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

Boundaries in Marriage

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 subjects. Later that evening, Nick invited me to a ball game a couple of weeks from then. I checked my schedule and said, "Sorry, I can't." Nick threw up his arms in mock exasperation and said, "Oh, come on, you can go! Just rearrange things a little. That's what friends do."

Colleen had been watching, and she yelled, "There it is! There it is! That's how he controls my no!" Nick looked surprised and said, "I do what?"

"She's right, Nick," I said. "I felt the pressure of not being able to say no." The light went on for Nick as he saw how his desire for good things sometimes crossed the line of respect.

When you apply the Law of Respect in your marriage, don't storm into the living room with a list of "how things are going to change around this house." Tell your spouse you want your boundaries respected, and ask him if he feels his are being respected also. Let him know that you value and desire him to be free to say no, even if you don't like the answer. Ask him some of the following questions:

  • How might I be crossing your boundaries?
  • Do you feel I respect your right to say no to me?
  • Do I give you guilt messages, withdraw, or attack you when you set a limit?
  • Will you let me know the next time I don't respect your freedom?

These humbling and uncomfortable questions show you are concerned for your spouse more than for your own convenience. They arise out of self-sacrifice, and they show your generosity of spirit and love. And they can bind your marriage together.

If your spouse is trustworthy, it is easier to ask these questions. If your spouse is untrustworthy, you may feel you are putting yourself in the hands of someone who might use your respect for him against you. However, even untrustworthy people need to have their legitimate needs and boundaries respected. This doesn't mean, though, allowing yourself to be harmed if the spouse is unsafe. Respect his boundaries and still set limits on his untrustworthiness.

An example of this balance is how a wife might approach her rageaholic husband. She should not dictate to him that he can't be angry; she should respect his freedom to protest what he does not like. At the same time, however, she might tell him, "Your raging way of being angry is not acceptable to me. If you don't find other ways of being angry with me, I will have to distance from you."

Respecting and valuing your mate's boundaries is the key to being close and loving. Your spouse experiences the gift of freedom from you and sees the love you are extending in giving this freedom. When you respect your spouse's boundaries, you are paving the way to having yours respected.


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  • Susan Camin on

    Good Morning,
    I am a high school art teacher and wondered if you had something to help me in my class room. I would like to say that the young people today have less and less boundaries and they are very nasty when asked to stay within the boundaries.
    It is probably nmothing different than it use to be but after 35 years of teaching it feels very different with some of the kids. I know that when you realize what their lives look like outside of school it is a “No WONDER MOMENT!” but as adults we need help to keep our heads on and help stay in control.
    Yesterday, I had a meltdown and sent the ring leader to detention, not what I wanted tyo do but I was done being couteous and respecful and not getting it in return. I know they are children and they don’t like boudaries but I think we need encoragenment to help us stay positive.

    We have a lot of new young teachers in our district and I know they are frustrated and do not have the experiencew of being a parent. I would love to share with my group any help you have to offer.

    If you could send your response to my email I would appreciate it.
    Thank you.
    Sue Camin

  • Monique on

    It is a great insight to respect people’s boundaries. HOWEVER – if the spouse makes out they are one thing before they get married and then change after they get married, how does one just keep allowing that? What if the thing the spouse is pulling away from and needing space from is actually rejecting/neglecting or withdrawing from the other spouse to the point it ruins the relationship or the pursuer flares up?

    I would like to see more on this article as it doesn’t even touch on if one spouse is to respect the other saying “no” how does the spouse saying “no” respect and cater to the needs of the other in a marriage relationship?

    There must be a line that the spouse whom is asking/pursing can also draw if this spouse saying “no” continues to say “no” and withdraw, neglect, abandon. These things are not ok either.

  • Joanne on

    Learn to respect yourself before anything and anyone. Humbling yourself before God and your husband isn’t the problem, trying to control your husband is a problem unless otherwise. I’m sorry you are feeling frustrated with your marriage. I was so controlling in my marriage and I wasn’t sure if I was or not. The Lord opened my eyes and I let it all to God and my husband and I have a wonderful 23 years. Don’t worry, let God take the steering wheel because we are His children.

  • Tanya on

    Heather- I just have to say thank you for that honest reply. Jesus must be all we need, otherwise we look for our needs to be fully met in a person. They just can’t. Even when they want to.
    I learn so much through these Boundaries excerpts. I am being refined by His Fire and learning to love myself and others by establishing boundaries. It’s more difficult with older, less healthy relationships. But I just keep doing it. And if I fail, repent and try again! I see my friends learning from me as I establish these boundaries. But I could not do it without Jesus. He helps me do it in love. Not anger or malice. God is Love.

  • Dave on

    My wife is very domineering, controlling and has no respect for any boundaries I set. She does the opposite of most things that I ask. She views our home as her ‘office’ where she is the boss and I have no say in anything. This soul sucking atmosphere has drained all of the life from me. We have tried counseling but the focus was always on me as she comes across as a wonderful person. I don’t trust counselors anymore because I feel like they automatically see me as the problem because I am the husband. I asked both counselors if they were ever going to address her issues. They said no because if they fixed me, she would respond to me. They were both wrong. Her desire for control is greater than her desire for love. I am sick of the conflict in our home and am very close to leaving.

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