There were several good relationship strategies I learned while in counseling and through books, but one of the most impacting to our relationship over the years has been boundaries. You can read in depth about boundaries and maintaining healthy ones in the books by Cloud and Townsend, entitled Boundaries and Boundaries in Marriage, but let me give you a brief picture of what they mean in our relationship.
From the beginning, boundaries have played an important part in our relationship. When we were dating and I tried to ditch Jeremy and run off like I did on every guy before him, his exact words were, “That hurts.” I remember thinking, “Oh, crap. This one has feelings!” In my mental state at the time, I was focused on self-preservation. It had never occurred to me that my actions were really hurtful to the men I was running from.
Jeremy’s words stopped me in my tracks and made me deal with how my actions were effecting those around me. His words are one of the reasons were even together today.
Truthfully, Jeremy has been pretty good with maintaining safe boundaries for how he expects to be treated from the start. As I’ve grown, I’ve had to learn this skill, too. What it means in a husband/wife relationship is kindly but firmly stating how you expect to be treated. For example, if your spouse is yelling or trying to fight, you might say, “I’ll be happy to speak to you when you are calm.” Then walk away. Or if your spouse is name calling or treating you disrespectfully, you might say, “You’re treating me disrespectfully, and it is not okay.” And again walk away.
You don’t get into an argument and participate in the same behavior, instead you kindly but firmly set your boundaries and then enforce them by walking away and leaving the situation.
Another way to set boundaries in marriage is when a spouse has broken the trust in one way or another. You don’t push them out in the cold, but you can still maintain healthy boundaries until they show themselves to be trustworthy again. For us this meant me paying for several of my Masters classes on my own.
When I first began my Master’s program in 2002, I hated the class. I was so angry and frustrated by the end of it that I handed in my last paper, which Jeremy had to make me finish, then didn’t ever bother looking up my final grade in the course. When I wanted to begin working on my Masters again 4 years later, Jeremy was reasonably skeptical. So much so that he told me he wasn’t going to pay for any of my classes. It took me paying for 2 or 3 classes out of my own pocket, before he believed I was committed enough for us to pay for the rest of it.
Was I angry? Of course! I was livid! But because I wanted to prove him wrong and show I was committed this time, I stuck with it and worked very hard. Much harder than I would have had he just given me the money to go back to school.
Now, I completely agree with Jeremy’s boundary decision to make me prove myself trustworthy in this area. The first time I had blown $600 and make his life miserable with all the fit throwing and complaining I did about the course and the teacher. It was right for him to required that I earn his trust back.
However, it took a long time for me to see it that way. When you enforce boundaries like this in your marriage, whether it’s in the way you expect to be treated or for a spouse who needs to regain trust, it will probably make your spouse very angry. Though hopefully, it will also require them to stop and take responsibility for their actions in the long run.
This change of heart will not happen overnight. I was angry about paying for the courses for a long time, so much so that I was determined that we would pay me the money back in the end. However, now that both of my feet are back in the boat, my feelings have completely changed. We’re in this together, and I have no intentions of taking $1500 from us just so I can be right. It was the price I paid for the way I acted, and I’m now okay with it.
On the other hand, your spouse may never be okay with the relationship boundaries you set. Then you will have decisions to make about the relationship and if you are willing to put up with their unwillingness to change. If you find yourself in this situation, please don’t make any life changing choices quickly. Seek out books like Boundaries or Boundaries in Marriage, godly mentors, and counselors to help you along the way. And most importantly pray. Ask God to help you and your spouse change so you can move forward in a healthy relationship.
I would love to tell you that learning how to use boundaries in your relationship and the changes in both of you will happen overnight, but they won’t. Like us, it may take several years for you both to learn new ways of communicating and treating each other. But the wait is so worth it! I cannot tell you how joyful I am that 7 years ago I made the choice to place both feet back in the boat and stay.
Boundaries are hard. Hard when the other person enforces them and hard to learn how to use them in healthy ways. However, the work is worth it. In the end, they will help you both become healthier not only in your marriage but in all your relationships.