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When are Boundaries in Your Marriage Unhealthy?

By August 7, 2020August 31st, 2022No Comments
boundaries for a marriage a couple embracing in the cold

If someone asked you to write your story for your family, friends, and future generations, what would that story be?

Could you describe your life, marriage, goals, aspirations, and successes with imagery that made sense to someone else?

What boundaries does your story portray in your life, marriage, relationships, and vocation?

In 2015, I sensed the nudge to write part of my story.

I balked at the thought. Chuckled. And promptly ignored the nudge.

But then it came again. Only stronger and more insistent. This time I listened for a few seconds before I set it aside. After five months, I couldn’t ignore the nudge any longer.

Why did telling my story matter?

It turns out God wanted to use my broken but healed places to encourage others. He wanted others to see what I already knew: He took my mess—and takes my messes—and turns them into a beautiful mosaic. All those broken, shattered life pieces get carefully reconstructed into a sparkling backdrop that illustrates God’s mercy, grace, love, and restoration in a life that turns to Him for help.

Oh, I needed help. My husband’s confession that he might be fired for viewing porn at work leveled me. And that behavior, that sounded so foreign and disgusting, wasn’t a new thing for him. Shattered. My life was in pieces.

After the hard work we’d both done, now it wasn’t.

But why would God want me to share with others the most painful thing I’d ever endured? How could that help them or me?

Was it that other wives needed to hear what He taught me about the value of boundaries?

During that aftershock and reconstruction phase, God revealed to me (and my husband) the necessity for healthy boundaries. I’d had some boundaries before, but most were either a nice concept I talked about but didn’t live out. Or they were self-protective, hard-nosed, and secret-inducing. I didn’t understand healthy boundaries or the freedom and love they created.

Too often, boundaries get a bad rap.

People envision concrete barriers or brick walls. They sound negative when the opposite is true. Boundaries show respect and love for yourself and others.

During recovery from the damage to our marriage from porn addiction, we both discovered healthy boundaries. Before this, I’ll admit our boundaries were unhealthy or non-existent.

To sort out the good from the bad, I use a bit of mental imagery to keep them straight:

First: Think about the word boundary. Note what image naturally pops to mind.

Second: Attempt to construct these five images in your mind. Sort the good from the not-so-good.

  1. A line in the sand.

    The understood definition of this phrase is “set a limit; a point beyond which one will not go.” Makes sense. But if that is your only image of boundaries, how enforceable is it?

    Picture yourself on a beach. Now, draw a line in the sand. What happens to that line? A wave washed over it. Gone. The group about 100 yards away playing volleyball chased their overshot ball your direction and smudged your line. Messy.

    Ask yourself, “How easily can I step over this line? And back again?” For instance, I decided to be honest with Dave about every financial expenditure. Instead, because I feared his anger or questions, I’d purchase something I wanted as part of another budget line item so he wouldn’t see the separate expenditure. Instead of sticking to my honesty boundary, I practiced financial infidelity.

    In my orneriness and selfishness, I stepped over this line because I could. No one knew but me. That’s the problem. I didn’t have the integrity to keep my boundary.

    This line in the sand imagery breaks down quickly. It’s a poor metaphor for healthy boundaries. (But a great example of an unhealthy one.)

  1. A brick wall.

    Takes time to build. One could say it is pretty to look at. Imagine yourself looking at this wall. Is it tall enough you can’t see over it? Does it create a barrier, but you can still talk to someone (or should I say “shout” at someone) on the other side? Why is it there? Self-protection, keeping others out, or a comfortable hiding place?

    Imagine this: You and your husband struggle with intimacy because of your past abuse. You know it, and he does to some degree. One evening, when he makes a playful move toward you, you recoil suddenly.

    “Don’t do that to me!” flies out of your mouth. Instead of telling him what you’re feeling and why, you retreat behind your wall once again, leaving your husband wondering what just happened.

    Why do you need this brick wall? Is this an image for a healthy or unhealthy boundary? Maybe you need to reflect a bit. What happened that caused you to build this protective barrier around your heart and soul?

  1. A mountain range.

    Formidable, but it could be traversed. Imposing, but beautiful. It could create a sense of protection and safety. However, the mountain forms a large area boundary for you. It obstructs your view from what or who is on the other side. Either you’re on the same side with your husband, or you are on the opposite side. And it’s not a quick trip to join sides if a mountain stands in your way. Not much wiggle room with this one.

