What is the most exciting place you and your spouse have ever travelled to together? If you travel for fun, you know there is always great anticipation when you arrive at a new location. There is something about crossing a border, whether it is into a new country, a new state, or even pulling in the parking lot of a favorite amusement park or natural attraction. In some mysterious, yet almost tangible way, a boundary line communicates “something is now different.”
Boundaries are also a part of any healthy relationship. Clear boundaries distinguish what is mine and what is yours. Although boundaries provide some limitations, in reality, they provide greater freedom. They are freeing because they give you definitive understanding in the relationship. There is a clear standard for words and behaviors that take away any guesswork about what is expected within that relationship. With healthy boundaries you are no longer walking on eggshells, wondering how the other person might react to what you’ve said or done.
When you marry, you and your spouse “leave father and mother” to establish a new family. As a couple, it is essential that you set up boundary lines within your relationship that facilitate becoming “one flesh.” You also need to set up outward boundary lines that communicate a definitive understanding to others of your marriage relationship.
Ideally, good, healthy internal boundaries between husband and wife help you to bless each other and to respect each other by allowing you to better understand what your mate needs and wants. They help husbands and wives to be accountable to each other in a God-centered way. In marriage, boundaries should be established together, because the purpose of boundaries is not to keep you apart, but rather to protect you as a couple and bring your closer together. Each couple must decide for themselves what their own boundaries will be in their relationship. How far can I go in sharing personal stories in a group setting? At what point does teasing become hurtful? Are there certain words or actions that are never acceptable in our relationship? What are our expectations of each other? How do we make sure we always laugh with each other rather than at each other? Are there certain times its okay say and do something, but other times that it’s not?
As you establish boundaries together as a couple, always be aware that over time boundaries in your relationship may change. When they do, be sure you communicate the changes to each other so that there is a clear understanding of the new status quo. And remember, boundaries are not an excuse for hiding things from your spouse. Your spouse does have the right to ask questions and expect honest answers. It is not acceptable to say, “That’s none of your business and you need to back off and respect my privacy.” Boundaries are also not an excuse for chastising or trying to control your spouse. Boundaries are not about a legalistic rule-keeping mentality, but about sharing life together in a healthy, God-centered way. Finding healthy boundaries in a relationship as intimate as marriage can be tough; and hopefully, you talked through some of the boundaries of your relationship before you ever said “I do.”
As hard as it may be to agree upon boundaries that bless you and your spouse as a couple, it is often infinitely more difficult for husbands and wives to establish boundaries for extended family. When you marry, your spouse must become your primary relationship. That is God’s design for marriage. The idea of “leave and cleave” is deeply imbedded in scripture. Sadly, parents don’t always recognize that this shift not only needs to occur, but that they need to be instrumental in helping it to happen.
There are a whole host of reasons parents might resist this God-ordained transition. Because your parents love you, they still want to be involved in your life. So, to them it might seem like a natural expression of their love would be to offer guidance, advice, and possibly even try to be involved in a hands-on way. It can become easy for parents to inadvertently overstep their place when new priorities and new ways of doing things are established between their child and their child’s spouse. When new boundaries have to be established, it is important to help your family realize that doesn’t mean you are cutting them off or saying, “I don’t love you anymore.” You are simply elevating your spouse to his/her proper place.
As a couple, when you put boundaries in place with your families, expect them to be tested. The testing often comes through heavy doses of guilt; either guilt imposed from those who don’t like the boundaries, or from your own reaction to establishing a new relationship status quo with your parents, siblings, or other close family. Expect to hear things like, “How can you do this? Don’t you care about me anymore?” “Well if that’s the way you’re going to be, see if I ever call you again!” “Are you truly going to keep me away from my grandchildren if I keep doing _______?” “Why doesn’t (spouse’s name) like me?” As painful as it can be to establish and enforce boundaries with your family, if you don’t you can jeopardize your most important relationship—your marriage.
So how do you decide when and how to draw the lines in the sand? While every couple will have a different experience depending on the family they came from, their families’ dispositions, and other factors, here are a few tips to help make establishing boundaries a better experience for all involved.
First, always protect the marriage relationship first and foremost. Every interaction you have with your family should communicate this. This is God’s design for marriage. It is not selfish or heartless to put your mate first. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
Second, communication is critical. Communication must happen between you and your spouse when you are establishing boundaries. You need to know how each other feels, one another’s fears and worries, and how each person is truly affected by family interactions. Mutually agreed upon boundaries are much easier to enforce than boundaries that are dictated by just one spouse.
Third, don’t defend your side of the family. It is natural to want to defend your family. After all, you love them and want your mate to think well of your family also. But our families are human. They can bless you, but the can also make mistakes. They can build you up, but they can also say stupid, hurtful things. They can be helpful, but they also can be overbearing and intrusive. Celebrate the good things your families do for your marriage, but be honest about their shortcomings as well. You will save yourself a lot of anxiety and wasted energy if you are honest about your family and are not always trying to defend their poor choices to your mate.
Fourth, when the boundaries you and your spouse set are tested (or blatantly ignored), let each person deal with his/her own side of the family. You fought and made up with your own family a thousand times before you met your spouse. You know your family’s temperaments and dispositions, and you know your family’s triggers. And, the last thing you want to do is force your spouse into a confrontation that sets him/her up to be the bad son-in-law or the bad daughter-in-law. (There is an exception to this rule though. Your family knows your triggers as well as you know theirs. So, if you see your spouse is purposely being drawn into a confrontation, you might want to gently step in if your mate is not able to maintain his/her composure.)
And fifth, don’t throw your spouse under the bus to save face with your family. What message does it send when you say things like, “I don’t really mind if you come by our house whenever you want, but Billy doesn’t like surprise visits. So, I guess I need to support him.” Or, “If it was up to just me we’d still spend Christmas Eve night at your house, but Joni really wants the baby’s first Christmas to be at home.” When you set a boundary together, stand by it together. It damages your marriage relationship when you disavow a mutual decision you and your spouse made in order to save face with your family.
Boundaries provide protection for your marriage—protection from a selfish individualism and protection from outside sources that can harm your relationship. Good boundaries allow you to draw closer to each other and closer to God. Healthy boundaries allow you to honor your mate and still honor your family. Draw the lines in the sand and stand by them together.
Father, help us to always be a blessing to our marriages and ever blessed by our marriages. Give us the wisdom and the love to set appropriate boundaries that will draw us closer to our mates. In Christ, amen.
What does God want from my marriage?
A Weekend Marriage Enrichment Retreat
Friday-Sunday, March 7-9, 2014
Edgewater at the Aquarium Hotel and Conference Center
Limited to 30 couples
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info
If you are in the Rutherford/ Davidson/ Wilson County, TN area and are looking for a great marriage small group, A Blessed Promise will meet every Wednesday night in October at 7 p.m. at the Smyrna Church of Christ. This class will help couples see their marriage as a wonderful and unique participation in the Kingdom of God. As couples study God’s Word they will see how His love, grace, forgiveness, and mercy are lived and taught within the context of marriage, and how a Christian couple’s marriage can be one of the most powerful witnesses of Christ to those around them. The class will be made up of several discussion-based small groups with people who are either already married or looking toward marriage. (Childcare for all ages will be provided through the Wednesday night Bible class program.)