just how thoughtless he was being and reconsider his actions, but that never ever worked, not even one little bit.

It didn’t protect me from suffering what I felt was his bad behavior.

Me putting him on notice just gave us wall-to-wall hostility.

These days I don’t feel at all tempted to make threats or ultimatums because my husband is inspired to make me happy.

All I have to do is be my best self (the me I always wanted to be anyway), and my husband responds to me better.

5. Boundaries are Non-negotiable.

Boundaries often end up being things like “I’m letting you know right now I’m never going to your brother’s house again” or “Next time you need a ride to the airport, don’t ask me.”

But those kinds of announcements—the kind that are from now on and forever—are just sideways forms of saying “I hate you right now.”

They may feel good in the moment, but they leave little room for the possibility that you’ll feel differently about something in the future.

They certainly aren’t conducive to intimacy, as they tend to leave a cold frost in the room.

I notice that my relationship requires ongoing negotiations, and there are very few things that I can decide about now and forever.

Instead, I prefer to check with myself in each moment and decide if I’ll go to his brother’s house or drive him to the airport.

Maybe I will, or maybe I can’t do that and still be my best self—the calm, self-possessed one. Not the angry and resentful one.

Either way, I know I’ll be able to honor myself as that situation arises. And I won’t need a strong military to do it.

It’s true that we’re always teaching people how to treat us.

Setting boundaries never got me the tender, playful, passionate treatment I have now. But focusing on and honoring my own feelings and desires have helped give me everything I wanted when I thought I needed all that defense.


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34 thoughts on “Healthy Boundaries in Relationships”

  1. I certainly appreciate this article. However, I have a support group for Christian wives of alcoholics and addicts and LOVING boundaries are a MUST. These are set in order to protect ourselves and our children from the chaos and pain of addiction. For example, I have set the boundary that if he is drunk, I will simply leave to go to my sister’s house with the children because it hurts them beyond belief to see their father like this. I have also set the boundary that there will be no sex while he is drunk. This isn’t to deprive him, but to save something that is very intimate for a time when it might mean something other than sloppy, drunken sex. It also tells my husband that when he is sober, he is free to experience the joys of family life and marriage, but when he is drinking that this experience is his and his alone. It also proves to my girls that I can be a woman of strength as well as a good wife by drawing a biblical line in the sand and that my husband cannot treat me a certain way (when he is drunk, there is language and behavior that is destructive and frankly demonic).

    I love that the message behind this article is that we don’t set boundaries out of bitterness or revenge, but there is a place for them if they are set not in order to disrespect your husband, but with love and so your marriage can thrive. Before I set these boundaries, I pretty much let him walk all over me and treat me worse than I would treat an enemy (when he was drunk of course) because I thought I was being the good, submissive Christian wife. After months of prayer, I realized that as precious as I am to the Lord, that this is not exactly what was required of me. So, yes, there is a place for boundaries, loving boundaries that create an atmosphere for the marriage to thrive, not for revenge or disrespect.

    Reply
    • Rechelle, I can appreciate that you’ve found boundaries helpful in your difficult situation. What I hear you saying is that it feels more self-honoring to delay sex until your husband is sober, and I completely see why you feel that way! I would do the same in your situation. I also hear you saying it feels more honoring for you and your kids to leave when he’s reached a certain level of intoxication, which I can also understand. Those are good examples of making decisions that honor yourself in the moment, and teach your husband how to treat you differently. You can’t control his drinking, but you can control yourself and how you respond, and I admire how you’ve found a way to do that that isn’t bitter or vengeful.

      Reply
    • Rachel, basically you are following what Laura is teaching. You just aren’t verbalizing. You are saying you “can’t have sex Intoxicated and you leave so basically you are saying “ouch”
      I respect you so much and pray for your family.
      I have been separated from my husband since last March. He has hurt me so much. He abandoned our family 3 weeks after our home burned down and we have been in an insurance battle ever since. He is seeing another woman on top of all that. He stays out late. He leaves my teenage daughter home alone when she stays with him. I’m definitely going to try “ouch”. But if I tell him ” I can’t” to something I am afraid of his wrath. He is extremely forgetful. He exaggerates so many things. He screams at me at times and is nice to me at others. So I am confused. He wants to file for divorce in March and I have begged him to talk to me. At first he told me it would do NO good. He has made up his mind. Our marriage is over. And the next day he softened and said I could come over anytime and talk to him but he didn’t know what I would have to say would change his mind……now I’m scared. I don’t know what to say. I have said I love you, I miss you. But I don’t know what I can do or say. Any help from any of you ladies would be appreciated. There are times when he texts me that I want to acknowledge him so I do say “I hear you”. I have actually use it a lot now on most people. There are times when I say….”I would love to walk but it’s too cold out” and he offered me to use his treadmill. But he’s doing it to be kind, not to be my husband. (According to him). And walking is one of my favorite self care.

