What Boundaries Are Really All About

There is a lot of misunderstanding about boundaries, especially in the context of marriage. Some people are against boundaries because they see them as selfish. Other people actually use boundaries to be selfish. Both are wrong. Boundaries in marriage are basically about self-control. A client once said to me (Dr. Townsend), “I set some boundaries on my husband. I told him that he could not talk to me that way anymore. And it did not work. What do I do now?” “What you have done is not boundaries at all,” I replied. “What do you mean?” “It was your feeble attempt at controlling your husband, and that never works.” I went on to explain that boundaries are not something you “set on” another person. Boundaries are about yourself. My client could not say to her husband, “You can’t speak to me that way.” This demand is unenforceable. But she could say what she would or would not do if he spoke to her that way again. She could set a boundary “on herself.” She could say, “If you speak to me that way, I will walk out of the room.” This threat is totally enforceable because it has to do... Continue Reading »

Do This One Thing to Improve Any Relationship

People who want to improve a relationship often talk about talking. That is, they bring up what happened, what went wrong in their experience, and come up with solutions. Here are some examples: Remember when I said I needed space and listening, not solutions and homework assignments? It happened again; let’s fix this. I don’t want to sound childish, but I’ve been trying to be more open about the job problem, and it still feels as if you want just good news from me about work. I really need you to hang in there with me. It feels as if you’re impatient with me when I go to a deeper level now, as if I ought to have my act together. That’s hard for me; are you really feeling that way? When I brought up the problems I have with my dad, you lost eye contact and started talking about something else. This is really important for me; are you okay with all this? Is there a way I can do this differently, or do you not want me to talk about this with you? If you want a better relationship, be a team player with the other person. In... Continue Reading »

You Are Not Responsible for Your Spouse

When you marry someone, you take on the burden of loving your spouse deeply and caring for him or her as for no other. You care about how you affect your spouse; you care about your spouse’s welfare and feelings. If one spouse feels no sense of responsibility to the other, this spouse is, in effect, trying to live married life as a single person. On the other hand, you can’t cross the line of responsibility. You need to avoid taking ownership for your mate’s life. The law of responsibility in marriage is this: We are responsible to each other, but not for each other. The Bible teaches it this way: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” and “each one should carry his own load” (see Galatians 6:2, 5). The word burden indicates a backbreaking boulder, such as a financial, health, or emotional crisis. Spouses actively support each other when one is carrying an overwhelming burden. The term load, however, indicates one’s daily responsibilities of life. This includes one’s feelings, attitudes, values, and handling of life’s everyday difficulties. Spouses may help each other out with loads, but ultimately, each person must... Continue Reading »

Love Only Exists Where There Is Freedom

“His irresponsibility is making my life miserable,” Jen began. She then went on to tell me (Dr. Townsend) a terrible story of how her husband had successfully avoided adulthood for many years at her expense. She had suffered greatly at the hands of his behavior, both financially and sexually. As I listened, though, I could see that her deep sense of hopelessness kept her in prison. I could see countless ways she could be free from her husband’s patterns of behavior. She could make numerous choices to help both herself and the relationship. But the sad thing was that she could not see the same choices that were so clear to me. “Why don’t you stop paying for his mistakes and bailing him out? Why do you keep rescuing him from the messes he gets himself into?” I asked. “What are you talking about?” Jen asked, alternating between muffled sobs and a scornful expression. “There’s nothing I can do. This is the way he is, and I just have to live with it.” I could not tell if she was sad about what she perceived as a hopeless case or angry with me for suggesting she had choices. As we... Continue Reading »

Love Is as Love Does

George sat in my (Dr. Cloud’s) office, despondent. His wife, Janet, whom he loved deeply, had just moved out because he had lost another job. A very talented person, George seemed to have everything he needed for success. But he had lost several good jobs because of his irresponsibility and inability to follow through. Bosses loved the talent but hated the performance. And after several family disruptions because of his failures, Janet had had enough. “I love her so much,” George said to me. “Doesn’t she see that?” “I believe that you love her,” I said. “But in reality, I don’t think that she does. All she sees is the effect your behavior has had on her and the children, and she asks herself, ‘How can he love us and treat us this way?’ You cannot just love someone and not deliver. Love without the fruits of love is really not love in the end. She feels very unloved because of what you have put her through.” If George was to have a chance of winning Janet back, it would not come through one more empty promise. He needed to develop boundaries to gain the self-control that would make him... Continue Reading »

The Secret to a Successful Marriage (Hint: It Involves Boundaries)

