How Creating Healthy Boundaries Saved My Marriage.
I am going to let you in on a little secret that took me years to learn. In fact, I am still learning it. The secret is this: Marriage is not supposed to make you happy. It supposed to make you FREE. That freedom requires trust.
I have been married 29 years now. My husband is a National Guard chaplain and we have spent at least 5 years of our married life apart. That kind of life, requires trust. When we are apart, we miss each other, A LOT!
I can also tell you that it does not matter how well be prepare ourselves for the reintegration after long separations, we have never managed to entirely avoid what we have affectionately termed the “obligatory reentry fight.” This usually happens around day five or six, and it is not fun.
Why am I telling you this? Because, first and foremost, I want you to know that the perfect marriage is a myth. I have seen strong marriages and weak marriages but I have never ever seen a perfect one. I have heard rumors of them, the way people might talk about unicorn sightings and alien abductions. But, a marriage without conflict or disagreement is a lie, and I believe it is a particularly harmful lie. If you expect a perfect marriage, you will never be happy in a real one.
My grandmother expected a perfect marriage. And despite outward appearances, she was never happy. She nagged my grandfather for 42 years. On his deathbed he wanted to know the answer to one question. “Bea,” he said, “why did you criticize me every day of my life?” Her answer was: “Why Ray, I just wanted you to be perfect.” While perfection might be a worthy long-term aspiration, it is a terrible expectation. Do not expect it of others. Do not expect it of yourselves
Psychologist Heinz Kohut studied human relationships and stated that “love is the very painful realization that other people are real.” This is a really important point to understand. I am real. My husband, Bruce, is real. On our most mature days, we can see each other’s flaws as gifts to help us be better people. But I confess, we are mostly immature and not that appreciative. Sometimes, though, we manage see the humor it.
One day my husband and I sat down and made lists of our spouse’s worst traits. All the things that drive us nuts about each other. When we compared notes, we found that we each had about fifteen items on our respective lists. We decided that if one of us died, we would need find another person with all the same flaws or we could surely never love again in this life. Then following a whim, we spent the time writing personal ads for future use. We could not stop laughing.
My personal ad went something like this:
Feisty farting feminist seeks grumpy introverted tightwad. Do you need a wrench thrown into the calm predictability of your routines? Do you want someone to remind you that the trunk of your car makes you look like a homeless person? Do you feel lost and alone when your roommate does not snore loudly enough? As a compulsive snorer, I prefer a partner who thrashes around in bed and steals the covers. My other talents include talking too loudly, excessive comparison shopping, overthinking my emotions and feeling certain I am right. I hope to complement these assets with a man who is slower to identify his own emotions and liable to fall asleep during important conversations. Preference will be given to short bald men whose communication style involves excessive hyperbole. Will consider imperfect candidates but will not compromise on the “no socks in bed” rule.
The freedom to be this honest with each other and find the situation so entirely hilarious, requires trust. But what does it mean to trust another person? What exactly are you trusting them to do or not do? I would argue, that if we trust anyone at all, we are trusting them to honor boundaries. These boundaries include our individual identity, our personal privacy, our committed relationships and our values. If you are not sure yet that trust is all about respecting boundaries? Think about this: What do we say, when someone violates our trust? We say they have “crossed a line.”
Some relationships are more trusting, some less so. I want to show you three relationship types and where they fit along the trust continuum.
On one end of the continuum, we have a relationship based on doubt. I call this the “Only on Paper” relationship. There is a thick wall separating the couple. This couple values good things like freedom and individuality, but the dysfunction in this marriage is obvious. By default, or by design, both have a secret life that is unknown to their partner. Maybe they are intentionally hiding things or maybe they simply avoid those difficult conversations that are a prerequisite for real trust or intimacy. In a relationship based on doubt, you don’t just hand over your heart. That is too risky. You keep that close. You protect it.
