Setting Boundaries Gives Your Relationship More Freedom and Security, Not Less

We think of building walls as a negative thing in a relationship, but it doesn’t have to be.
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We think of building walls as a negative thing in a relationship, but it doesn’t have to be.

A note from the author: This is part of my new column for Verily called Tools for an Intentional Marriage. It’s a collection of best practices for moving through your marriage on purpose. I’ll share the best tips, tricks, and ideas that I’ve discovered over my years as a marriage therapist and also as a husband. I hope you’ll collect, use, and even enjoy these tools as you seek to build your own Intentional Marriage.

Boundaries are a funny thing. Most couples I speak to either don’t have any at all, or their sense of boundaries is so limited that it’s stifling. I think most humans intuitively resist boundaries. We’re wired to explore and imagine and experience. We value freedom. In a marriage—especially a new one—it’s easy to feel suffocated and trapped when establishing boundaries. But healthy, agreed-upon boundaries are critical for an intentional relationship. Couples must build walls to protect the relationship from outside forces. They also need to have windows into one another’s lives. These walls are actually designed to both protect us and give us more freedom than we may have otherwise.

Let me use a story to explain how this works.

There’s an urban legend about a schoolyard in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The schoolyard in question was surrounded by three busy avenues, presenting a clear and present danger to children playing during recess. In an effort to protect those children, the school board elected to erect a fence around the playground. It was a relatively ugly fence, inconsistent with the aesthetic of the Upper West Side, so the neighbors lobbied to have it removed. After a few weeks, the fence came down.

As you might guess, the lack of a boundary led to a tragic accident as an eager third-grader chased a ball into the street. But what was observed after the accident was an interesting surprise. You see, just a few days before the accident, while the fence remained, the children had been exploring the edges of the schoolyard, filling its vastness with play and laughter. But today, aware of the danger they had been allowed to ignore, they remained clumped still and safe near the center of the yard. The irony, of course, is that a fence, designed to close off their piece of the world, actually made the playground bigger.

And so you see, a fence provides the same security and freedom in marriage.

Some of the best writing about boundaries comes from the late Dr. Shirley Glass, who happens to be the mother of Ira Glass, of This American Life fame. In her seminal work Not Just Friends: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Sanity After Infidelity, she says:

“Having a clear, easy way to see where the boundaries are at any given moment can bring both friendship and marriage into sharp focus. One way to determine whether a particular friendship is threatening is to ask: Where are the walls, and where are the windows?”

Here Dr. Glass is talking specifically about how to protect your relationship from the threat of inappropriate friendships, but the question is useful as an overall framework for considering boundaries in your relationship.

Let’s Consider Walls First

Ask yourself, and one another, right now: Where do we have effective walls around our relationship to protect it from outside influences? Where do we need them? Have you established clear boundaries with regard to your spending habits? What about work–life balance? What about with your children, in-laws, and friends? Take a personal inventory. Celebrate the places where you’ve already successfully created strong walls, but be sure to look for the vulnerable places as well. Decide what topics are off limits with the in-laws. What is and is not appropriate when hanging out with work friends? Is it okay if it’s one-on-one with a member of the opposite sex? Is lunch OK, but happy hour is off-limits? I might have some opinions about each of these examples above, but what’s most important is that you establish the boundary together.

It may help to do it on your own first, and then compare notes with one another. You may think you’ve done a great job resisting your parents’ presence in your relationship. Wouldn’t you like to know if your partner thought differently? You may think your work friendships are benign, but double check that your partner agrees. By presenting a united front to others in your community, you can also help them respect the boundaries you’ve created. When everyone is clear, an intentional marriage has a much better chance of surviving.

Now Open Some Windows

Dr. Glass often calls them “windows of intimacy,” saying, “When you open up to each other, the window between you allows you to know each other in unfiltered, intimate ways.” Do you have insight into your partner’s world? Does your partner have insight into yours? In an intentional marriage, you work to open those windows as wide as possible. Then you get the broadest view into the life of the one you intend to travel with “until death do us part.” Open windows by asking questions, telling stories, and committing to regular and reliable periods of connection. Schedule “window conversations” if you have to.

When you sense a window closing or a crack in the wall, check it out. It could be a clue that something may have come loose in the relationship. So, it’s not just, “Where are the walls, and where are the windows?” It’s also, “What is the condition of the walls and windows?” Dr. Glass’ metaphor works especially when it’s flipped. Consider, for example, the relationship where walls and windows are reversed. There is a wall between the partners, but others have insight into the relationship. This is a recipe for danger, betrayal, and powerlessness. This is how you end up huddled near the middle of the playground, motivated more by fear than by joy.

Walls and windows are essential to an intentional relationship. Dr. Glass’ advice could not be more clear: “Keep the windows open at home. Put up privacy walls with others who could threaten your marriage.” It may feel confining to think that there are boundaries to your freedom of expression, imagination, enjoyment, and play, but remember, it’s the boundary that actually makes the playground bigger.

Photo Credit: Corynne Olivia Photography