Before Boundaries

Many thanks to Cat Etherington at Naked Truth Project, for the idea for this post. As Cat teaches in the Whole Hearted Partners Program webinar on boundaries, some of us need to work on the barriers to boundaries before we try to implement them in the context of our relationship with an SA spouse.

Cat identifies seven impediments to boundaries that we may need to address, which we'll look at over the course of the next couple of weeks.

1. Fear

Many PSAs (partners of sex addicts) have had the experience in the past that challenging their SA spouse on anything is just asking for trouble. Interestingly, the book I'm currently reading on narcissism, The Pandora Problem states that we know we are facing a narcissist when: "we know that saying anything only makes it worse... we have learned from experience that these topics [touching on his behavior] are explosive and best left untouched."

Most of our SAs suffer with varying degrees of narcissism... and thus many PSAs are also victims of narcissistic abuse (usually emotional violence), as well as other forms of domestic violence.

For those who have experienced forms of abuse for bringing up how his behavior is hurting them, it is natural that they would feel afraid of implementing boundaries.

If this is your situation, you will almost certainly need support to work through the reality of your situation, including assessing your level of safety. Support will also be needed when it comes time to implement boundaries. Look for safe church members/leaders, family members and/or friends who are willing to speak to your husband about the boundaries you need (many of which are also good for his recovery anyway). Matthew 18:15-17 gives guidelines on how a healthy church deals with those in sin. In the Pandora Problem, the authors give similar guidelines for a group who wants to help someone who is qasheh (i.e., stiff-necked, rebellious, stubborn) change their ways and become a person of hesed (godly love).

2. Lack of practice using our voice

For many women, keeping quiet is a survival skill learned in childhood. This is because the family rules in most dysfunctional families (including those with addiction) can be summed up as:

  • Don’t feel
  • Don’t trust
  • Don’t speak

And while many of us have survived childhood this way (a time of life when we are indeed, completely powerless), remaining silent is unhelpful in adulthood. And, given the number of safe resources for PSAs today, remaining silent is also unnecessary.

Of course, it doesn't follow that speaking up to our partner is going to be safe (see the first point above). However, for a relationship to be truly healthy both partners need to speak the truth as they see it and feel it, and listen to the other at various times. Moreover, people can learn new patterns of interacting e.g., PSAs can learn to speak, SAs can learn to listen.

If we are aware that one of our barriers to boundaries is a lack of practice using our voice extending back to childhood, professional counseling may be necessary. I recommend that this work be done with someone who also understands the impact of betrayal trauma... because the trauma can add whole new dimensions to this issue.

3. Conditioning that our needs are not important

Similar to the above – growing up in a dysfunctional family or in close contact with a narcissist will drill into children that their needs are not important.

In addition to this we may have been conditioned, within the relationship with our SA spouse, that our needs are not important. Perhaps he has minimized or brushed off our needs or even told us we were selfish for expressing them.

Moreover, those of us who are mothers have experienced the necessity of putting our children’s needs above our own. This is right and proper for a season when they are young. We need to be careful though that “attending first to the needs of the vulnerable in my charge” does not end up equalling in our minds “my needs are not important.” I believe we do our children harm when we allow them (when older), and others, to treat us like a doormat. We set up our girls for abusive relationships with such modeling and our boys to be abusers.

Finally, many of us have been conditioned to believe our needs are not important by a false understanding of scriptural directives (e.g., "dying to ourselves," "presenting ourselves as living sacrifices"). While these directives are true, they have often been misapplied in the church with the result, according to boundaries experts Henry Cloud and John Townsend, that:

“Although they [Christians] had learned a great deal about giving, caring, loving, sacrificing, and forgiving, they had little understanding about other significant issues — what they should and should not take ownership of in a relationship, what choices to fight for, and how not to enable toxic patterns such as addictions, sin, and abuse.”

Cloud and Townsend go on to quote another verse, which needs to be applied in our relationships with an SA spouse: “It is for freedom that Christ set us free; Stand firm, therefore, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

Spending time with people who support the truth that our needs are important— including our need for healthy, meaningful relationships— is the best antidote for the toxic message that our needs don’t matter. Some of the people who will almost undoubtedly help us with this include our support group, partner-trauma counselor or coach… and of course the God who created us with needs and desires that He wants to see fulfilled.


Next week we will continue this series by looking at the boundary barriers hopelessness, inconvenience, low self-worth and reliance on the addict.