What Boundaries Are Really All About

Boundaries in MarriageThere 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 with her. She would be setting a boundary with the only person she could control: herself.


Click to Tweet: Self-control serves love, not selfishness.


When you build a fence around your yard, you do not build it to figure out the boundaries of your neighbor’s yard so that you can dictate to him how he is to behave. You build it around your own yard so that you can maintain control of what happens to your own property. Personal boundaries do the same. If someone trespasses your personal boundaries in some way, you can take control of yourself and not allow yourself to be controlled, or hurt, anymore. This is self-control.

And ultimately, self-control serves love, not selfishness. We hope that when you take control of yourself, you will love better and more purposefully and intentionally so that you and your spouse can have the intimacy you desire.


For more insights to improve the way you interact with your spouse, read Boundaries in Marriage.

➡ Get The 10 Laws of Boundaries eBook when you subscribe to the Boundaries Weekly email newsletter. Learn More


  1. Carol says

    I can understand controlling yourself to maintain a boundary, but when you are married and your spouse spends all the money leaving bills unpaid, how can my boundary affect this situation?

    • says

      These are those crazy systems, where extremes are the norm. You cancel the joint checking accounts, you separate yourself from all of the credit that would ruin your rating too. You say that you will be paying the bills that affect your family and children (but not things like his car payment or his credit card account) and agree on a certain amount to be direct deposited into a solo bank account that will fund his portion of the household bills.
      Then you follow through. You don’t rescue, you don’t do any of that. And you say, the alternative is that I will get a job and we will separate so that my children (or myself) will not lose their home.

      The boundary is more like extreme yes, but so is the situation. For example my (ex) husband didn’t like his anti-depressant medication. The fact that when he was off the meds, he made life miserable for the other four people in his home was not a factor for him.

      What’s the boundary? I can’t force him to take meds, right? Of course. What can I do?
      Choose not to live with him off medication.
      He immediately said that was controlling him, but break it down: Am I forcing him to take meds? Not at all. I’m saying that my condition for living with him is he’s on meds Take them or don’t take them–that part is absolutely up to you. You have complete freedom here.

      That’s the way I thought about it every time: Where do I give him absolute freedom? So for yours–you spend your earnings any way you want to. But if you won’t contribute enough to cover the necessities of your family, then your family will have to find another way to live.

      Otherwise you’re taking away my freedom to live without fear of being evicted, a destroyed credit rating, water shut offs, forcing me to work more hours to pay late fees… All against my will.

      That’s where the control is. He was forcing us to live in a very unstable emotional world. Same with money (I had to do this very thing). First step was I gave him total control of the money since he complained about how controlling I was with money. Then he paid no bills for an entire month. OK so that is a fear I’m not willing to live with. If you’d like to live on your own and not pay bills, that’s fine, but this is not ok when you live with other humans to put their security at risk.

      Therefore I will take care of the bills. If you aren’t ok with that, we can separate and you can pay your bills or not and I will pay my bills. Period.

    • Brandie says

      I don’t know if this would work in your situation, but the advice I received for the same issue is just pay all the bills the second the paycheck is deposited. Set the food and clothing and gas money aside in envelopes right away. If he bounces checks, give the creditor *his* number. But make sure you’re being super frugal and generous with him so that when he complains he just sounds silly. Also, don’t be antagonistic at all. Just have an underlying assumption that grownups pay their bills. Be surprised when he doesn’t realize this.

      • SEA says

        Your husband has to grow up. You’re doing all the rescuing and enabling with that advice. I did most of that. It wore me out and didn’t build a healthy relationship. He thought I was controlling and being the mama he hated, but at the same time always wanted and needed. He still never grew up and became even more narcissistic. He found ways around it and found other women who he thought didn’t mother him. He even secretly found money to buy his mistresses expensive gifts while I was managing every penny. I found out about the women three years ago after 38 years of marriage (he had had two women -who also befriended me- for 20 years). We stayed together bc I was so worn down by the verbal and emotional abuse that goes along with men who behave like this. But, it has been three years of hell to try to rebuild and do what I should have done years ago. And believe it or not he’s showing he can grow up (something most ppl said a 60something couldn’t do. I have discovered the only boundary that makes him want to grow is my threat to divorce. I have slowly set limit after limit all eventually needing the same boundary (threat to divorce) as I work through counseling to get strong enough to leave if I have to. I’m not sure working it out with him was the best thing. If I had been much younger I would have started over with someone else. But at my age that option is limited. So now my choice is be alone or work with him. We’ll see how that works, but ladies SET THOSE BOUNDARIES NOW. The pain you suffer from doing that now will show whether he’s made of the right stuff to grow or not. If he’s not, then move on, but do not start a new relationship before you look into why you allowed yourself to become involved with someone like that in the first place. It’s hard, but I see the red flags were there, and as a 16 year old from an alcoholic family I didn’t read them correctly when we started dating. I accept this responsibility and asked God to forgive me for not following the Holy Spirit who was trying to warn me. On the other hand, men like this are excellent manipulators and hide their true selves, but there are clues you can look for that they can’t manipulate. Read Should I stay or should I go by Lundy Bancroft and JAC Patrissi for what to look for in a healthy man.
        And here’s a piece of advice I heard at an old lady’s funeral: her son’s-in-law said she told her girls and granddaughters when choosing a man be sure he loves you more than you love him. Those girls are the ‘well cared for’ we all want to be. My husband loves me more than I love him now and that does make all the difference in being able to set boundaries.

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