“Boundaries” isn’t the most romantic word, is it?
Or at least it’s not the first word that comes to mind when you think about the qualities of a successful marriage. Talking about boundaries doesn’t get us as starry-eyed as talking about love, passion and devotion.
But boundaries are essential. A recent article called “What Are Healthy Boundaries To Set In Relationships? 15 People Reveal Their Wisest Guidelines” got me thinking about the different kinds of boundaries we can set in our marriages and why they’re so beneficial.
Boundaries around Your Individuality
Is your whole life about your marriage and family? Is your husband your only source of emotional support? Do you neglect your health, your basic needs or the hobbies and interests you had before you got married? Then you need some healthier boundaries around your sense of self.
Maintaining a strong sense of yourself isn’t selfish. Neither is tending to your own needs on a regular basis. The reality is that nurturing your independence makes you a better partner. You take pressure off your husband because you’re not looking to him to fulfill all of your needs.
Having a life outside your marriage can also bring fresh energy into your marriage by giving you other experiences to share with your spouse besides the household chores. Your separateness also sends a strong message about how much you value yourself – and that can make you much more attractive to your husband. You may even lower the chances one of you will have an affair. Psychotherapist and bestselling author Esther Perel believes that many people stray from their marriages because they are trying to recapture a part of themselves they lost by getting married.
Boundaries around Privacy
True love doesn’t necessarily equal being a completely open book. You and your husband can have very different boundaries around privacy.
For example, let’s say both you and your husband were married before. You feel comfortable talking freely about your ex with your husband. No detail is off limits. On the other hand, your husband is more reticent in talking about his previous marriage. He does share information that’s relevant to your relationship – like how his ex’s overspending affects his behaviors around money in your relationship. But overall he keeps most things about his first marriage private.
Your approach may baffle him, and vice-versa. But neither of you is necessarily wrong. The important thing is that you can each maintain the privacy boundaries that feel healthy to you and that you understand and respect each other’s boundaries.
Boundaries around Behavior
Every marriage has rules about off-limits behaviors, whether those rules are spoken or not. Almost all of us would agree that having sex with other people and physically or emotionally abusing your spouse are clear boundary violations in a marriage.
But beyond these common rules, there are some other, lesser-known boundaries that are critical to a healthy marriage. Specifically, fighting dirty and openly disrespectful behavior should be unacceptable in your marriage. Displaying contempt is one of the top warning signs that your relationship is headed for divorce. Tolerating disrespect in any form will ultimately damage your relationship, so it is vital you put some clear boundaries around it.
Other behavior boundaries in marriage are important to negotiate. For example, different couples might set different boundaries around social media use. You may need to discuss how you feel about each of you having friends of the opposite sex. You may even have boundaries you want to set around how often you have sex or how household responsibilities are shared.
It’s essential to talk about what the boundaries are in your marriage and to make sure that you’re both playing from the same rule book.
This week, take some time to think about the boundaries in your marriage. Are there any boundaries you want to change? Are there boundaries that you and your husband need to communicate more about?
You can get more useful insights on boundaries and other ways to keep your marriage healthy in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
Whatever you’re doing right now, take a quick break to watch this video of older women looking back on their lives and reflecting on what’s really important. It’ll take just a couple of minutes.
One thing that’s especially poignant and fascinating about this video is that the women point out that standards are different now than when they were younger and that there’s an expectation of “perfection” in the culture that they didn’t have to contend with.
Take parenting. Did you know that even though more women are in the workforce now, we spend more time with our children than women did in the past? We also deal daily with what seems like an ever-longer list of things we are supposed to do to parent the “right” way.
And then there’s social media, which can make it seem like you’re the only mom without exciting vacations, overachieving children, a blissful marriage, the ideal job, magazine-worthy meals and flawless holiday decorations.
When we constantly chase perfection, we miss the flawed but, in many ways, lovely lives we already have. That isn’t to say, of course, that you shouldn’t pursue what’s important to you in life, whether that’s career fulfillment or a strong marriage. But as you do, remember to get out of your head and come into the present moment with the people you love and life you’ve created.
Amid all the doing, take time for simply being. Right here. Right now.
As the women in the video remind us, the years will pass quickly. And you don’t get a second chance to recapture the moments you lost.
What were your thoughts watching this video? Let me know in the comments or connect with me on Facebook to continue the conversation.
When a woman makes the choice to marry, to have children,
in one way her life begins but in another way it stops.
You build a life of details.
You become a mother, a wife and you stop and
stay steady so that your children can move.
And when they leave they take
your life of details with them.
And then you’re expected to move again
only you don’t remember what moves you because
no one has asked in so long.
Not even yourself.
~ Francesca ~ The Bridges of Madison County
You probably know about the importance of diversifying when it comes to your finances. You understand, for example, that it’s unwise to have all of your money invested in the stock of one company.
But diversification is also important to keep in mind for your marriage. I was reminded of this truth while listening to a recent NPR Hidden Brain segment with Shankar Vedantam. He spoke with Eli Finkel, a social psychologist at Northwestern University, about how our rising expectations of marriage can create problems in our relationships.
Here’s how Finkel explains it. Before you got married, you likely turned to a wider circle of people to fill your different needs as a person. For example, you had fun nights out with your neighbors, you talked about your goals with your favorite colleagues, you kept fit with your yoga class and you confided in your best friend from college. If you still have that variety of people in your life, pat yourself on the back. What tends to happen when we marry, though, is that our circles shrink. The perception has built up in our culture that your spouse should be able to be everything to you since he’s your “soul mate.”