      Reply
      • Tina, I’m sorry to hear about what you’re going through with your husband. Living under the threat of a divorce you don’t want creates a lot of anxiety! I can see you’re committed though, because of that, there’s definitely hope for your marriage. I love the treadmill story–that’s great! I’d love to see you get support with implementing the Intimacy Skills because the stakes are very high for you. I invite you to apply for a complimentary discovery call to see if working with one of my coaches might be right for you. It will be so valuable for you! You can do that here:
        https://lauradoyle.org/marriage-relationship-coaching/

        Reply
  2. Speaking of boundaries, I’m wondering how I should hold my husband’s recent decision to apply for jobs in the U.S when we live in Canada and with a teenage son and 11 year old daughter and the fact that I am the (much) higher income earner, which means its a bigger risk for me to leave my job to move with him if he gets the job – and so I likely will not. I am struggling to figure out how to talk to him about this. I know that he is making that decision out of a desperate sense that he needs to try and get better opportunities than he is getting here but this potential move will leave me with two children – one who is requiring a lot of my support for school at the moment – and a busy job and life to try and manage without his help while he moves to a place where all he will have to manage is himself. Really struggling….

    Reply
    • Nicole, Sorry to hear you’re in such a stressful position in your marriage! That sounds difficult. I can see why that would be a struggle. I see some possibilities for creating the outcome you’re wanting here, and I would love to see you get some support with implementing Intimacy Skills to help bring that about. This is fixable! I invite you to apply for a complimentary discovery call to see if working with one of my coaches is right for you. You can do that here:
      https://lauradoyle.org/marriage-relationship-coaching/

      Reply
  3. With a Masters in Counseling, I respectfully disagree! It seems that your own understanding of boundaries needs clarification. I am sad to see this message sent out to women when healthy boundaries are sometimes necessary and very helpful.

    Reply
    • Amanda, Thanks for your feedback. I trust that you and all my readers are the experts on their own life and will do what’s best for them even though I have shared my experience about boundaries in this blog.

      Reply
      • Thanks for the post. I thought it was a very good overview of unhealthy boundaries.

        I’ve also had “professional” counsellors, that talked of boundaries and they did nothing but come between our one-flesh marriage with toxic guidelines that completely lacked grace.

        Thank you again, Laura, for such insightful posts. I can really tell you are out for marriage and relationship instead of encouraging women to be all about themselves. I like that about your brand.

        Reply
    • As a former client of a professional with a Masters in Counseling services, I am well aware that you have been taught “other rules”. However, in real life, your rules of boundary setting, did nothing to improve my marriage. The intentions of setting boundaries are to protect yourself. If you will go through all of Laura Doyle’s work, you will find there are other ways how to keep yourself protected without hurting yourself or other people around you. Experience speaks for itself.
      So, to all lucky women who get these posts, kudos to you and Don’t give up! So sad for the rest of the women who are trying to be helped by our professionals, who don’t have the real intimacy skills.

      Reply
    • I would like to know some examples of healthy boundaries. I am 17 years into a relationship with highly toxic elements, and have often played a co-dependent role.
      In the last year, with therapy, I have learned to be kind to myself and that sometimes that looks like telling my partner I will no longer support him, that he needs to get his own car now, and so on. It feels good. But now reading this post I recognize myself in some of these mistakes. So where is the balance – what do healthy boundaries look like?

      Reply
      • Sarah, Great questions! I love your beautiful accountability. That was my quandary too–how do I get what I need? I got my answer in the Six Intimacy Skills, which are nothing like anything I ever learned in therapy. The SKills helped me honor myself, keep my dignity, stop raging, stop being co-dependent and make my husband ambitious and crazy in love with me. I lay them out step-by-step in the book The Empowered Wife. You can read a free chapter here:
        https://lauradoyle.org/first-kill-all-the-marriage-counselors/

        Reply
  4. What about boundaries with respect to other women? I’m not asking about cheating – more about friendships that lack boundaries. Just letting that go and taking care of myself seems like it is condoning a lack of boundaries that may be inappropriate but setting boundaries feels parental.

