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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

Boundaries: Rules of Engagement

Boundaries: Rules of Engagement

Perhaps the most confounding issue facing most couples has to do with boundaries. Most people think they know how to set boundaries, when in reality they struggle with finding the balance between boundaries and compassion. Some believe they are setting a boundary when in fact they are only making a request or complaining. Others may rigidly set a boundary, being harsh in setting it or sticking to it and lacking compassion.

Boundaries are a problem for most couples.

Jake and Tara struggled in nearly every aspect of boundaries, and their marriage was in a severe crisis by the time they arrived at The Marriage Recovery Center.

“This is embarrassing,” Tara said, referring to their marriage.

“We’re professional people and know how to interact with others,” she said plaintively. “We have college degrees and know have taken classes in how to communicate. Why is it that we fight and bicker like our children? We’re both ready to call it quits it’s so bad.”

Jake and Tara, both in their mid-thirties, were indeed bright people, college-educated and certainly motivated to improve their marriage. Both were exhausted from their ongoing conflict, and the fact that they hadn’t found solutions from several previous counselors they had seen was puzzling. I asked for more information.

“His short-temper triggers me,” Tara said assertively. “If I don’t live up to his standards he yells at me. He attacks my character, puts me down and then I end up doing the same.”

“Is that true?” I asked Jake.

“I really don’t remember much about what happens,” he said. “If she says I said it, I probably did. She can dish it out as much as I can though.”

“What have you two done to try to establish healthy boundaries in your marriage?” I asked. “What are your ‘rules of engagement?’”

“We don’t really stick with counseling,” Tara said. “For one reason or another, we try counseling for a few weeks and then drop out. I’d say it was more him than me, but I’m probably guilty of not sticking with any program myself.”

“What is puzzling,” I said, “is that you are both ready to walk away from the marriage, and yet you haven’t been willing to set clear boundaries for how you will treat each other and how you will solve problems.”

Jake became quite animated at that point.

“I don’t think it is that we’re not willing,” he said. “We need some clear guidelines on how to set boundaries. We’ve never been coached on exactly how to do that.”

“Well, let’s get going on setting some clear boundaries on how you will and won’t treat each other, and what will happen if you violate these agreed upon boundaries.”

What follows are some guidelines we offer at The Marriage Recovery Center, and I’m indebted to my associate, Teri Johnson, MA who has written extensively on this topic.

First, success in marriage comes from implementing boundaries. Marriages are literally saved or destroyed by whether or not healthy boundaries are in place. When they are established, couples will treat each other respectfully. When they are not, couples live in chaos. God is the author of boundaries, clearly establishing boundaries to our universe as well as his laws regarding consequences to our behaviors. 

Second, boundaries inform others of how we expect and are willing to be treated. They are like fences to our yard and home: we let others know that they are welcome into our yard and home as long as they treat us with respect. If unwilling to treat us respectfully, there will be consequences and expectations for restoration.

Third, most people don’t like setting boundaries, or experiencing the boundaries of others. We don’t like the word ‘no.’ We don’t like to hear, “I’ll listen to you as long as you talk respectfully.” Boundaries have edges and can hurt. Healthy boundaries, however, protect us, what is dear to us as well as our relationships.

Fourth, boundaries can be misused. We can become overly rigid in setting boundaries, missing the opportunity of showing mercy and grace when we make the smallest mistake. We can slip into ‘pointing the finger’ at our mate, finding fault and criticizing rather then reinforcing a boundary. We can make our mate feel that our love is conditional, only offered if we are ‘perfect.’ We can become so focused on setting boundaries that we forget about the needs of our mate.

Finally, setting and maintaining boundaries is a work in progress. A relationship is dynamic, always changing. Boundaries must also be firm, yet flexible at times. Knowing when and how to enforce a boundary is something you work out with your mate. You will know you have achieved the balance when you are connected to your mate without resentment or unresolved issues.

mrcWhich is better, connection or separation? The choice is easy. Do you long for caring connection? We are here to help. Please go to our website, and discover more information about this as well as the free downloadable eBook, A Love Life of Your Dreams, including other free videos and articles.  Please send responses to me at and also read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on our website. You’ll find videos and podcasts on sexual addiction, emotionally destructive marriages, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage. 

Publication date: January 7, 2014