Boundaries are perhaps one of the most tossed about ideas in discussions of marriage and problems within marriage and families. The word “boundaries” is often so misunderstood that discussions about boundaries seem to permeate nearly every thread of those dealing with a marriage in crisis. This article is a starting point to discuss boundaries in general terms rather than how to apply them to our own lives. Feel free to add to the discussion or to seek clarification but try to limit the discussion to boundaries as a concept and not application to a particular situation.
What are boundaries?
Everybody has their own ideas of what a boundary should look like or what it is intended to accomplish for their lives. Poor boundaries are often mentioned as one of the reasons for an affair and also comes up in the discussion of how to deal with an affair by our spouse.
For me, the definitive definition of boundaries comes from the work of Doctors John Townsend and Henry Cloud and their original book Boundaries. A more recent book by the same authors is Boundaries In Marriage.
The original book did more to help me fight for my marriage than any other single book I read during those dark days when the outcome for my marriage was uncertain. It helped me to realize that what and who I was and what I would become was under my direct control while also showing me that what my wife might do was not under my control, though I might be able to influence her choices by protecting my own well defined boundaries. It gave me the understanding of what outcomes were within my control and let me learn to let go of outcomes that were not under my control.
So what are boundaries?
A boundary is NOT:
- A line in the sand that when crossed results in the interloper being bludgeoned into retreat.
- A method of getting what you want from someone else.
- A way to control the actions of other people.
- A punishment for violating our rights as individuals.
- An expectation of what someone else will, might or should do or not do.
- A wall that separates me from another person or all other people that prevents me from healthy interaction.
- An excuse for me to act badly or fail to respect the boundaries of others.
- A way to avoid conflict.
A boundary IS:
- A definition of what is mine and what is not mine.
- A declaration of what is within my realm of control or influence as to outcome.
- A statement of what I will do or not do.
- A protection for me by establishing what is mine and what belongs to someone else.
- A way for me to be respected as an individual with rights that go with being one.
- An indication of my own self worth, value and self esteem.
- A way to deal with conflict that respects others and requires respect from them.
You choose your own boundaries but can never set a boundary for anyone else.
If a person violates YOUR boundary, YOU determine the outcome for violation but never the actions of the other person.
A good boundary is all about YOU and never about what anyone else does.
A boundary can’t be a castle wall because folks who retreat inside of castles when under attack end up starving to death as the result of siege. The enemy attacks, tests defenses, finds weaknesses to exploit, and waits out the defenders until the outer defenses finally fail. Then the only recourse is further retreat to ever smaller defenses until you’re left with a single tiny room in which you live out the rest of your days as the attackers simply wait for you to die.
Walls as boundaries result in ever smaller boundaries until real life becomes impossible. Poorly defined boundaries always result in violations by others since the boundary is neither clearly defined nor well established.
Good boundaries are like hedge rows between property lines. They do not prevent interaction or the free flow of movement from place to place for either those inside or those outside. They simply establish what is under the control of one person and what is not.
My neighbor can’t set conditions for what I do within my boundaries and neither can I set conditions for what he will do within his own boundaries. If he violates my boundaries, the problem is not that I have weak boundaries but that he does not have strong boundaries.
A marriage in crisis can’t be saved by good boundaries but it can’t be saved without them. Boundaries aren’t about changing the actions of our spouse. They only define what is mine and what is not. They tell me and the world, including my spouse, what belongs to me alone, what lies within, while allowing me to let go of trying to control the things that lie without.