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How to Define and Enforce Boundaries in Marriage (Jesus’s Way)

How To Define And Enforce Boundaries In Marriage (Jesus’s Way)

July 25, 2019

My Spouse is Walking All Over Me! (So, What Would Jesus Do?)

  • You feel hurt over and over as your spouse does things that violate your values and disrupt your life.
  • You feel like your life is out of your control because of your spouse.
  • You’re not sure how to stand up for what you believe is right for yourself and your family. When you try, it always leads to terrible conflicts.

Did you know that God has always established boundaries for His children and will help us do it with our spouses as well?

Would you like to learn the techniques for defining, communicating, and enforcing your boundaries?

Note: This post was originally written as part of the forthcoming book Happy After All, which is designed to support Christian spouses married to someone with mental or emotional instability, illness, or addiction. The author and his co-author wife have survived and thrived with their mental illnesses for thirty-three years, thanks to the gospel of Jesus Christ and guidance from mental health professionals.

An Awakening

I recall sitting in a therapy session one time relating a dream that kept recurring. We had never talked about dreams before, but this one suddenly flashed into my memory as we were talking about how my life felt out of control.

My therapist was the most wonderful man and he smiled with the greatest joy whenever I achieved a breakthrough of some kind. I knew something good was happening as I started talking because he was beaming at me.

“It’s a really simple dream but it’s so frustrating,” I said. “I’m driving a car down the road and I’m trying to slow down but the brake pedal is always just a little out of reach. I strain and I stretch my leg and my toes as far as I can but I can’t ever press down. I can feel the pedal, but I can’t press it down and make the car stop.”

He started nodding, still smiling.

“This isn’t rocket science is it?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“I’m stuck in a car that’s driving out of control and I feel helpless to stop it.”

He nodded with approval.

“Yeah, that’s definitely how I feel.”

Within months of this conversation, I had improved my ability to set boundaries and began to feel better.

Our Right and Responsibility to Act for Ourselves

You have both the right and the responsibility to control your life and take care of yourself first. This is not selfish. It’s actually a God-given expectation.

There is a great difference between being self-centered and caring for one’s self.

A mentally ill or addicted spouse can walk all over you for years if you don’t learn the art of boundary setting.

You are responsible to care for yourself while being caring and kind toward others but NOT taking care of or controlling others who are perfectly capable of caring for themselves.

Source image credit: Ibrahim Asad on Pexels

Boundary experts Henry Cloud and John Townsend explain why boundaries are so important: “Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and where someone else begins, leading me to sense of ownership. . . In addition to showing us what we are responsible for, boundaries help us to define what is not on our property and what we are not responsible for. We are not, for example, responsible for other people. Nowhere are we commanded to have ‘other-control,’ although we spend a lot of time and energy trying to get it.” 

The Bible teaches a lot about “self-control” but when it comes to dealing with other people, the Bible describes how to respond appropriately, influence them, and be true to our commitments to others. The Bible teaches us how to interact with others but not how to control others.

Setting boundaries did more to save our marriage and sanity than anything else we did, except our faith in God.

Until you become very clear about who you are, what you need, what you are willing to tolerate from others and then act accordingly, you will feel like I did—in a car driven by itself while I was unable to stop it.

Yet, setting boundaries is what we tend to fear the most. Why? Because unstable people hate boundaries, especially substance abusers and addicts. Every time we tell our spouse “no” or say, “This is what I really need to take care of myself,” we risk a major fight. So, we tend to back down and suck up whatever is intolerable and making us miserable.

Then we hate ourselves for selling out on our own needs.

God, the People of Israel, and You

Many people struggle with the ethics of boundaries. “Is it really right to take a stand like this?” they wonder. “What if my spouse does [such and such bad thing] as a result of me setting a boundary? Isn’t that selfish? Jesus wouldn’t do that, would He?”

Wrong. Jesus would take a stand and He did, many times.

Believe it here and now. You are expected to define and enforce your boundaries, just like God did and continues to do. You are also expected to discover and honor other people’s boundaries.

We can learn much about “What would Jesus do?” by studying the Old Testament. After all, Jesus Christ was that very God who spoke to Moses, right? Let’s not forget that. (See Isaiah 43:11 and John 8:58.)

