Boundaries and Co-Dependence

91% of respondents to the 2014/2015 Survey of Wives of Sex Addicts said they set protective boundaries (i.e. limits or conditions) for their marriage, post discovery.

If one of the main definitions of “co-dependent” is one who doesn’t set protective boundaries (thereby enabling the poisonous behavior), then that’s clearly not the right term for us. Of course there are wives of sex addicts who do fail with boundaries (e.g., we fail to set them, or to follow through on consequences for breaking them). However, as I’ll discuss in future posts, in such cases we are often dealing with complex issues. Those issues, can, however be addressed… so that they are overcome. Assuming a woman’s motivations are wrong and then shaming her into different behaviors by applying a demeaning label… not actually helpful. In fact, this can compound our trauma.

Boundaries vs. Rules

If you haven’t yet been introduced to the concept of healthy boundaries, these refer to limits the non-abusive person in the relationship sets, and consequences for exceeding these limits. Some people refer to them as personal or house “rules” — though these people then risk being beaten over the head by their counselor (with the “co-dependent” stick), because almost every counselor balks at this term.

The reason for the quibbling over semantics (boundaries vs. limits vs. rules) is simply that many feel boundaries can be done for right reasons… and they can be done for wrong ones. The term “rules,” with its connotation of something that is imposed on others, seems to some to reflect that wrong motivation more. Control, punishment, revenge – as tempting as they may be with a destructive person in the family – just don’t tend to succeed. At the end of the day, no one can control another person. And, even if we succeed in forcing a behavioral change, the relationship is unlikely to benefit. Nor are we.

The Need for Protection

A better reason to erect boundaries is to protect ourselves. As it so happens, wives of sex addicts are, almost to a one, seeking safety. Now, are our motivations completely unmixed 100% of the time? Probably not. However, purer, higher motives are something to work toward. And in the meantime, it’s amazing how often protective boundaries look the same as "the rules" – whatever the wife’s motivation.

As one survey respondent said: "[I] felt an intense need to create safety for myself. I needed as much information as possible about his acting out so I could be on guard of anything that might lead to more acting out so I wouldn't be blindsided by the devastation the pain of it caused. Everything considered co-dependent was NOT. It was, and is, me needing to protect myself by being prepared as much as possible as well as being able to get what I needed to heal."

Another survey respondent stated: “I couldn’t communicate to counsellors/therapists the depth of these emotions and they continued to address my symptoms as co-dependent and I never got better. The SA/SAA world put my husband on an opposite team as me… Their demand for "privacy" was, for me, another version of secrecy — e.g. sending pictures outside the SAA meeting place to prove he was there was, per the SAA group, “relapse behavior.” For me it was knowing that he wasn’t lying about going since this was what had happened before.”

So while the “rules” and “boundaries” may look no different to our addict husbands (or to those with the stick), there’s a subtle, and important difference for us. Rules imply control – they succeed when our husbands exhibit only those behaviors we desire. This may create a sense of safety for a time, but it will not cause growth or transformation in either party, or in the relationship. Boundaries and consequences imply protection of the more vulnerable party from abuse. When applied consistently, they invariably succeed… even if the marriage ends.

Boundaries with God's Help

Thus, if you’re looking for safety (even if your motives are mixed at times), don’t let anyone shame you into giving up boundaries. Don’t let them tell you that you’re acting like a bad, old co-dependent trying to control your husband. No one knows your motives but you and God. I encourage you to keep running your boundary requests by Him. He wants you and your children safe as well. He will help your motivations to stick to the positive (protection) and steer clear of the negative (control, revenge).


This week I helped run the IACSAS (international association of certified sex addiction specialists) certification conference in Auckland, New Zealand. As part of that event, the Australia/New Zealand version of Beyond Betrayal was launched with the video below (a compilation of the other three recently released on this site, but with an extra section at the end). Please feel free to share with those in your community (e.g. pastors, counsellors...)