The rules for a relationship based on doubt are as follows:
A friend of mine is in a relationship like this. When I first met her, she talked in positive terms about her marriage. “We have a great story” she said, “and we look good together.” Later she confessed that they had not had sex for over year. “You know how it is, the pregnancy, and the baby, I am just so busy.” One day, out of the blue, her husband told her he was not happy and wanted a divorce. After the initial shock wore off, she realized that she hardly knew him. There was no real intimacy between them. She started working hard to save the marriage. She bought books on how to love him better, sent him cards and gifts to work, cooked amazing meals, suggested marriage counseling and initiated sex every night complete with candlelight and rose petals. He dismissed it all, except the sex. But better sex doesn’t equal a better relationship. Eventually, she suspected an affair. She bugged his car and tracked it with GPS. A private investigator confirmed her suspicions. Then she found a GPS tracker in her car. A secret audio recorder was in the dash. It seems he had his own doubts. Later, she had an affair of her own.
She confessed this all to me at the mall one day. I wrapped my arms around her and told her I loved her and I would not judge her. But I did ask her what she wanted out of life. “You know what I want!” She insisted, “I want what you have, a life and a marriage like yours.” “Then you are going to have to start choosing differently,” I said. “I know, I know.” She immediately broke off her affair.
There is a funny thing about this friend. She knows a bit about Mormons. She asked me recently if I could get her a pair of temple garments in her size. I asked why she wanted funky Mormon underwear, and she had no explanation, “I just do. I really want some. Please!” she begged. “For my birthday.” There was no dissuading her.
So, for her birthday, I bought her some garments in her size. I wrote her name on the plastic packaging and put them in my dresser drawer. I showed her the packages and told her that these were hers, AND they would be waiting for her here in my drawer until the day she goes to the temple. Then, I read aloud a letter I wrote for her about the temple, about faith, and about the choices we make. She cried. We both cried.
Why I am telling you this story, because a trusting marriage always starts with two people who are committed to something bigger than themselves and bigger than their own happiness.
The couple in the doubt relationship is focused on making themselves happy. I can’t think of a worse value for your marriage. Why? Because “people who always want to be happy and pursue it above all else are some of the most miserable people in the world” (Henry Cloud). Real happiness is a result of spiritual and emotional growth. Sometimes that growth is hard and painful. If we shy away, we lose out.
Now, think of our “obligatory reentry fights”. When Bruce and I are in the middle of it, we are definitely NOT happy. But, what if, instead of pointing the finger and saying, “you are not making me happy,” we just realized that getting back together after a long deployment means recalibrating so we can work together again? Just because something is hard, does not mean it’s “bad.” Over the years, we have come to trust each other on this one. Like a headache or a storm, we know it will pass.
Whereas the first relationship type was based on doubt, the second relationship aims for absolute certainty. I call this the “extra special magical love” relationship. The wall that was between the first couple does not exist. Instead we see a rather thick wall encircling the couple. They do everything together. They agree on everything. They seem to function like one and the same person. They value good things, like unity, transparency, and togetherness. On the surface, this looks a lot like the relationship you imagined for yourself as a teenager. As in “my soulmate and I will never fight. We will tell each other all our secrets and we will agree on everything. Then we will live happily ever after without effort.”
Now before you get too excited, I will tell you that the fairy tale relationship is not all the great. Having no boundaries between the partners is a problem. Certainly, transparency in a marriage is a good thing. But what if the pursuit of transparency leaves no room for privacy. What if togetherness leaves no room for outside friendships. What if unity, means you cannot have a different opinion. In such relationships, a different opinion is considered selfish, disloyal, and a betrayal of our “special love.” This is what psychologists call an enmeshed relationship and it blocks growth.
Since no two people are exactly alike, they cannot really merge into one unless one or both surrender their sense of self and become part of the “collective we.” Typically, these are imbalanced relationships, where one person has all the power and the other does all the surrendering. But even if both do the surrendering, the result is dysfunctional. Living entirely for your spouse might sound all romantic, but it will ultimately damage the marriage. I am speaking from experience here, so hold tight and I will get to that. For now, let’s talk about what this relationship looks like in its extreme form.
To maintain a relationship without the ever-present risk of conflict or disagreement, you need a very tightly controlled environment. That is why the walls around the relationship are so thick. Imagine the perfect couple. They are a beautiful, successful and intelligent. The only strange part is that they have no deep bonds with family or former friends. These connections have become strained or have faded out of existence. That is because enmeshed marriages need to deflect outside influences to maintain their amoeba-like merger.
The rules for a relationship based on absolute certainty are as follows:
The expectation of 100% transparency means no personal space, no individuality, and NO PRIVACY. For example, you might not be allowed to speak with your mother unless your partner is on the phone listening in. Or, your partner might take your phone without permission and read through all your messages. In a healthy relationship, you might share such things anyway, but you should be concerned if your partner acts like it is his “right” to monitor you or guilt loads you when would like some privacy.