If you know the Bible well, stay with me for a moment and resist the urge to throw something at me or think me insane. Let’s just forget about what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah for a moment.

God sets boundaries with His people and enforces them. He also expects us to set and enforce boundaries to protect and bless ourselves. These are illustrated throughout the Old Testament.

In the chart below, you’ll see that the journey of the people Israel was nowhere close to a straight, easy path to the promised land. Just like your life and mine, there were twists and unexpected turns for all kinds of reasons. But eventually, the people of Israel did make it to the promised land.

One of the most fascinating things about the Old Testament is that the story of God’s dealings with the people of Israel is astonishingly parallel to our own experiences as we walk through life. Even if you’ve heard this comparison before, it’s worth soaking it in again. It’s amazing.

The left column summarizes the history of the people of Israel, which you will likely recognize as the main storyline of the Old Testament. The right column describes how this story relates perfectly to our individual life experiences.

God and the People of IsraelHow this Relates to Us
The pharaoh of Egypt afflicts the Israelites and holds them captive.Satan afflicts us and holds us captive in sin.
Moses leads the Israelites out of captivity through God’s miraculous power, parts the Red Sea, and the people walk across dry land to a new life on the other side. Jesus, our Savior, leads us out of sin by His miraculous power as we follow Him into the waters of baptism and rise into a new life of faith and freedom from Satan.
The people of Israel start to suffer. They miss their favorite foods in Egypt. They doubt their prophet. They complain terribly, want to go back to Egypt, and they sin over and over again. As newly baptized Christians, we experience hard times, feel disoriented, and begin to doubt God’s promises to us. We lose our vision of the promised land. Many of us return to our sins.
God says to them, in effect, “You went too far. You crossed the line with your unbelief and terrible deeds. You’re not going to enter the promised land for forty years, until all those who sinned are dead.” Why? Because He loved the people as their Father and He knew that disaster lay ahead of them unless they lived more righteously. If we turn our backs on the grace of Christ and His newness of life, God chastens us with trials and challenges until our most sinful desires and habits are purged from us—because He loves us as a Father who chastens a child and wants him to prosper and live with Him in eternity.
God comforts and protects Israel through the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, even though they were still wandering. God is always near and watching over us, no matter our life situation or how imperfect we are.
After the evildoers have all passed away, God leads them to the promised land, with a commandment that they must kill the current inhabitants of the land and secure their borders, creating a land that is purely their own. Even as God purges us “in the fire of affliction” to remove our sinful desires, he also expects us to establish clear spiritual boundaries with family, friends and strangers alike, to let good things in but keep out the bad.
The people do not establish strong boundaries but allow themselves to mingle with other cultures. They lose their identity, fall into wicked behavior, and are destroyed and scattered. While we may not all hit rock bottom like the people of Israel, to a lesser extent we experience misery and confusion when we do not hold true to our personal boundaries and faith in God.
God promises to gather and restore the people of Israel to the promised land before He comes again and invites them into the Kingdom of heaven. No matter the twists and turns in our lives, we have the same promise that God always reaches after us and will not stop seeking our safe passage into heaven.

Old Testament Lessons on Boundaries

Consider what we can learn about boundaries from the story of God’s dealings with the people of Israel:

  1. God set boundaries for His people in the form of commandments; there were consequences when commandments were seriously, habitually violated.
  2. God was long-suffering and patient when they didn’t obey, but when they “went too far” in His perfect judgment, He said, in effect, “That’s it. No more.”
  3. When God decided that a boundary had been violated and required enforcement, He said, in effect, “Here’s how it’s going to be.” He told His people what He was going to do and what He expected from them.
  4. When God’s people were told to go into the promised land, He directed them to drive out the current inhabitants, whose values and behaviors were grossly wicked and out of line with God’s standards.
  5. When God’s people did not establish boundaries with neighboring peoples but allowed “foreign elements” to mix with their culture, they lost their identity as a godly people and experienced long years of misery and ultimately were destroyed and scattered.

So, what would Jesus do? He would set boundaries and He expects us to do so as well.

