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How to Set Boundaries in Your Marriage

These 9 tips for setting boundaries in marriage will help you and your partner improve your relationship. Based on Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s book about relationship boundaries, these are the most important things to know about how to set boundaries in your marriage.

relatinship boundaries“Boundaries define us,”write Cloud and Townsend in Boundaries in Marriage. “They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where i end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom. Taking responsibility for my life opens up many different options. Boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out. Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them. You are the one who must live with their consequences. And you are the one who may be keeping yourself from making the choices you could be happy with. We must own our own thoughts and clarify distorted thinking.”

And, these relationship experts add that the most powerful obstacle to setting boundaries in marriage is envy. The Law of Envy states that we will never get what we want if we focus outside of our boundaries on what others have. Are you surprised by this fact about relationship boundaries? I was! Below is a more detailed description of how relationship envy – and other factors in marriage – can stop you from learning how to set boundaries in marriage.

9 Ways to Set Marriage Boundaries

These tips are from Cloud and Townsend’s book, and are only meant to be an introduction on setting relationship boundaries. To get a complete description on how to set boundaries in your relationship, I encourage you to get the relationship boundaries books by Cloud and Townsend or take a marriage workshop as a couple.

1. Learn how envy in relationships affects boundaries in marriage

Many boundary problems in marriage are caused by relationship envy.  “Envy is miserable because we’re dissatisfied with our state, yet powerless to change,” writes Cloud and Townsend. “This is why envy is such a powerful obstacle to setting boundaries in marriage.” Envy can destroy a relationship by causing the envious partner to stay focused on the happiness of others, not the choices he or she has. An envious partner sees herself as powerless, and stops her from developing her own limits, abilities, and gifts.

Envy can also cause problems with intimacy. In 5 Signs You’re Suffocating Your Partner Emotionally, I describe how poor relationship boundaries affect a marriage if one partner is envious or needy.

2. Set relationship boundaries by learning how to evaluate situations

If you set boundaries in your marriage, you may hurt your partner or create feelings of discomfort or even anger. However, that doesn’t mean something bad is happening in your relationship.

How to Set Boundaries in Marriage

How to Set Boundaries in Marriage

For example, you may decide to that it is not your responsibility to ensure your husband’s mother is driven to her doctor’s appointments or pays her household bills. This may cause pain to your husband and his mom – as well as feelings of resentment, frustration, and anger – but you may have decided that your abilities and schedule preclude you from caring for your husband’s mother.

This is an example of the consequences that may arise if you learn how to set boundaries in marriage. Effective boundary setting in relationship requires you to be aware of the difference between causing injury and causing pain to your partner.

3. Know that you are free to say “no” in your marriage

“The Law of Motivation states that we must be free to say no before we can wholeheartedly say yes,” write Cloud and Townsend in Setting Boundaries in Marriage.  “No one can actually love another if he feels he doesn’t have a choice not to.” If you feel you have to do something in your relationship – such as take care of your husband’s mother or iron your husband’s clothes – then it is a sign you’re afraid of what might happen if you say no. Setting relationship boundaries involves working through your fears of saying no. This might mean taking the risk of losing love, of being rejected, or of causing your partner pain.

If you can’t say no to or be honest with your partner, read How to Find a Good Marriage Counselor.

4. Communicate your boundaries to your spouse

It’s all well and good to have boundaries in marriage, but have you expressed them? You may have limits, definitions, feelings, and opinions about your relationship and your life…but you may not be communicating your thoughts and feelings to your partner. If you don’t talk about how you feel and what you think, then you will lose your connection with your partner. If you aren’t connected, then your chances of setting healthy relationship boundaries as a couple are decreased.

5. Learn about the consequences of your behavior in your relationship

This is the first tip on how to set boundaries in marriage in Cloud and Townsend’s book: when we do loving, responsible things, people draw close to us. When we are unloving or irresponsible, people withdraw from us. There are several great examples of setting relationship boundaries by allowing your partner to be responsible for his choices and the consequences of his behavior. I can’t describe them all here, but I suspect you’ll see yourself in those examples. I know I see me and my husband in those stories!

6. Learn how to be responsible to (not for) your partner

“You need to avoid taking ownership of your spouse’s life,” write Cloud and Townsend in Setting Boundaries in Marriage. “Spouses may help each other out with loads or burdens, but ultimately each person must take care of his own daily responsibilities.” If your spouse is unhappy, then it is his job to figure out the source of his dissatisfaction and learn healthy ways to find fulfillment in life. Your job is not to make your spouse happy.