Trust in this relationship is based on perfect conformity. The pressure to conform usually follows these lines: “If you really loved me, you would…” I can tell you right now, if your partner insists that you have to prove your love by letting go of all your needs and desires, this is not a healthy partnership. In such relationships the justification to conform seems so logical, the goal of unity seems so worthy, the desire for peace seems worth the price of these “small” inconveniences.
A friend of mine described losing her identity in such a marriage. To outsiders, they seemed like the perfect family. Her husband was especially admired. Women approached her privately saying they felt certain her husband would be a general authority someday. But within the marriage, if she voiced her own preferences or desires, her husband used the gospel to shame her for being selfish or immature. Her confidence eventually eroded and she faded into the woodwork. This is devastating. In some ways, it is worse than physical abuse, because if your spouse would just hit you instead of shaming you, you would at least have some tangible evidence to hold up to yourself in the mirror and say, “this bruise is not ok.” Instead, you just admit that you are not yet perfect yet and tell yourself to try harder. After 18 years of trying to be perfect in her marriage, my friend began reclaiming her sense of self. She started establishing personal boundaries, like drawing a circle around herself and saying, this here, this is me. This is who I am. This is what I like. This is what I don’t like. This is what I am willing to do. This is what I am not willing to do. I am ok with this, but that goes too far. This is a reasonable expectation, but that, that crosses the line.
The two relationships at the extremes of the continuum offer no possibility for real trust or intimacy. Both are attempting the avoid the risks associated with a committed relationship. In the first case they had freedom from the limitations of marriage but no shared life. In the second case, they had an intensely shared life but no personal freedom. I am convinced that only in the space between these two opposites is a healthy productive relationship possible.
Real trust and fidelity requires healthy boundaries between and around the couple. Here is our third representative couple. Notice how the boundaries are clearly defined but not closed off. This relationship depends on an honest and, yes, free exchange of information within the marriage and with relationships outside the marriage. This is a relationship that lives in the tension between doubt and certainty. It is a relationship based on faith and one that involves risk. Bruce Hafen stated: “Covenant marriage requires a total leap of faith: they must keep their covenants without knowing what risks that may require of them.”
The rules for a relationship based on faith are as follows:
I will tell you that my husband and I are not perfect at this. I think it is safe to say that there is a little of bit of disfunction in all of us. It’s so easy to blame others for our negative feelings and it’s easy to take their problems or their pain personally. If you find that you tend to be reactive instead of responsive to what others say or do, you probably have a boundary issue.
About ten years ago we had a very difficult time in our marriage. We had a new baby. We had moved to a new home. The housing market crashed. Our jobs were stressful. It seemed like pain was on all sides. We each blamed the other. There were lots of hurtful words between us. I decided my husband was a jerk, and I felt I could not go on. I left in the middle of the night and ended up in the temple parking lot. I wrote down all the terrible insensitive things my husband had said or done. I felt justified in my anger. Eventually, I managed to pray. I waited for an answer, fully expecting God to comfort me. Here’s what I heard: Cindy, it’s time for you to grow up and take responsibility for your own happiness.
The message was clear enough. Yes, we were struggling, but, no, I was not suffering abuse or neglect. The biggest obstacle to my happiness was the problem I was creating by making someone else responsible for my feelings. I lacked healthy boundaries.
Now imagine how this played out. There is stressful event. I perceive my husband’s distress and put all my efforts into pleasing him. But since his happiness does not really depend on me, I fail miserably. I therefore feel rejected, abandoned and alone. I feel he is shutting me out, dismissing my selfless efforts to help.
Now let’s be clear, it’s okay to try and help when your partner is in distress. The problem comes when you feel responsible for his happiness and link your sense of worth to getting the result you want. Because in such a case, the help you offer is emotionally burdened. It is no longer a gift freely given; it’s really just bait with hook in it, obligating the receiver to change to meet your expectations of them.