Examples of Boundaries

This statement from Cloud and Townsend can help us envision boundaries: In the physical world, boundaries are easy to see. Fences, signs, walls, moats with alligators, manicured lawns and hedges are all physical boundaries. . . In the spiritual world, boundaries are just as real but often harder to see.

Now let’s get specific about what spiritual boundaries look like in real life. Boundaries differentiate “you” and “your spouse” in three basic ways by answering these types of questions:

  1. Who is responsible for what? I am responsible for [this]. You are responsible for [that]. Do not try to make your responsibilities my responsibilities.
    Examples: Your spouse is responsible to wake up on time for their job, control their tongue, develop their own faith in God, attend their own medical appointments if they are physically and mentally able, fulfill previous commitments made to you, eat right, take care of their body and hygiene, etc.
  2. What will I not tolerate? You cannot do [this and that] to me or I will do [such and such].
    Examples: Bringing drugs into the house. Spending money on porn. Disrespecting you verbally. When your spouse says a certain outrageous thing to you, you may respond with, “That is totally disrespectful and I don’t want to hear that from you again.” Be prepared to escalate by stepping away or leaving the house temporarily, and revisiting the topic when things are calmer
  3. What must I be permitted to do? I need [this and that] in my life in order to be healthy, safe, and close to God. You cannot prevent me from doing it or I will do [such and such].
    Examples: Quiet time after a certain hour or a safe, quiet space when needed. A living space free of stench or filth. Access to transportation or essential finances. Attending church. Saying prayers with your children

The following chart illustrates more examples of boundaries. (Note: This chart is inspired by the work of Cloud and Townsend. We recommend reading their book in its entirety.)

Boundary ExampleHow to Communicate / Enforce It
WordsSay, “No.”
Say, “I like this” or “I don’t like that.”
Say, “I need this in order to [whatever].”
Say, “We agreed that [such and such] is your responsibility, not mine. I’m not doing it.”
Truth / Integrity
(based on revealed truth in the scriptures)
Say, “I believe [such and such] and therefore it’s important that I act like [this and that]. I need you to respect that about me.”
Geographical DistanceMove to a different room for a while.
Live in different homes for a time.
Formalize a legal separation agreement.
Get a restraining order to protect you from unwanted contact and abuse.
Time / Emotional SeparationAgree upon a certain timeframe with no interaction (including text messages and calls) to allow for rest and reflection,
“Pull back” emotionally for a time, waiting for signals that you can be safe to interact more openly and deeply again. For a while, keep communications focused on concrete activities like necessities of life and avoid engaging about feelings and relationship issues.
Freedom to Interact with OthersFind appropriate people to talk to including friends and professionals who know how to keep things confidential and just talk.
Join support groups (in person or online); hear their stories and share your own.
Get active or stay active in church and participate in service, ministering, etc.
Plan consequences [Note: Failure to enforce consequences means you have no boundary.]
Think ahead about how you will act if the boundary is violated. This can be complex and is never a perfect science. Have a Plan B, a Plan C, a Plan D, etc. Then enact it.
Enforce your boundary by saying things like, “We agreed to talk for 10 minutes after which I would leave. I have to leave now.” Do it.
Allow others to experience the painful even tragic consequences of their decisions.
Do not enforce boundaries the way your parents or others may have enforced them with you. Be loving and listen to the Holy Spirit. “Old-fashioned” parenting often resorted to beatings and yelling, as if those were effective ways to enforce boundaries. They are not effective.

The Backlash from Enforcing Boundaries

“If we walk away from risk to keep ourselves safe . . . we will waste our lives,” said the pastor and author John Piper in the book Don’t Waste Your Life. (You can download it free here.)

Yes, taking the step to enforce a boundary is a risk, but it will prevent you from wasting your life in cycles of recurring misery.

Most spouses with serious illness or addiction will “freak out” when their spouse starts defining boundaries and enforcing consequences. For example:

Backlash: Your spouse may say you are threatening and manipulating them and issuing unfair, unkind ultimatums.

  • Remedy: Keep using the words “limit” and “boundary” and don’t let them change the lingo on you to make you seem like a manipulator who is torturing them. Remind them that you have a responsibility to care for your most basic needs.

