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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

Setting Healthy Boundaries for a Healthy Relationship

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins Director, Marriage Recovery Center
  • 2010 8 Jun
Setting Healthy Boundaries for a Healthy Relationship

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I can think of no more important skill to help us relate in a healthy way than setting boundaries. You can learn healthy communication skills, and that will help. You can learn how to manage conflict—that will be of tremendous value. You can learn to pray and laugh together, and that certainly will have powerful results. But, if you don't know how to define and maintain your personal and relational boundaries, you'll be in serious trouble.  Let me remind you of a couple of facts:

God is the author of boundaries—defining the world with boundaries; He established boundaries on what He would bless, and what He would not bless; He made each of us unique, with different talents, skills and possibilities; We have different family backgrounds, values, beliefs and preferences; It is our responsibility to define our personal and relational values, and reinforce them.

These facts confuse many of us. Too many people think they can tell others how to live, or that others should automatically respect their preferences. However, we must be very careful about telling others what they should think, feel or do, and likewise, must guard our boundaries carefully so others do not presume they can tell us what to think, feel or do. 

It is our responsibility to be clear with others about what we will tolerate, and what we won't tolerate. These boundaries clarify expectations, much like rules in a game. These boundaries help create predictability and stability in a relationship. 

As a Clinical Psychologist, many of the problems I face concern boundaries—or more specifically, the lack of boundaries. Let's discuss the situation of two people who wrote to me recently. 

The first is an anonymous woman who writes the following: "My boyfriend keeps bringing up information about his old girlfriends, in spite of the fact that I've told him I don't want to hear about them. I've told him nicely not to keep talking about them, but he keeps doing it. Can you tell me why he does this?"

Answer: "No, I can't." While I could guess, I don't want to speculate and don't think it would be helpful if I did. We could all make guesses as to why he does it, but we'd just be guessing and that is not the point. 

Practicing what we know about boundaries—not living with paper fences—what does this woman needs to do? All together now: Tell this guy in no uncertain terms to knock it off or you're out of there. You don't really need to know his motivations; he needs to know you mean business and you're not going to keep dating an insensitive clod. Either respect your boundaries of not wanting to bring a third party to this dance, or politely, and ever-so-kindly, tell him goodbye. 

It's all about boundaries; what you will and what you will not tolerate. It's all about letting people know you expect to be respected, and you're going to teach people how to treat you with respect.  Remember folks, boundaries have edges. Sometimes they hurt. When we dare to use the words, "Stop it," or "No, I won't live with that," people tend to take notice. When we say, "Feel free to talk about other women, but not with me," folks tend to listen. 

Another woman writes: "I have a fear of communicating with my husband. In the past two years when I've tried to communicate, he has belittled me, yelled, told me he doesn't care how I feel and that he doesn't love me. He totally disregards me on occasions such as my birthday, Valentines Day, etc. He claims he's never been into these holidays but yet he bought my seven-year old son a birthday gift. My birthday was two days ago and he was well aware but chose to not even say Happy Birthday. It hurts but knowing I will only feel worse if I confront him, and cripples me from speaking to him. Any suggestions?"

This woman is living in an extremely difficult situation. What is paramount about her note is that she lives in fear, and it is crippling her. This is a hallmark of an abusive relationship. 

I've talked about men like her husband in my book, Dealing With The CrazyMakers in Your Life. This book speaks extensively about people who use aggression, like her husband, to paralyze us. His intimidation, belittling and yelling have done just that--paralyzed her.  Like dealing with the bully in the sandlot, cowering and living in fear simply gives them more power over us. While standing up to bullies is never easy, it is the only way to get them to understand that their intimidation is no longer effective. We won't be mesmerized by their tactics any longer. Here are some principles to consider:

One, cowering to bullies only gives them more power. They learn to be rough and tough for one reason—they can! And it works to get what they want, which is more power. When it doesn't work, they don't do it.

Two, you can begin in small ways. I'm not suggesting you puff out your chest and belittle your husband in return. I'm not suggesting you disrespect him. I'm suggesting small steps, such as firmly letting him know your honest feelings. 

Third, pursue counseling. While it is unlikely he will go for help with you, start counseling for yourself. Do it so you have support and encouragement. Determine to live your life, learning about boundaries. Recapture the ground he has taken from you. Re-define what is important, what you're feeling, think and want. Remember what God has done for you in the past and what He'll do for you now. 

Fourth, know that you cannot change him—you can only change yourself. He may always be a bully, but you don't have to hide in the corner of the playground. When he treats you badly, leave his presence. When he yells, tell him you will listen when he lowers his voice. We have been entrusted with being stewards of ourselves—we were bought with a price, and we are to take good care of ourselves. We cannot help others, serve others or utilize our gifts, talents and treasures if we are constantly putting out emotional fires on the home front.

Finally, there are times when we need to leave the playground of the bully. If, after developing assertiveness skills and regaining your self-respect, your husband continues to abuse you, consider a temporary separation so he can reconsider his actions toward you. When he truly discovers he cannot continue to violate you and your boundaries, treating you with such disrespect, it is quite possible that he'll realize his errors and reconsider his actions. Bullies are often tough on the outside with pretty soft underbellies. 

In both of these situations the women are tolerating too much. They are allowing the men in their lives to treat them with disrespect. While they are not causing the disrespect, they are enabling it to continue. Change will not be easy—it never is, but respecting one's self, and setting clear, inviolable boundaries, begins the change process.

June 7, 2010

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.