    Reply
    • Kelly, This is a great insight you have here–there’s parenting or control which doesn’t feel good or contribute to intimacy, and there’s…giving up control of someone you can’t control. At least those are the only options I’ve ever found. The Intimacy Skills helped me figure out what I can control and what I can’t. Turns out I have a lot of power now that I know how to use it. We are all teaching others how to treat us, including our husbands, and their drive to make us happy is very high. If we are respectful, they tend to rise up and become their best selves. That’s gotten me more connection than not condoning ever did.

      Reply
      • Laura this is one thing my husband says i do…..”control”. He is not specific. He says I can’t give it up. You are right I can’t control what he does or is doing now. I hate knowing he is with another woman. I hate when he leaves my daughter late at night. I hate that message he is sending to my daughter.

        Reply
        • Tina, I was the same way–very controlling and I couldn’t give it up! But I once I discovered the Intimacy Skills they helped me become my best self, to become the wife I wanted to be all along. If I can do it, and thousands of other women can do it, you can do it! It helps a lot to have a guide by your side. That’s what I want for you.

          Reply
          • Laura. Do you have coaches that have experience with complicated situations like mine? I’m truly ready to do something. I have been without my husband almost a year and I feel like I’m running out of time. I have tried space. I have tried being quiet. I have tried being peaceful. I have tried telling him how I feel or I miss him. But with him being separated from me I just feel lost. I think if he was living here I might have a better chance. But you are the experts!!

          • Tina, That’s a lot of commitment on your part! And yes, almost a year is a long time to endure this situation. We do have coaches who have first-hand experience with situations like yours and I’m confident you would find it enormously valuable to have the personal attention and guidance of such a woman. There’s nothing quite like it. You can make your marriage vibrant and amazing again! We’re here to support you doing that.

  5. Do you have any advice for setting or not setting boundaries in a dating relationship? If a boyfriend consistently talks out of two sides of his mouth…one day “I love you and my life is terrible without you” and another day, “I don’t think you will be biblically submissive enough for me to ever marry you” what’s a girl to do? My solution was to break up but he is still texting those same messages on different days. I’m tired of the rollercoaster of emotions that go with it. I’ve asked him to not contact me unless he’s willing and able to be in a relationship with me, knowing my interpretation of biblical submission. Should I ignore his sweet loving messages or acknowledge them?

    Reply
    • Rose, That sounds incredibly hard! I’m sure you love this man or you wouldn’t be writing to me about this issue. This relationship could be all that you dream of from what you describe, even though you broke up with him. I’d love to see you get your hands on the Six Intimacy Skills, which I lay out step-by-step in my book, The Empowered Wife. You’d find it so valuable! You can read a free chapter here:
      https://lauradoyle.org/first-kill-all-the-marriage-counselors/

      Reply
  6. This article is definitely a good overview of how the word “boundaries” gets abused. I believe that what is actually meant by setting healthy boundaries is what you call being concerned with what’s on your paper (not his) and keeping your side of the street clean.

    Good boundaries don’t come with any sort of announcement. If you have to say: “this is my boundary,” that’s a pretty good bet that you’re doing something else besides setting a boundary. But something you advocate, saying “I can’t” when a request of hubby would interfere with your self-care, is actually a very good example of setting a healthy boundary and not letting it get crossed, and for good reason. Refusing to take care of your husband’s business is also a good example of boundary setting that’s good for both of you.

    Laura, my point is, you actually do advocate setting good, healthy, boundaries in a relationship, and they are necessary. You just call them something different.

    Reply
    • Fernanda, Agreed! You’re absolutely right. I think of it as honoring myself, acknowledging my limits and staying focused on making myself happy because the word boundaries conjures an angry, critical comment. Thanks for clarifying.

      Reply
  7. Saying “I can’t” is actually a boundary 🙂 but I do get what you are saying here. Thank you, Laura, for all the amazing work that you do!!!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Brenda! I get what you’re saying. I think of “I can’t” as acknowledging my limits as a mere mortal woman, which has been so great for intimacy. There’s no anger or resentment in it, and maybe there isn’t in a boundary either, but I sure see boundaries being referenced in anger and resentment frequently. That’s why I make the distinction.

      Reply
      • The original authors of the “Boundaries” concept, Cloud and Townsend, defined boundaries more in the way you advocate, Laura, as saying “I can’t” when you can’t. You state that not with any anger or resentment in it, but just as a fact, and then you don’t back down even if the other person gets mad or tries to manipulate you into backing down (the other person might get mad but you (the boundary setter) shouldn’t. In their book they’re OK with a bit more explanation, as in, “I can’t pick you up today and take you to the store, but I will tomorrow when it’s our designated shopping day,” to a request from an elderly parent to a daughter to please come pick him up to buy that item he feels he absolutely needs right now, but not with resentment or anger. And as I said before, if you have to actually use the word “boundary” when setting one (as in some of the examples in your post), you’re not doing it right.