Backlash: Your spouse will probably say you are selfish, inconsiderate, and unsupportive because you know how many problems they have.

  • Remedy: Keep focusing on who is responsible for what and how you are not going to help them do things that they can and should be doing for themselves. Assure them that you want to help them through their problems but in a healthier way, as recommended by mental health professionals. Invite them to read about the importance of boundaries.

Backlash: Your spouse may threaten you with various awful, frightening things including harming themselves, taking your children forever, posting all sorts of things on social media and telling your family true or untrue things.

  • Remedy: Do not retaliate or sink to such a low level. Stay loving, focused and consistent: You love them. You want your relationship to improve. You know that limits are necessary for yourself and for them.

As Cloud and Townsend have warned: “You cannot change others. More people suffer from trying to change others than from any other sickness. And it is impossible. What you can do is influence others. But there is a trick. Since you cannot get them to change, you must change yourself so that their destructive patterns no longer work on you. Change your way of dealing with them; they may be motivated to change if their old ways no longer work.” 

In the long run, your spouse will feel safer and happier after you enforce boundaries because in most cases, subconsciously, they are craving order and control in their life. They just don’t have the skills to manage boundaries for themselves.

Like it or not, you are helping them form the boundary skills they should have learned in childhood but for some reason did not.

Threats of Suicide

The Balancing Act

Woman on tightrope

Image credit: WiseGEEK

The acts of defining, communicating, and enforcing boundaries are definitely art forms. Everyone needs to learn how to do them and nobody gets them right all the time.

Your loved one’s behaviors are unpredictable. You’ve probably developed “antennae” that stick out of your head much of the time (like me), trying to catch signals that help you monitor moods and state of mind, right?

When you sense that your spouse is “not in their right mind,” you may wisely choose not to enforce something that’s more of a strong preference than a firm boundary.

Many times, I went through a thought process like this:

  • If I enforce my need for [such and such] right now, Helen is going to have a meltdown which could lead to severe fights or hospitalization, which I can’t deal with right now because of [such and such] life situation, project at work, family event coming up, etc.
  • I’m going to gently remind her at a later appropriate time of my need and our agreement to do [such and such], which may still result in backlash, but so be it.
  • I’m aware that Helen has shown progress in [such and such] areas and I have to remember that life is often two steps forward and one step back. I will compliment her on things that are going better and show my love.
  • I’m praying in my heart for wisdom and guidance to know when to take a stand and when to be flexible.

Gridlock versus Boundary Setting

Let’s make a careful distinction between boundaries and personal preferences, tastes, opinions, etc.

In 1999, world-renown marriage researchers Gottman and Silver made an important statement: “Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind—but it can’t be done. . . Instead they need to live with it by honoring and respecting each other.” (Learn about their incredible book here.)

The above quote has to do with things that do not fundamentally violate you. Arguing about a spouse who is “driving too fast” is very common and can go on for years. But this is very different than a spouse who makes fearsome threats of violence against you in front of your crying children, or won’t stop bringing alcohol into the house, or has secretly plunged your family into another $10,000 worth of debt, or a spouse who will not follow medical advice, attend appointments, etc.

What is Gridlock?

According to Gottman and Silver in the book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, gridlock occurs when you can’t verbally come to agreement about something that you wish you could agree upon:

  • You’ve had the same argument over and over.
  • Neither of you can discuss it with humor or affection.
  • Your differences seem to swing further and further apart.
  • And here’s the kicker that can make the line blurry with boundaries: The thought of compromise makes you feel like you’re selling out—giving up something important and core to your beliefs, values, or sense of self.

The key to avoiding gridlock is surprisingly simple: “When couples are able to treat their perpetual problems as they would a pesky allergy or bad back. They know the difficulty won’t ever go away, but they manage to keep it from overwhelming their life together. . . Remember that you don’t have to solve the problem to get past gridlock. Neither of you has to ‘give in’ or ‘lose.’ The goal is to be able to acknowledge and discuss the issue without hurting each other.” 

How Boundaries Differ from Gridlock

When defining and communicating boundaries, you strive to explain why you need such and such boundary and how it will benefit you and your relationship. You may have tried to have a civil conversation about [such and such] but your spouse won’t support what you know is critical to your well-being or theirs.

