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Building Boundaries Within Your Marriage

Think of a situation where the boundary in your marriage is clear. One of my clients told me she learned to put her shoes away because if she left them in the middle of the room, her husband hid them.

When the consequences of your actions are clear, you feel calmer. Your sweetheart feels safe. So do you. There’s less friction because you’re not regularly faced with a choice of how to act.

We’re tempted to think that full permission to act in any way we choose is freedom, but consider this scene:

What movie do you want to watch?
(Afraid to cause conflict) Oh, I don’t care, you decide.
How about Braveheart?
Ooh, that’s pretty violent.
ARRGH! You just said you didn’t care!

Compare that conversation to this:

What movie do you want to watch?
I want to watch Sense and Sensibility.
How about Braveheart?
You asked what I wanted to watch. I want to watch Sense and Sensibility, but I’m willing to watch Braveheart.
Hmm. Let’s watch my movie tonight, and yours tomorrow.

Which situation makes you feel more calm, centered and hopeful about the relationship’s life-long happiness?

We hesitate to employ a boundary because we want to be nice and accommodating. But what is kinder to your marriage: for you to avoid conflict and gradually disappear? Or to have a few tussles, learn more about yourself and your sweetheart, and have two strong individuals grow to appreciate their differences?

Strong boundaries will let you and your sweetheart feel safer, healthier and fall more in love.


Why we send mixed signals

and how does a boundary help?

Step one is to understand why we don’t want to create a boundary and what happens when we don’t.

We send mixed signals because we want to be nice. We don’t want conflict. We also send mixed signals because, although we want the benefits a boundary might offer, we don’t want to take responsibility for the sacrifice and growth. We have a fantasy about life, but the work of getting to that fantasy? Not so appealing.

When you’re clear about what you will do and what you won’t do, most of the work of boundary setting is complete. But finding this clarity is tough, and that’s when you’re most likely to send mixed signals.

Want an example? My biggest struggle to set a clear boundary in my marriage had to do with money. I’m a saver and my husband is a spender. Regularly I would say, “We need to save more money so we have a vacation fund.” My husband thought that was a great idea until he wanted something.

Then the dinner out would take precedence over the vacation fund.

Surprisingly, I got a big payoff when my husband crossed that boundary. I got to remain the pious person who wanted to save, but I also got to benefit from the relaxing dinner out. I also got to blame him for being the spender, while I stayed squeaky clean. Total win for me.

Another way I sent mixed signals is that I’d create a secret savings account, and when he spent too much, I was able to fix any overspending problems. I got a lot of power in our marriage because I was the mature person who had it all together.

That was a big payoff. So big, in fact, that I didn’t push to establish a better boundary: the place where I’m able to see what I truly desire. I talked about it, but I didn’t take the next step of consistent action.

Dave had a payoff too. He could nod in agreement to all my wishes for a vacation fund, but he didn’t have to take responsibility for it because I always managed to keep the bills paid.


Try this

  1. Identify the situation where you need a strong boundary. If you’re confused, notice where you have your biggest arguments. Likely, there is a boundary hidden in there.
  2. Look for your payoff. What are you getting out of it when that boundary isn’t respected?
  3. Search for your mixed signals. Now that you can see the payoff you get for having a vague or flimsy boundary, notice the mixed signals you are sending.



  1. The situation: Your sweetheart always gets to choose the movie.
  2. The payoff: No conflict. No decision-fatigue.
  3. The mixed signals: You say you don’t care, but then complain about your sweetheart’s choice.


What is the payoff you get for your fuzzy boundary?

What mixed signals do you send because part of you wants that payoff?

The first thing when deciding you want to have a boundary in your marriage is to examine the payoff you get when your boundary is crossed. Then notice how that payoff encourages you to send mixed signals to your sweetheart.

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