Boundaries in Marriage – Resolving Conflict With a Resistant Spouse

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Boundaries-resistanceSometimes a spouse does not see the important benefits of relational boundaries in marriage. I (Dr. Cloud) remember that after our original book, Boundaries, came out, Phil, a friend of mine on the East Coast, called me.

“I read your new book,” he said.
“What did you think?,” I asked.
“I don’t like it.”
“Why not?”
“Because I’m the one in the marriage who busts all the boundaries, and it makes me the bad guy.”

We joked about his response to my book, but Phil was making a good point. For people who control others or who don’t take ownership of their own lives, the idea of boundaries in marriage doesn’t come as good news or something that brings freedom.

In fact, controlling spouses hear that they are hurting someone they love. They hear that things need to change, and change is difficult and often painful. These changes may involve several things:

• Allowing your spouse to say “no” to you.
• Humbly admitting you have been trying to control your spouse.
• Submitting to God’s process of learning boundaries and self-control.
• Respecting the freedom of your spouse.
• Restraining the tendency to withdraw from your spouse, attack her, or make her feel guilty.
• Becoming aware of your helplessness to truly control anyone.
• Asking for your spouse’s feedback when you cross her boundaries.

These tasks are not pleasant, and they are a lot of work. So it is understandable that any spouse would experience receiving boundaries in marriage as unpleasant. Phil was just stating a fact: accepting boundaries hurts sometimes. It is realistic to identify pain as pain, even if it is growth-producing pain.

The painful discipline of boundaries will eventually bear good results in our lives. As God says in Hebrews 12:11, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” And we believe that boundaries are the only way to keep love alive.

Boundaries in Marriage: How the “Boundary Buster” Sees the Issue

Often one of the greatest problems between couples is that the boundary-loving spouse doesn’t understand the perspective of the boundary-resistant one. The boundary lover doesn’t grasp that the boundary resister really doesn’t see things the same way she does. She is often surprised or shocked to learn how different her spouse thinks and feels about this matter. Understanding his viewpoint will help you do the right things and avoid making mistakes in the process.

People who don’t respect others’ boundaries have a basic attitude toward life: I should be able to do what I want. Just as Adam and Eve did, they protest the restrictions of being a creature and not the Creator. They demand ultimate freedom as their right. You see this same attitude in small children, one that we hope will mature as they grow up.

A spouse who resists boundaries in marriage may be a wonderful, loving person in normal circumstances. The couple may be genuinely drawn to each other and care deeply for each other—until a boundary issue arises. Then the good feelings go away, and anger, guilt messages, or acting out take their place.

Boundaries-Sampler-iconThe resistant spouse reacts this way because he really does feel that the limit—any limit—is unreasonable, unfair, and hurtful. So he is enraged that his mate would be so mean as to say no to him in some area of life. Her request for him to respect her no feels like hate, not righteousness. It is normal to be angry when someone treats us unfairly, but it is immature to be angry when our spouse sets a limit with us for a legitimate reason.

Remember that the boundary resistant spouse feels that he should be able to do what he wants whenever he wants. With that as his operative principle in life, he will challenge and protest any boundary until he begins to grow up. Boundaries say that you cannot do what you want all the time.

Boundaries in Marriage: Establish Appropriate Consequences

Stating your boundary, however, may not be enough. Ever since Adam and Eve, humanity has known the rules and still crosses the line (Genesis 3:6). Whatever your spouse is doing that is hurting you, the benefits he receives may far outweigh your appeals and requests. At this point, you need to set consequences.

A consequence is an effect, or result, of another act. You need to establish some consequence for your spouse’s transgression so that he will experience some discomfort for his irresponsibility. A consequence has to have several very important characteristics:

Designed to help with reality and protect you, not designed to control or change your spouse. Boundaries and consequences are not about fixing someone or making them choose better. They are about allowing appropriate cause and effect so that your spouse will experience the pain of irresponsibility and then change.

Deliberate, and not impulsive or set in anger. Think through, prayerfully and with friends, what an appropriate consequence might be. It is not about getting even. It is about getting out of enabling your spouse and about protecting yourself from evil.

As reality-based as possible. You want reality to be your spouse’s instructor. For example, a husband who becomes enraged should have people leave his presence for a while. No one wants to be around people having tantrums. This is preferable to an unrelated consequence, such as having him watch the kids an extra evening.

Appropriately severe. Evaluate how chronic, destructive, and severe the boundary violation is. For example, a spouse who won’t clean up the dishes might need to cook some meals for himself to get the idea. But a spouse who is having an affair may need to leave the home. Either way, the consequence needs to be serious enough to matter, but not so severe that it, rather than the behavior, becomes the issue.

Enforceable. Make sure this is something you can and will do. You need to make sure you have the power and resources to set the limit. If you can’t tell the pastor you are having trouble in your marriage, don’t threaten to do that.

Preservative of your spouse’s freedom. Don’t set a consequence by saying, “You have to,” “You must,” or, “I will make you. . . .” Consequences are not something you do to control your spouse. They are reactions to his choices. Let him make his choices, but prepare your reactions.

As immediate as possible. Just as kids need quick consequences, so do spouses. Your spouse can make the association between his action and the results if they are close together in time.

Respectful of his role as spouse. Stay away from humiliating or punitive consequences such as making fun of him or making sarcastic remarks.

Designed to be modified as your spouse changes. Consequences don’t have to be forever. As your spouse owns and repents, you can change the consequences.

However, be sure that change has truly occurred over some period of time. “I’m sorry” is not enough to let go of the consequence. The other side of this, however, is that you may have to escalate the severity of the consequence if your spouse behaves worse. A spendaholic wife may need to work extra hours to earn the money she spent. But if she gets worse, she may need to lose her credit cards. Use the above criteria along with the prayerful creativity of yourself and your friends.

There are difficult realities about setting boundaries in marriage with a spouse who does not support limits. Yet, remember that God supports you as you follow his ways. He will not leave you during the conflicts and dark times. Cling to him and your friends as you establish good limits for you and your marriage: “By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me” (Psalm 42:8). Remember God’s love as you begin the boundary-setting process in your marriage.

Boundaries in Marriage_sm2To learn more about essential ways to make your marriage flourish, read Boundaries in Marriage.


Couple on a beach mage courtesy of artzsamui at

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