At some point, however, you decide that the discussion phase is over and the enforcement begins. In effect, you say, “Here’s what I’m going to do.” It doesn’t matter whether they agree or not.

When enforcing boundaries, you simply inform your spouse of what you intend to do and briefly remind them of why you need that. Then you manage any backlash as described earlier.

You stay calm and in control. Gradually, your spouse finally begins to understand that there is a moat with an alligator in it and they need to respect your boundary, or the consequences will probably escalate.

If you don’t eventually enforce a boundary, you have just removed the moat and totally disempowered yourself, fueling more chaos.

On the other hand, after effective boundary enforcement, the next conversation about that boundary will look and feel very different and your moat will be clearly visible to both parties.

My Testimony to You

Setting boundaries is the hardest thing you will have to do but it’s also what God does with us. It is right and it is necessary.

If you know you are being violated and you shy away from enforcing boundaries, you are more than likely dooming your relationship.

When the people of Israel “went too far,” God enforced significant consequences. When His people failed to establish boundaries with their neighboring nations, they ended up in dire straits, miserable, and were ultimately destroyed.

I promise you that if you will set and enforce boundaries with love in your heart and do your best to apply flexible judgment with the help of the Holy Spirit (not based on whims and bad moods), you will gradually see structure and stability enter into your relationship.

Your spouse will begin to know when you “mean business” and he or she will begin to hate the disruption that happens when the two of you have conflict over the same boundary issues again.

Happy After All

Scriptures to Ponder

A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. (Proverbs 25:28, ESV)

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. (Galations 6:7, ESV)

No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. (Hebrews 12:11, NLT)

What You Can Start Doing Today

  • Read the Christian-oriented book Boundaries Updated and Expanded Edition: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. This book can be of life-altering importance to your situation. There are many detailed examples and recommendations about setting boundaries plus helpful Bible references.
  • Think of one boundary (or more if you’d like) that your spouse is violating frequently.
    • What is your spouse telling you to do or not to do that is fundamentally not okay with you and makes you feel like your identity is being robbed?
    • What actions do you want to take that you feel are critical to your own well-being and mental health, which your spouse is preventing you from doing?
    • What types of communications and behaviors from your spouse are violating you emotionally?
  • After you’ve identified the one boundary that is most important to you and hurts you most when violated, take it to prayer and ask God very specifically to help you identify a strategy to safely hold firm on that boundary. This could take days or weeks to carefully consider. Follow the inspiration. Consider these guidelines by Clouse and Townsend:
    • First, figure out what you will gain by setting this boundary and compare it to what you stand to lose as you enforce it and deal with any resistance.
    • Second, decide if you are willing to risk the loss.
    • Third, go through with the plan as best you can, including plan A, plan B, etc., based on your spouses responses.
    • Fourth, and finally, realize that the hard part is just starting. Unfortunately, the first time you enforce boundaries introduces a new dynamic into your relationship that often results in upheaval. It’s not convenient but it is worth it.

What’s In It For Me?

The gospel of Jesus Christ will transform us to become more like Jesus. You will notice (or have already noticed) these wonderful blessings of patiently persevering with your troubled loved one. If you are not noticing these things, that may be a wake-up call that you could be relying more on the power of God to lift you and help you thrive and find spiritual happiness.

  • Greater understanding of the character of God, including not “giving in” all the time or being a “pushover” when His children violate eternally important boundaries.
  • Greater clarity about who you are and what you really need to feel well.
  • Greater self-confidence as you assert your needs while relying on God for strength and guidance.
  • More empathy for how God must feel when he sets boundaries and His children violate them.

Great Resources to Deepen Your Understanding

These are two of most respected books on marriage available today, with profound insights and practical guidance. We cannot recommend these highly enough.

See Cloud and Townsend’s Christian-oriented, best-selling book “Boundaries” here.

See Gottman and Silver’s “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” here.

To deepen your foundation of faith in Jesus Christ, there is no simpler, more practical book available on the market today than our own “Jesus Christ, His Life and Mine,” which immerses the reader in the life of Jesus while making His light understandable and applicable to modern life.

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