Imagine the following scenario: A husband and wife are in a session with their therapist. She says that he’s always angry with her and makes mean comments. When the therapist asks her husband why he’s constantly mad, he replies that it’s because his wife tries to control him.
According to the wife, she tries to exert control because her husband doesn’t give her any time or attention. He says that’s because she’s always nagging him. She says she nags because he won’t do anything she wants.
It’s a prime illustration of not taking responsibility for your own actions, attitudes, thoughts or feelings. And that’s where boundaries come in.
The above example comes from the book Boundaries in Marriage: Understanding the Choices that Make or Break Loving Relationships by psychologists Henry Cloud, Ph.D, and John Townsend, Ph.D.
Boundaries Are About You
When you have clear boundaries, you know where you end and your partner begins, according to Cloud and Townsend. You also know that you’re not at the mercy of your spouse’s behavior or their problems.
Boundaries are really about you.
“When you build a fence around your yard, you do not build it to figure out the boundaries of your neighbor’s yard so that you can dictate to him how he is to behave. You build it around your own yard so that you can maintain control of what happens to your own property,” according to the authors.
That’s also how personal boundaries work. You can’t control how your spouse speaks to you. But you can control how you behave when they speak to you in that way. For instance, if they start yelling or calling you names, you can hang up the phone or leave the room.
In other words, you determine what you will and won’t tolerate or be exposed to. And you set consequences. Another example is eating dinner by yourself when your spouse is late, again. Other consequences may be more severe, such as separating.
Boundaries also may include emotional distance, such as: “When you can be kind, we can be close again,” or “When you show you are serious about getting some help, I will feel safe enough to open up to you again.”
Setting Boundaries with Yourself
It’s also important to set boundaries with yourself (i.e., not trying to change your spouse but focusing on changing yourself).
But he only got defensive or told her she was overreacting. After a while, she decided to change her attitude and actions: She was going to be less angry about his lateness and more caring; and if he was going to be late, she’d eat dinner with the kids and put his food in the fridge.
She talked to her husband about her plan. He wasn’t happy about eating microwaved dinners, but she said he was welcome to rearrange his schedule to eat when the family did.
After a few days of eating many microwaved meals, he started coming home on time. He said it was because his wife was a whole lot nicer to him, so he wanted to be home – and he really hated reheating his dinner.
The Concept of “You Are not Me”
According to Cloud and Townsend, another key part of boundaries is the idea of “you are not me.” Your spouse isn’t an extension of you, and they’re not here exclusively to meet your needs.
Love breaks down when we don’t see our spouses as people but as “objects of our own needs.” This also means that when your spouse comes to you and reveals how they’re feeling – say about not feeling close to you – you don’t interpret it as an accusation and get defensive. Rather, you empathize.
“To have good boundaries is to be separate enough from the other person that you can allow her to have her own experience without reacting with your own. Such a clear stance of separateness allows you not to react, but to care and empathize.”
This also includes respecting each other’s differences – even when you don’t like them. Cloud and Townsend share the story of a husband who didn’t want to attend the same church as his wife, because he just couldn’t connect to the service. She viewed this as an affront, and believed that if he truly loved her, he would go.
Boundaries are the foundation of healthy relationships. They give partners the opportunity to grow as individuals and as a couple.