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

Boundaries in MarriageWhen 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.


Click to Tweet: When you respect your spouse’s boundaries, you are paving the way to having yours respected.


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.


Learn how to help your marriage flourish by reading Boundaries in Marriage.


  1. GJ S says

    Once my husband retired he became different. he had squandered all of his savings and then became more controlling re: me working more& making more. It escalated to the point I quit my high paying job after the business was sold& new owners came in who were also controlling. I could not deal with it at work& home both. My husband’s rage has continued to get worse and irresponsible spending out of control has put us living from paycheck to paycheck and high credit card debts. I am afraid of him when he is in a rage. I do not have a good support system, we both have been married before and I live far from my family and friends. I want to leave but cant financially and I want to honor the Lord. What do I do? I am on a list to see a christian counselor for help. Even though I have family and friends far away I do not have anyone that I can stay, so I must save up.

    • MMS says

      I too am interested in a response to the above comment. Somewhat similar circumstances here. Stay strong GJS.

    • says

      When I read of your situation I can relate and perhaps understand the pain of living in this situation. I have been married twice to two unpredictable, irresponsible men who made very wrong choices that cost us all. The problem is that they did not repent and seek to change but chose to blameshift, make excuses and live in denial. The cost for that is so high! The consequences cause my husband a lot of guilt and anxiety that is unrelieved so he also has fits of rage and can be very controlling. I never had a support system and all attempts at Christian Counseling failed. But I have now fully surrendered my life to Jesus. I pray every day. And I am learning so much. Jesus is enough for me. He really is. I wouldn’t have known it any other way. I am so grateful. My circumstances have changed little, though I do see God working on my husband. Either way I can tell you that Jesus is worth more to me than ten loving husbands. I cannot leave because I do not have the assurance that Jesus wants me to leave, and I absolutely will not make any decision without Him. I pray this for you: that you feel the loving presence of Jesus and the assurance that He is with you. I pray that through this painful time you will grow closer to Him, and will truly know that all these things are achieving for you an eternal glory– for the joy that is set before you–don’t give up or give in to temptation, but stand firm to the end.

      • Tanya says

        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.

        • Joanne says

          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.

  2. Ann says

    Dear GJS,

    Praying that you will find a healthy Christian Counselor that can guide you and support from friends! Praise the Lord you are seeing the mess and wanting to get help vs the people who are still being fooled because of the money and things they are able to buy (huband). You see your need and are looking up – a blessing! The first step is always, my life is a mess and I need help! Your husband is abusive and you have the right and power through Holy Spirit to say no. You go girl – God will be there for you!


  3. Ann says

    I hear a lot of fear and that can paralyze us and bring us down as the victim. Your husband also sounds full of fear and anxiety and he is choosing rage, manipulation, intimidation, etc.!!!! Is the lack of financial stability an excuse for not taking action to protect yourself? How long is the list you talk about? Isn’t there someone else you get help from?

    Use your skills and intelligence to go forward and network to find the people who get it and will truly help. This is not always easy, trying to find the right people who will guide and support. Be strong in the Lord and work to find the people you need to get better.


  4. Eliza Parsons says

    My husband loves me and is patient and helpful, however he absolutely will not talk to me. Other people who know him are amazed at his ability to just refuse to speak to people, so I know it’s not just me. Since we married (2.5 years now) he has not spoken to me. I used to get angry and rage at him about it, but worked our that doesn’t help so now I have just gone quiet myself, as it becomes very awkward talking to someone who just stares back at you in ‘reply’. I really honestly may as well talk to a wall – no exaggeration. It’s not a mean type of silence designed to hurt me, he just told me once there is nothing ever in his head to say.

    So my question is, I am respecting his ‘right to remain silent’, but I am desperately lonely and sad so much of the time, wishing he would talk to me a little some times. How else can I respond to this silence, whilst respecting his right to be ‘himself’? He does not respect my need for conversation, but I can’t force him to care about my need for this. I really am baffled by him and his mystery silence!

    Please help me think this through well. (And note, any advice that includes talking to him or asking him things is useless as he will only stare at me in reply, no matter WHAT is said or asked).

