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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

Setting Relationship Boundaries that Work

Setting Relationship Boundaries that Work

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A friend just sent me a quote worthy of consideration: “Expectations minus consequences equal wishes.” It reminded me of one of my all-time favorite sayings, “A boundary without consequences is a hope, a wish, complaining or whining.”

This quote rarely goes over well when talking to people about their lives. Few of us really want to look at a friend, mate, parent or colleague and tell them we will no longer tolerate a particular behavior. That means we have to put action behind our words, and that’s tough to do.

During counseling the other day I worked with a young man in his twenties whose girlfriend struggled with anger issues. He had come in for an individual session to talk about his feelings.

“I feel like I walk on eggshells around her,” Kerry began. “I never know when she’s going to be in a bad mood, or if something I do is going to set her off. She snaps at me if I’ve done the least thing wrong. I hate living like this.”

“Tell me about the boundaries you and she have established in your relationship,” I stated. “Is she ever inappropriate with her anger?”

Kerry was silent and then stammered, searching for an answer.

“She’s inappropriate as far as I’m concerned,” Kerry said firmly. “She’d say she has a right to yell if she is upset. Or sometimes she’ll say she’s not actually yelling, and we end up debating that. But, she’s sarcastic and harsh with me. I don’t feel safe talking to her about this stuff.”

“Okay,” I said. “But, have you two agreed upon any boundaries about how you will and won’t talk to each other?”

“I don’t know if we have any boundaries,” he said. “Actually, you’ll have to tell me what you mean by boundaries.”

I sensed that Kerry and his girlfriend, Melissa, were like many couples who have no sense about what is appropriate and what is not. Even if they know what isn’t working, many people haven’t set out a set of rules to govern the way they will talk to each other—boundaries—that will help them put the brakes on when things get hot or disrespectful.

Kerry and I continued to talk about how Melissa defended her right to yell, have moods, and say whatever was on her mind. In fact, Kerry admitted that he often slipped into angry outbursts as well, with both of them losing emotional control at times. Together we laid out a plan that could help them manage their emotions more effectively.

Kerry and I discussed some ideas about boundaries that could help them. He planned on sharing these ideas with Melissa or ask her to come in for a counseling session with him to discuss them.

First, agree that boundaries are healthy for everyone. Boundaries are like fences that help control our behavior. They indicate where we must stop and change course. They define what belongs to me and what belongs to you. They are edges that warn me if I come too close, or if I cross them, certain consequences will predictably happen. They are part of God’s order for His creation.

Second, boundaries are healthy for relationships. There is a saying that says, “We teach people how to treat us.” In effect we tell people what we will tolerate, and what we will not tolerate. Not surprisingly, people understand these messages. If you say you will not tolerate something, but do, people will not take you seriously. Conversely, if you say you will not tolerate something, and don’t, they understand this as well and think twice about crossing certain lines.

Third, we must talk about boundaries. Every relationship—parent/child; man/ wife; employer/ employee; friend/ friend---should have ‘the talk’ about what the boundaries (expectations) are and what will happen (consequences) if the boundary is violated. Expectations should be clear, measurable and predictable.

Fourth, there must be consequences attached to boundaries for them to be effective. Again, if there are no consequences then you really haven’t set boundaries. They are hopes, wishes, whining or complaining. You will be teaching others that your wishes don’t have to be respected. Scripture tells us that we reap what we sow. “The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from that Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:7-8)

Finally, we can add empathy to the consequences to help create a powerful connection. Setting boundaries doesn’t have to be harsh, uncaring work. In fact, adding a strong dose of empathy packs a bigger punch than criticism. In a later counseling session Kerry and Melissa agreed they would not enter into critical conversations when angry. If the other felt defensive or threatened, they would calmly tell the other that they cared about the other, but would only talk when they felt safe. (This was something each could decide for themselves, rather than trying to control the other person!) They agreed to be kind and caring when telling the other they would not participate in any angry exchange with the other.

Boundaries are easy to talk about and usually quite difficult to enforce. However, once we practice, boundary work becomes easier and more effective. We’d love to hear from you. Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center and my Marriage Intensives on my website www.MarriageRecoveryCenter.comand’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.


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 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 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.