    Throughout a good portion of our marriage, I refused to wash the car or even help.  I know this is a silly example, however, I created what I thought was a boundary when really it was a big old rocky mountain to protect a wound. The more I stuck to my guns, the higher that mountain grew. Dave wisely and lovingly worked his way over the rocky terrain to reach me and help me work through the painful past. We removed that mountain one boulder at a time.

  1. A barbed-wire fence.

    Long lines of spiked wire fencing that you can see through. Have you ever run into a fence like this? Dave has and bears the scars to this day. We removed some of this fencing from our property years ago. Even with heavy, leather work gloves and protective clothing, we dealt with cuts and tears to our skin.

    As a boundary, it is effective to keep undesirables from getting to you. It does mark where your property begins and ends. But, it conveys the sense, “Keep out! This is my land. You are not welcome.” As an image for relational boundaries, at least you can see the other person, but there’s still a protective layer between you.

    For example, a spouse that makes any conversation about their family of origin off-limits has erected a barbed-wire fence boundary. You both can see the family, in fact, every holiday you do, but the spouse lets you know it’s not okay to talk about the issues you both know exist. You’d have better success cuddling a porcupine.

    And if you dare cross this unhealthy boundary, beware of the consequences.

  1. A split-rail fence.

    Marks the edges of your property without obstructing your views. Takes careful forethought to construct. It’s easy to talk to another person over it as well as remove it if necessary. This fence goes up piece by piece but can be taken apart the same way.

    I like the split-rail fence imagery because it gives the sense of creating your property boundaries, but feels open and welcoming. It almost says, “Come join me by the fence for a talk.” This imagery feels more like a healthy boundary.

Boundaries in your marriage, like fences, take work to erect and maintain.

Some boundaries are worth the work and helpful. Others may seem comfortable and easier to build (think: “It’s how I was raised!”) but require a ton more work in the long run.

Part of telling my story required a look back at the jumble of boundaries I created in my marriage.

When Dave and I reflected on our 25 years of marriage, we noticed those boundaries we’d used to shut out others and how we’d shut ourselves in, which created damaging isolation. Those brick walls and mountains kept us from knowing others and being known by them.

Those lines in the sand didn’t represent anything I truly believed. I didn’t know who I was. They weren’t permanent because I hadn’t been intentional and thoughtful about creating them.

How about for the healthy boundary? How was my split-rail fence looking?

I had a pile of rails—even a rubber mallet. But when you look at the zig and the zag, you can tell I didn’t know what I was doing. You can’t draw a healthy split-rail fence boundary when you don’t know who you are. More importantly, when you don’t fully grasp how God adores you.

Jesus values you so much that He died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins and create the pathway to eternal life for you. God desires a relationship with you. But, brick walls, barbed fences, and mountains don’t allow room for you to explore God’s love and purpose for your life. Instead, they create a false sense of safety from perceived harm while causing you to shrink from your most vital relationships with God and other people.

Healthy boundaries don’t remove the pain.

They allow you the freedom to enter into relationships with others, understanding that the accompanying mess helps you build stronger healthy boundaries. A split-rail fence won’t stop a tornado, but you will see it coming. You can’t say that from behind a brick wall.

Look at your most important relationship—your marriage. Which type of boundary do you have in place?

Do you have more than one? Or do you have none? If you were to write the story of your marriage today and describe how the boundaries work in your marriage, what imagery would you use?

Today, I challenge you to evaluate your boundaries in your marriage.

Jot down some thoughts in your journal or a notebook or an online note. Be honest. If you’ve identified some unhealthy boundaries, it’s time to unpack what they represent and how you can turn them into healthy boundaries.

Not sure where to start or need someone to hold the mallet, I’m here for you.

Note: Those who have suffered abuse know about unhealthy boundaries all too well. You need to get help to overcome the abuse and learn how to build healthy boundaries. Pay attention to these boundary issues and seek the appropriate assistance to remove them. I know. I’ve been there.

  • Kirsten D Samuel

    I empower Christian wives to discover they are seen, loved, and heard. These women find the freedom to be who they are beyond their partner’s struggles, and find hope that there is a life worth living.