If you find yourself enabling or rescuing your partner, read How to Heal Codependency in Your Relationship. Learning how to stop taking responsibility for your spouse’s life is an important step in setting relationship boundaries.

7. Allow pain to help grow your relationship – and your ability to set boundaries

Even the healthiest marriages can cause painful feelings and emotions. But, pain can be the best friend your relationship has ever had if you grow through it and learn how to deal with it as a couple.

Relationship Boundaries

Relationship Boundaries

Being proactive about dealing with the problems and issues that cause pain in your relationship is important.  This is a complicated tip on how to set boundaries in marriage, and it requires you to be reflective about your personality and ways of interacting with your spouse. The book can help you with that; all I can do here is say that proactive people deal with pain by keeping their freedom while confronting issues that cause them pain. Healthy couples have learned how to hold on to their love, not get caught up in emotional storms, and being honest about their limits and boundaries.

8. Respect your spouse if you want to learn how to set boundaries in marriage

This is one of these relationship tips that many of us are taught in kindergarten. If you want to be respected in your marriage, then you need to show respect to your partner. This means learning how to set relationship boundaries without walking all over your partner. This is the difficult thing about setting boundaries in marriage, because at first we might be confused about the difference between setting healthy boundaries versus being overly aggressive and selfish.

Cloud and Townsend encourage readers to ask these questions when setting relationship boundaries:

  • How might I be crossing your boundaries?
  • Do you feel I respect your right to say no?
  • 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 are humbling, uncomfortable questions – and they show that you respect your partner even as you learn how to set boundaries in marriage. You may feel hurt by his answers, but it’s important to listen wholeheartedly to what he says.

9. Take action towards setting boundaries in marriage

how to set boundaries in marriageActive people make lots of mistakes because they try new things, experience limits, and adapt. Active people who are wise are able to grow from their experiences and mistakes, and even trust God for forgiveness and redemption. Passive people, on the other hand, tend to be afraid of taking action or making mistakes because of the possible painful consequences.  Passive people may be afraid that setting relationship boundaries might destroy their relationship or cause a painful rift that is too difficult to heal.

To learn how to set and stick with your boundaries after a painful breakup or divorce, read Beyond Boundaries: Learning to Trust Again in Relationships.

I welcome your thoughts on how to set boundaries in marriage, but I can’t offer relationship advice or counseling. It might help you to share how you feel about relationship boundaries, and you may hear from other readers experiencing the same thing.

If you feel like it’s too late to set boundaries in your marriage, read How to Know if Your Marriage is Over.

I encourage you to seek a “boundaries in marriage” workshop through a local church or community group. Developing healthy relationship boundaries takes time and practice, and can be most beneficial in a group setting or with an objective couples counselor.

Is your relationship in trouble? Get 7 Steps to Fixing Your Marriage from relationship coach Mort Fertel. It's free and helpful, no strings attached.

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3 thoughts on “How to Set Boundaries in Your Marriage”

  1. I am feeling like my bounderies are not being met, but maybe Im wrong. I got married in Feburary of this year, and 2 weeks later we came to learn that he is common law married, which voided our marriage. I have now been waiting for him to file a divorce and its coming up on May. He says he doesn’t want any problems with his ex, but also tells me how nice of a girl she is. I have told him he needs to deciede if hes going to hurt her feelings or mine? And I told he he needs to choose me or her. He reasurede me he wanted to be with me and that he would get a divorice that week. that was last month, and still hasn’t served the papers.

  2. Hi Jenny,

    Both you and another reader had almost the exact same question, so I wrote a whole article about setting boundaries in relationships.

    How to Be Honest With Your Boyfriend

    However, an online article is no substitute for real-life relationship practice with your husband or even couples counseling. The Boundary books are excellent – and they do have tips for dealing with the reaction when boundaries are set in marriage.

    A really valuable option is to take a Boundaries course or workshop through a local church, or go see Dr Cloud or Townsend talk in person. The more you learn about setting boundaries in marriage, the easier it gets – especially if your husband is on board.

    You might also want to talk to a counselor or trusted friend about your husband’s anger and frustration. If he is emotionally abusive, you’ll need to learn different strategies for dealing with him and your marriage issues.

    I hope this helps you move forward in learning how to stick to the boundaries you’ve set in your marriage! It is a process that takes time and consistency, but you can do it if you stay the course.


  3. I appreciate your tips on how to set boundaries in marriage, but how do you maintain those boundaries when your husband gets angry or frustrated with you? I understand how important it is to have relationship boundaries and I understand exactly how to implement them.

    Can you help me get to the next step, which is actually sticking to the boundaries I’ve set with my husband?

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