Here's a simple truth: All healthy relationships have healthy boundaries.
You see, boundaries aren't restricting or limiting. They provide the freedom to express your needs and values while also honoring the needs and values of your partner. Setting boundaries is:
- The essential antidote to codependency.
- A prerequisite for emotional well-being.
- A learnable skill that determines the success and longevity of any relationship.
Setting healthy boundaries can transform your relationship and elevate your own self-respect.
What Do Boundaries Look Like in a Marriage?
Boundaries are unique for every individual. They cover a range of topics and can be small or big. In the simplest terms, a boundary in a marriage is the limit of what a person is willing to accept from their partner. Boundaries serve as an outward expression of a person's core values and beliefs and reflect what they need to feel safe, respected, and loved.
Married couples often establish boundaries in areas such as:
- In-laws and family (e.g., how often we visit the in-laws, how much personal details they should know about the marriage).
- Personal privacy (e.g., agreeing not to go through each other's phones, not being forced to share details about the past).
- Communication (e.g., zero-tolerance for shouting or name-calling).
- Autonomy (e.g., the freedom to make your own decisions, work toward goals, or maintain friendships outside the marriage).
- Physical space (e.g., zero tolerance for violence, agreements about sex including when, where, and how).
- Money (e.g., not hiding money or debt from each other).
- Home life (e.g., expectations on shared parenting, household chores, quality time spent together).
- Relationship rules (e.g., the expectation of loyalty and fidelity, trust and respect).
Of course, understanding what a boundary looks like is just one part of the puzzle. The next step is figuring out how to set a boundary effectively.
4 Ways to Set and Respect Boundaries With Your Spouse
1. Use Clear Communication. Spend time identifying what is important to you in your relationship and your life. What "hill are you willing to die on" and what are you willing to be more flexible about? Once you've identified your specific boundaries, use clear language when discussing them with your partner:
- "Please don't speed when I'm a passenger in our car."
- "Please respect my privacy."
- "I am not OK with raised voices during conflict."
- "Pressure to have sex makes me uncomfortable."
- "I need a half-hour to myself when I get home from work to decompress and better help with the kids."
Sit down with your partner to discuss your values, express your needs, and agree upon boundaries that will uphold these needs. Make sure these are boundaries you are both prepared to respect and honor.
2. Set Clear Consequences. Once you and your partner have discussed your boundaries—the "musts" and "must nots" your relationship needs to be successful—the next step is to be clear about what the consequences are if and when boundaries aren't respected.
For example, if you and your spouse agree that you will not raise your voices during conflict, a consequence of yelling during a fight could be pausing the argument and taking a 30-minute walk alone.
It is imperative that you follow through on the consequences of any boundary violation. Not following through shows your partner that you don't respect your own boundaries—and if you don't respect your boundaries, why should they?
3. Take Responsibility. Remember: Everything you do and say has a natural consequence, whether positive or negative. For example, if you're frequently critical of your spouse, they probably won't want to be intimate with you. But if you speak kindly and refrain from yelling during an argument, they're more likely to feel secure and desire physical intimacy and connection.
This same concept applies to honoring your partner's boundaries. Realize that what you say and do (or don't do) affects your partner. Understand that you may slip up along the way, especially if you and your partner are new to setting healthy boundaries. Take responsibility when you make a mistake, offer genuine apologies, and always circle back to clear, respectful communication.
4. Seek Professional Help. Setting boundaries is hard. Consulting with a licensed marriage and family therapist or another professional can be extremely beneficial, especially if you are creating "big" boundaries around issues like alcoholism, infidelity, or child-rearing.
Professional guidance helps you:
- Identify your boundaries as they relate to your values and needs.
- Use tools and language to communicate your boundaries.
- Establish appropriate consequences for boundary violations.
Also, know when to end a relationship if certain boundaries are routinely disrespected or simply not compatible (e.g., wanting kids versus not wanting kids).