  5. TP says

    I feel for you GJS . I had to get away from my husband last year as he was very volatile and I found evidence of drug use. Our three kids are very young so it made it very difficult but very easy to make the choice. I was able to move straight in with my parents, cramped but safe. I understand why women stay when there are no good alternatives to live.
    Can you contact the Salvation Army or other such organisation? They may be able to help with temporary accommodation. I had struggled for years because I took my marriage vowels seriously and I wanted my children raised by both parents. You cannot control another persons behaviour so there are times distancing yourself is appropriate. You can let him know that you are not wishing to end the marriage but his current behaviour is not acceptable and it is up to him to choose to change (from a safe distance of course, do not put yourself in harms way). I can’t tell you that it will work. It didn’t for me. My kids and I are settling into life without their father around and while it has been horrid God has been with us, protecting us and strengthening us. I pray for my husband and hope that he will turn back to God and be a good father. Please remember that you are created in the image of God and as such are worth being treated with love, honour and respect 🙂

  6. Erinn says

    Pray. The devil delights in attacking men because they are a powerful force against him. He ties them up with rage, anger, fear, and the spiritual battle of spirit and flesh in their own minds. The devil hates marriage and is set to destroy marriage relationships. And he works against us…sometimes through us and our spouses. So be fortified with prayer, Scripture, and love. If God is in you…if His word is in you…you will prevail. You will be right with God. Pray without ceasing for your man. You love him and he does love you. Alot of men do not know how to show, express love. We women are verbal. we want to hear love…men want to see love. So love him even when he is difficult…because he may not even realize what is going on. A logical mind is stumped by emotional/spiritual attack. Read books…read your Bible…let your husband see you reading them.
    I recommend…Battlefield of the Mind
    Controlling your emotions
    Life without Strife (all by Joyce Meyer)
    God Bless you and know that you are not alone…never alone…God Loves you and created you. He will give you strength…strength to stay…strength to fight…strength even to say I’m leaving; fight for us…He will see you through

    • Barbara Hudson says

      I have been for 25 yrs, no children, it started out as a very good marriage. But now, my husband have displayed signs of being homosexual. There has been evidenced because he won’t have sex with me & we sleep separately. I have tried “boundaries” & it has worked until his lover joined our church. I am now considering talking with our pastor. I’m at a point of getting a divorce because I don’t feeling comfortable living with him. I thank God for His protection & His plans for my life. And I will not make a final decision without His leading.HB

      • Maria says

        Barbara I feel for you!

        If you have confronted your husband about his lover, whether his lover was male or female, and he didn’t turn away from the behavior, I would definitely seek counsel with your pastor. He needs to be confronted with other witnesses so he has the opportunity to be Biblically counseled.

        I pray that the deception your husband has bought into be exposed in his heart for what it is…a lie. All adultery, regardless of what sex it is committed with, comes from the adulterer buying into the lie that the marriage and marriage partner is not sufficient and that they need to look to have their needs met elsewhere and that is ok. I think if you focus more on the adultery and less on the homosexuality you will have a better chance of your spouse seeing the harm that it does to you and your relationship. Homosexuality is a sin against his body and the Lord, but the adultery is a sin against you, your marriage and the Lord.

        I say this as someone who once was an adulterer. I did not understand the selfishness of my actions when I did them. They caused a tremendous amount of damage to my marriage, my spouse and our family, and it did not make my life better or any happier in the end. It was, by far, the most incredibly stupid thing I have ever done. I was in a marriage with a “contract” mindset rather than understanding it was a “covenant”, as was my spouse. I hope that the truth can set you both free, and I pray that the Lord give you all the strength and courage you need to confront your husband with the truth in love.

  7. Monica says

    For you ladies who are struggling in abusive relationships I want you to know that God hears your cries and He sees everything that is happening to you and He wants to help you. Please continue to pray and read the Bible for wisdom and discernment about God’s heart for marriage. There is a lot of abusiveness in the church within marriages and as a biblical partner, wife, and helpmate- you are not called to stand silent while your husband rages and abuses you or your children. As Dr. Townsend’s books on boundaries teaches, you must have clear and healthy boundaries even with your husband. Without boundaries you are not bringing glory to God and you are standing in the way for God to work in your husband’s heart and bring him to a healthy repentance. To remain silent as a suffering wife is not biblical and the abusiveness is not biblical headship either, that’s pride and selfishness. We are to keep husband’s in their place as husbands, not elevate them to God’s place in our lives. Please read Dr. Townsend’s books on boundaries and visit Leslie Vernick’s blog for more info so that you are clear on the marital covenant. The marital covenant is conditional, not unconditional, and when a spouse breaks the marital covenant to love, honor, and cherish their spouse and especially when there is abuse, chronic deceit, and/ or unfaithfulness- the covenant is void. Even God gave Israel a decree of divorce for her unrepentant heart and unfaithfulness. As Leslie Vernick says- God values the people in the marriage and their safety more than the sanctity of marriage. And also- loving someone unconditionally is not synonymous with having an unconditional relationship with him. We are to love others, even our enemies but that does not mean we are to stay in close relationship with them.

  8. Dave says

    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.

  9. Monique says

    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.

  10. Susan Camin says

    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

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