We haven’t always thought about marriage in such exalted terms. If you read my blog post about psychotherapist and author Esther Perel, Finkel’s ideas might remind you of hers. Perel writes:
We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, respectability, property, and children—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends and trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot.
We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. We expect comfort and edge, familiarity and novelty, continuity and surprise. We have conjured up a new Olympus, where love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh so exciting, with one person, for the long haul. And the long haul keeps getting longer.
This all puts a lot of pressure on our marriages. And, sadly, it can even set you up for added heartbreak if you lose a spouse to divorce or death. Kristi Williams, an Ohio State University sociologist and editor of The Journal of Marriage and Family, believes that many of the problems divorced or widowed people suffer are because they over-relied on their spouse.
You will be happier and your marriage will be healthier if you can diversify your relationship portfolio. Here are a couple of ideas to try.
It’s easy to forget one of the most important relationships — the one you have with yourself. If you feel that you’ve lost some of who you are since you’ve been married, start making it a priority to be yourself and value yourself. Do your own thing sometimes. Take a class in something you’re interested in, even if it’s not his thing and he doesn’t want to join you. Revisit the dreams and interests you’ve been neglecting. You’ll feel more engaged and alive, which — bonus! — makes you more attractive to your husband.
You can also start rekindling some of the relationships you’ve let slide to the back burner. Elaine Cheung of Northwestern University has found that having a larger array of relationships to help you manage all the emotions of life makes you happier. And when you have additional emotional support sources besides your husband, you’re more likely to appreciate the unique role he does play in your life.
For more ideas like these, pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love. It’s a comprehensive guide to caring for your marriage and yourself.
With Valentine’s Day coming up, are you looking for a romantic gift for your husband? I’ve got an unconventional idea for you.
Pick up a Chinese Finger Trap. Remember this tricky little toy from when you were a kid? If you do, chances are you also remember that the way out of the trap is counterintuitive. Once you have your fingers in the trap, pulling hard in opposite directions to get them out won’t work. The trap loosens only when you relax and gently slide your fingers out.
That’s actually a great metaphor for the relationship patterns we can find ourselves stuck in. You know how it goes: One partner habitually does something and the other always has the same knee-jerk reaction. The same old back-and-forth leads to the same old fights.
Just as with the finger trap, the only way to escape relationship traps is to pause before you engage in your familiar, instinctive reactions. Relax and ease into doing something different. Breaking the automatic pattern, gives you the power to make a deliberate choice about what you want to do next.
The Chinese Finger Trap may not seem like the most romantic gift, but it can be a gentle visual reminder of the power of being thoughtful and calm in your relationship, rather than fighting furiously when your buttons are pushed.
Want to learn more about breaking out of relationship traps? You may enjoy my past blog articles on chasing and complaining, two common destructive patterns that can also keep you trapped.
You might have seen this humorous bit of wisdom in your social media feeds:
Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. Including you. – Anne Lamott
There’s a lot to be said for those wise words. Give yourself breaks from the technology that seems to overtake our lives sometimes. It’s one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself and for your relationships.
Doing vs. Being
We live in a culture of busyness. Nothing demonstrates that more than our connection to our devices. We always seem to be scanning for new emails, texts and social media posts – a constant stream of information and things to do.
Living this way, though, makes it difficult to thrive.
Our brains function in two modes. The first one is doing. When we’re in doing mode, we’re focused on our goals, or we’re thinking about something that’s already happened. We’re either planning the future or reflecting on the past in some way.
The other mode is being. In being mode, we’re fully present and engaged with what’s right in front of us. Perhaps that’s feeling invigorated by a morning run or having a pleasant, intimate moment with your spouse.
The Problem with being Stuck
The technology we’re surrounded by these days makes it easy to get stuck in doing mode. The brain loves new information and it’s now possible to have a constant stream of it, day or night. It can be extremely difficult to unplug from this constant stimulation.
However, one of the inevitable problems when we spend too much time in doing mode is becoming emotionally off balance. Our brains need stimulation, but also rest and restoration.
Imagine your brain is like a snow globe. Too much doing leaves your brain feeling like the snow globe has been shaken up. It’s difficult to see clearly what’s going on in your life. You’ll make worse decisions, be emotionally more reactive, and be much harder to connect with.
We need to spend time in being mode to bring our brains back into balance. But a lot of us have the tendency to just keep pushing harder and harder, doing one thing after another. And our ever-present technology makes that even easier. Times we might have been forced to take a break in the past (for example, commuting or standing in line) we now fill with even more doing.
This just isn’t a sustainable way to live.
We have to fight our tendency to think that things will be better if we can just do more. In fact, the opposite is true. If your life is feeling out of whack right now, I’m willing to bet it’s not because of the things you need to do. Instead, you’re probably craving more time just to be.
Make a list of things that pull you into the state of feeling present and engaged. Some common activities that can get us back into being mode are listening to music, exercising or moving in other ways, praying, meditating or deep breathing. Art, engaging a loved hobby, or being in nature can also help bring us into the present.
But if the thought of adding one more activity (even beneficial ones like these) to your day makes your head spin, you can turn anything you already do into one that mentally restores you. When you’re eating, put down your phone, pull yourself into the present, and actually taste your food. When you’re walking from your car to your office, refrain from checking your email, take a deep breath, and just notice the world around you.
Experiment some with unplugging this week. As you spend more time in being mode, you should feel emotionally steadier and less stressed. And you’ll probably also notice that you’re more present for the important people in your life.