When two people marry, two lives blur together to make a new one, two become one. The blurring of expectations and feelings can become an issue. Many times a spouse will automatically expect that the love in the marriage means that her spouse will always see things her way. She may feel unloved when her otherwise-loving mate says, “No, I’d rather not take a walk. I’m sleepy.” Sometimes this happens during the “honeymoon period,” when both parties tend to see eye-to-eye on everything. But when the reality of two different wills, needs, and perspectives comes in, the honeymoon is over. This is when the Law of Respect must be applied. For example, a couple with whom my wife and I (Dr. Cloud) are close, Nick and Colleen, mentioned the same problem at dinner one night. Nick said, “Sometimes Colleen withdraws from me for no reason at all.” “There is a reason,” Colleen replied. “When I try to say no to you and you try to control me, I withdraw.” Nick said, “I don’t try to control you when you say no.” Colleen let it go and said, “I guess we have a difference of opinion.” The conversation drifted to other... Continue Reading »

How to Risk Trusting Someone Again

When you’ve been let down by someone who matters a great deal to you, moving beyond boundaries is not easy work — but it is important. One thing you can do in this regard is to figure out if the problem that was previously an obstacle is truly being transformed. In other words, is this person really changing? Is the big problem being solved the right way? Here’s an example. I (Dr. Townsend) worked with a couple in which the husband, Bill, was a nice guy but irresponsible. He was one of those likeable people who loves to hang out with others and is a lot of fun. But Bill’s performance in life did not match up to his personality, especially in the area of finances and spending. He overspent on cars, gadgets, and entertainment. He also hid his spending habits, which meant his wife, Pam, was routinely surprised by huge credit card bills. These patterns took a major toll on the marriage. Pam was terrified of an uncertain financial future with him. She was not perfect and had her own issues as well, but his behavior came close to breaking up the marriage. In our work together, Pam was... Continue Reading »

Sizzling Passion and the Myth of Hollywood Romance

To some extent, our society is afflicted by a Hollywood distortion about relationships. Don’t get me wrong—I’m (Dr. Townsend) not anti-Hollywood. I am a movie person, and my sons are in school studying film. But we need to free ourselves of a distortion embedded in the DNA of the movie culture: passion trumps everything. That is, if you deeply connect on a romantically passionate level, you have entered relational Nirvana, and your love conquers all. This is the stuff of lots of great entertainment, but it is not how real relationships actually go to the next level. For example, Sharon was dating Alex, a man to whom she was extremely attracted. He had many of the qualities she looked for: the same spiritual values, warmth, lots of friends, and ambition, and it didn’t hurt that he looked like a fashion model. Plus, he was an incurable romantic, and she loved that aspect of the relationship. Alex was the king of long nights, longing glances, flowers, endearing words, and great spots to have dinner. Sharon was smitten with this guy. Then, reality reared its ugly head in the form of a tendency for Alex to be financially irresponsible. He was laid... Continue Reading »

How to Test the Quality of Any Relationship

Usually the quiet one in her group, Debbie spoke up. The topic of discussion was “conflict resolution,” and she couldn’t be silent another second. “I know how to present facts and arguments about my opinion in a caring way. But my husband will walk out on me if I start disagreeing! Now what do I do?” Debbie’s problem is shared by many. She genuinely believes in boundaries, but she is terrified of their consequences. Is it possible that others will become angry at our boundaries and attack or withdraw from us? Absolutely. God never gave us the power or the right to control how others respond to our no. Some will welcome it; some will hate it. We can’t manipulate people into swallowing our boundaries by sugarcoating them. Boundaries are a “litmus test” for the quality of our relationships. Those people in our lives who can respect our boundaries will love our wills, our opinions, our separateness. Those who can’t respect our boundaries are telling us that they don’t love our “no.” They only love our “yes,” our compliance. So what does Debbie, whose husband is an avowed “boundary buster,” do? Will her husband carry out his threat to walk... Continue Reading »

Why Your Spouse Will Fail You and What to Do About It

I (Dr. Cloud) was leading a seminar, and I asked the audience of married couples to stop for a moment and think of their spouse. I told them to think of all of the wonderful things that they love about their spouse and to concentrate on how awesome that person is and how much they love him or her. “Think of the wonderful qualities that you admire and that attracted you to that person. Let those feelings fill you,” I told them. Then, after they were feeling all giddy and in love again, I asked each person to turn to their spouse who was idealizing them at that moment and to repeat after me, “Honey, I am a sinner. I will fail you, and I will hurt you.” You could feel the sense of discombobulation in the room. In one moment, they were shaken from the ideal to the real. Some began to laugh as they got it. Some felt even closer to each other. Some looked up confused as if they did not know what to do with my invitation. But that is reality. The person you love the most and have committed your life to is an imperfect... Continue Reading »