By SUZANNE STAMBOULIEH, M.S.
Whether you’ve been married a few months or a few decades, you’ve probably realized that marriage is hard work. Maintaining a deep connection for a lifetime does not just happen by chance; you must be intentional in all that you do in order for your marriage to grow.
In today’s fast-paced life, you may find yourself overwhelmed when trying to balance family, work, friendships, church, and extracurricular activities (both yours and your children’s). You may feel as though you are constantly doing and living for others with no time left over for your spouse or yourself. Does this sound familiar? Are certain areas of your life taking a priority over your spouse? If so, you may need to set some boundaries in your marriage.
What exactly do these boundaries look like? Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, authors of Boundaries in Marriage, define a boundary as something that indicates where you end and someone else begins, physically and emotionally. Boundaries help identify what you are and are not responsible for. It’s important to note that establishing boundaries in your marriage is not about limiting you or your spouse; it is about doing what is best for your marriage. Boundaries are necessary, especially in marriages, to protect the sacred union from what Cloud and Townsend call “intruders.”
What, then, are intruders? The word sounds scary, but an intruder can be anything that takes time away from cultivating your relationship with your spouse. Keep in mind that something may be an intruder for one couple and not for another. Some examples of intruders include hobbies, the Internet, work, in-laws, and friends, just to name a few. Of course, these listed intruders are not bad in and of themselves, but if they negatively affect your marriage, are they not worth examining? For example, do you repeatedly acquiesce to your extended families’ wishes, despite what you and your spouse want, simply to avoid hurting their feelings? Certainly there are times for this, but do you live your life this way? Take a moment and think about things in your life that could be classified as intruders. What if you were able to moderate those intruders? Could you use your newly freed-up time to cultivate your relationship with your spouse?
When intruders affect your level of closeness with your spouse, then a boundary must be set. All situations are unique, so there may be times in which eliminating the intruder altogether is necessary. However, in most cases, the intruder is actually something that is good but has gotten out of control. After all, balance is key! For example, if you recognize excessive texting as an intruder, try to designate a time, such as dinnertime, where you put your phone on silent in order to better connect with your spouse free from distractions.
When you and your spouse are setting boundaries, act as a team, unified in all that you do. It is helpful to use “we” statements when setting boundaries. For instance, if social invitations become an intruder, instead of saying, “I really want to come, but my spouse does not,” you might reply with, “We appreciate the invite, but we would like to stay home so we can have some family time.” Using “we” statements instead of “I” statements may not seem like a big deal, but even this small step demonstrates that you and your spouse are unified in your decisions.
At first, setting boundaries and limiting intruders may not be easy to explain to your friends or family; you may experience some pushback from those closest to you. But, it will get easier, and in time you will see that the boundaries you have set will bring you and your spouse closer together. Also remember that you can’t control what others think about your boundaries, so try not to dwell on it—if others don’t agree with your boundaries, it’s okay.
Even with boundaries in place, you can’t completely eliminate conflict in your marriage. Nothing can do that! But setting healthy boundaries and making your relationship a priority will create a solid foundation on which your marriage can thrive.
Suzanne is a therapist for Summit Counseling. Suzanne currently resides in Madison with her husband Stephen and daughter Scarlett. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org