        I believe the original concept of boundaries as spelled out by Cloud and Townsend is a very good one, and very necessary in all kinds of interpersonal relationships. But it sounds like from what you’re writing that the concept may have gotten diluted and/or misconstrued in people’s understanding. It sounds like “boundaries” has now become a buzz word or something but with the original meaning lost. So people are throwing around the word like some sort of magic charm and as you point out, that is not having the desired effect, certainly not the desired effect of actually honoring yourself in your limitations and showing the others in your life how to also honor you. But the way Cloud and Townsend spelled it out, it IS about honoring yourself and your limitations (including your desire to not do something–you don’t need a reason to say no, right?) and teaching others how to do the same for you. Really, the only difference I see between what you advocate and what Cloud and Townsend advocate is that you go for fewer words. You say a wife should simply say “I can’t” with no other words, whereas C and T would advocate for completing the thought more, like “I can’t help you clean the garage right now.” Or, C and T would advocate saying “That really hurt me when you did…” whereas you say to just say “ouch.” So, my take is that you have actually further refined C and T’s boundaries concept to be effective with even fewer words (and you give excellent reasons for using fewer words). “That really hurt me when you said…” is actually pretty clunky and awkward (in addition to sounding critical and therefore disrespectful when said to a husband). “Ouch” gets the job done in a much more graceful and gracious manner.

        Reply
  8. Hi Laura last year we were happy when i told you after a cheating of my husband with his problem of bipolar we came back.
    It was ok during a time but from september he doesnt want to be with me.
    And all time shouting and with very very bad words.all started when i tried to put boundaries because he cannot drink.so it was horrible.
    I have now a very difficult situation.and he ask me for divorce.
    I feel very very sad and i feel i cannot more with this.
    What is your counsel Laura? What i can do?

    Reply
    • Mercedes, I’m so sorry to hear! That’s very difficult. This is not hopeless though. I see women in similar situations turn things around and make their marriages amazing again using The Six Intimacy Skills and a guide. I’d love to see you get support. This deserves a longer conversation. You have more power than you realize. I invite you to apply for a complimentary discovery call to see if working with one of my coaches is right for you. You can do that here:
      https://lauradoyle.org/marriage-relationship-coaching/

      Reply
  9. Thanks for the good reminders. Sometimes I have anger and bitterness for when my husband doesn’t act the way I want him to. I feel like Im very mad when he doesnt take care of himself. I suppose I could do the ‘spouse fulfilling prophecy’ thing. Sometimes it feels like the more respect I show on the outside, the more I am seething on the inside. But then when I look at myself, there are plenty of things I need to take care of in my own life to get things done and impove. I should take on that project first. Thanks again.

    Reply
  10. I go a little crazy when my husband continues to use my toothbrush and drink from my water glass and eat my food from my plate. He has no boundaries when it comes to my personal items. Aren’t some boundaries healthy? Normal? I literally react. It’s going on 10 years now and he hasn’t learned that I don’t like it!!! What to do???

    Reply
    • Tonya, That seems appropriate and normal of you to want your own personal toothbrush, water glass and plate of food! What comes to mind here is expressing a desire in a way that inspires. Your husband wants to make you happy but if he only heard a complaint he may not know how! I had the same problem, and I will explain what works like magic in this free webinar: How to Get Respect, Reconnect and Rev Up Your Love Life. You can register here:
      https://lauradoyle.org/swewtraining/

      Reply
  11. My husband is addicted to video games. They have become extremely important to him. I have let him know that it bothers me in both healthy and unhealthy ways. He is trying to play less, but he needed to have someone help him take care of his house online. He found someone to do this which is a woman. This has bothered me greatly. I know jealousy is wrong. But I feel like it is wrong for him to have a woman living at his video game home where he spends most of his time.

    Reply
    • Andrea, I can see why your husband’s video game addiction and online connection to this woman would bother you and make you jealous. I admire you for reaching out for support and for your commitment to your marriage. If I can get my husband off the couch and make my marriage playful and passionate again, I know you can too! I have a free webinar coming up that will help you do that. It’s called How to Get Respect, Reconnect and Rev Up Your Love Life. You can register for it here: https://lauradoyle.org/swewtraining/

      Reply

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