Under high stress, my husband retreats into himself and focuses on his to do list. I, however, am on the outside clawing at the door, crying about how he does not care about my feelings, nor about my efforts to make him happy. Now he is feeling like a failure too, because despite all his labors, his wife is not satisfied. And since his sense of worth is tied to my appreciation of his accomplishments, he gets defensive. We both feel betrayed and alone. All this distress, because our lack of healthy boundaries means that take each other’s pain personally. Do you see our identities our enmeshed? Our sense of worth is entangled with the other person’s feelings and perceptions. We react defensively to their emotions. As such, we fail to sustain each other in truly helpful ways.
It took us months to put our marriage back together. It was hard work. We were not happy. But we were trying to grow closer and to grow up. We set out to redefine the terms of our marriage. And then, each of us independently wrote a new set of marital vows. Looking back now, we can see that our new promises to each other had everything to do with creating healthy boundaries between us and around the marriage. In this new environment trust and love grew.
Our list of promises to each other are long. If you want to see all of them, you can find them at the end of this post. Here are some examples.
Cindy to Bruce: I promise never to talk down to you, treat you like a child, or reprimand you. (Translation: I will quit trying to be your mom. It is not my job to fix you)
Bruce to Cindy: I promise never to dismiss your feelings, even when I cannot conceive of why you could possibly feel the way you do. (Translation: Sometimes you have ideas I think are crazy, but I will respect them anyway)
We are in no way perfect at keeping our promises. Trust in this relationship is based on growth not perfection. As flawed human beings we are still liable to say or do selfish or hurtful things. Whenever things get rough, we pull out our promises and see if we are living up to them. We invariably find that we had crossed the line in some way and need to reorient ourselves.
If you decide to write promises like this in your relationship, I would give you one caution. Be careful not to make promises that compromise your sense of self. No matter how well-meaning and altruistic, it will likely fail. One of the promises I wrote to Bruce proved to be a total disaster.
Bruce is a VERY private guy. And I am pretty much an open book. Invariably this means that I embarrass him by saying things he deems too private to share. I knew this was hard on him so my first list of promises included this one:
Because you are a private person, I promise never to discuss anything you feel is too private to share with others.
This made things worse rather than better. Try as I might, I could never quite anticipate which things he would consider too private. Each time I failed guess correctly, he felt more betrayed than ever because, now, I was not being true to my word. My distress grew as well. I felt like I was walking around with duct tape on my mouth. I realized that being an open person was such an important part of my identity and sense of purpose in life, that squelching it was like dying. I could not do it. It was not a sustainable promise.
We were at another painful impasse as we realized a rather inconvenient truth about ourselves. We are kind of like a bird and a fish who have fallen in love. One of us needs to fly high in sky, to see and be seen. The other needs to dive deep and thrives in the mysterious darkness of the ocean. The two lovers meet on the surface of the water but neither could live in the other’s world without dying.
In the end, we had to acknowledge that it was an irresolvable conflict. We decided to accept things as is. In our new “AS IS” relationship, we embrace the recurring discomfort of this conflict as the price we are willing to pay to be together. This is the real measure of love and trust. Your willingness to be uncomfortable for the sake of honoring each other’s boundaries.
We rewrote our promises:
Mine said: It is a fundamental part of my identity to be open, just as it is a fundamental part of your identity to be private. We will likely never see eye to eye on this matter, but I promise to bend in your direction whenever I can.
His said: Since I love your uniqueness and everything that singularity entails, I promise to not sort out the pleasant from the unpleasant and promise to take both. Life has a way to weave the two things together.
I think this one statement is probably one of the most loving gifts my husband ever gave me, the permission to be me even when it’s difficult for him.
“When two people are free to disagree, it is safe for love to grow. When they are not free, they live in fear, and love dies” (Boundaries in Marriage by Cloud and Townsend).
It is the honoring of our differences, accepting our imperfections, and striving to grow that makes faithful trusting relationship possible.
Or put another way, President Russell M. Nelson stated: “An ideal marriage is a true partnership between two imperfect people, each striving to complement the other, to keep the commandments, and to do the will of the Lord.“
If you would like to see our entire list of promises to each other, they are listed below. They are unique to our relationship and challenges. Your list, if you choose to make one, will be different. Also, don’t read these promises and think to yourself, “Oh my gosh, they are managing to do all these things?” It is simply not true. We are ASPIRING to do these things. We fail miserably. But we are GROWING in that direction. That is enough for anyone.
I love to hear from my readers, so I hope you will add your thoughts in the comment section below.