What Are Boundaries in Marriage?
In the simplest sense, a boundary is a property line. It denotes the beginning and end of something. If, for example, you go down to the county courthouse and look up your address, you can probably get a plot map showing your property lines. You can see where your property begins and your neighbor’s ends—a prerequisite for being good neighbors to each other. (Read What Are Healthy Boundaries? to learn more.)
Okay, you may ask, but what are boundaries in the marriage relationship?
If you know where the property lines are, you can look up who owns the land. In physical property, we say that Sam or Susie “owns” the land and the things on the land.
In relationships, ownership is also very important. If I know where the boundaries are in our relationship, I know who “owns” things such as feelings, attitudes, and behaviors as well. I know to whom they “belong.” And if there is a problem with one of those, I know to whom the problem belongs as well. A relationship like marriage requires each partner to have a sense of ownership of himself or herself.
When boundaries are clarified, it helps us is to know where one person ends and the other begins. What is the problem, and where is it? Is it in you, or is it in me? Once we know the boundaries, we know who should be owning whichever problem we are wrestling with.
Boundaries help us to determine who is responsible for what. If we understand who owns what, we then know who must take responsibility for it. If we can discover who is responsible for what, we have an opportunity for change. If we can see that the problem is our problem and that we are responsible for it, then we are in the driver’s seat of change.
Responsibility also involves action. If something is going to happen, it’s going to happen because we take action. We need to change some attitudes, or behaviors, or reactions, or choices. We must actively participate in the resolution of whatever relational problem we might have, even if it is not our fault.
Each spouse must take responsibility for the following:
(Read What Are Personal Boundaries? for details.)
Responsibility tells us we are the ones who must work through our feelings and learn how to feel differently. Our attitudes—not those of our spouse—cause us to feel distressed and powerless. How we behave and react is part of the problem, and we have to change these patterns. We allow ourselves to get pushed beyond certain limits and then become resentful or powerless. We do not turn desires into accomplished goals, or we do not deal with our sick desires.
In a nutshell, responsibility empowers us to have a good life. We are not at the mercy of our spouse’s behavior or problems.
God designed the entire creation for freedom. We were not meant to be enslaved by each other; we were meant to love each other freely. God designed us to have freedom of choice as we responded to life, to other people, to God, and to ourselves. But when we turned from God, we lost our freedom. We became enslaved to sin, to self-centeredness, to other people, to guilt, and to a whole host of other dynamics.
Boundaries help us to realize our freedom once again. Listen to the way that Paul tells the Galatians to set boundaries against any type of control and become free: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1 NASB).
When someone realizes the freedom he or she has from a spouse or anyone else, many options open up. Boundaries help us to know just where someone’s control begins and ends. As with the property lines above, so it is with relationships. Just as your next-door neighbor can’t force you to paint your house purple, neither can any other human being make you do anything. It violates the basic law of freedom God established in the universe. For love to work, each spouse has to realize his or her freedom. And boundaries help define the freedom we have and the freedom we do not have.
Marriage is not slavery. It is based on a love relationship deeply rooted in freedom. Each partner is free from the other and therefore free to love the other. Where there is control, or perception of control, there is not love. Love only exists where there is freedom.
God created us free. He gave us responsibility for our freedom. And as responsible free agents, we are told to love him and each other. This emphasis runs throughout the whole Bible. When we do these three things—live free, take responsibility for our own freedom, and love God and each other—then life, including marriage, can be an Eden experience.
Something incredible happens as these three ingredients of relationship work together. As love grows, spouses become more free from the things that enslave: self-centeredness, sinful patterns, past hurts, and other self-imposed limitations. Then, they gain a greater and greater sense of self-control and responsibility. As they act more responsibly, they become more loving. And then the cycle begins all over again. As love grows, so does freedom, leading to more responsibility, and to more love.
This is why a couple who has been married for fifty or more years can say that the marriage gets better and better as time goes on. They become more free to be themselves as a result of being loved, and the love relationship deepens. To learn more about boundaries within the context of a marriage relationship, get Boundaries in Marriage by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.
Adapted from the book Boundaries in Marriage by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.