Boundaries: Part 1

Wives of sex addicts, if they reach out for professional or ministerial support, are usually introduced to the concept of ‘boundaries’ fairly promptly. In fact, some of us probably started erecting boundaries in our relationship with our unfaithful spouse before anyone told us there was an official term for what we were doing.

To get a full picture of what boundaries are and how they work best, I recommend Boundaries in Marriage by Doctors Henry Cloud and John Townsend. The long and the short of it: boundaries show what you stand for in this world and what you stand against. They are an important part of personal integrity and (in the case of a betrayed wife) emotional safety.

91% of the over 680 respondents to the 2014/2015 Survey of Wives of Sex Addicts stated that they have communicated limits (or boundaries) to their husband at some time. Said one respondent:

‘It [setting boundaries] helps me to know I can value myself enough to take care of myself in a harmful situation. I am an adult. I can't control my husband but I can respond to his behavior appropriately and in ways that value and take care of myself.’

Nevertheless, many respondents expressed confusion about boundaries. I think there are two major reasons for this.
1. The idea that protecting ourselves and taking a stand against wrongdoing isn't something a wife (or woman) should be doing
2. Debates on control vs. boundaries which can be confusing to those outside of the professional counselling community.

Fear of Controlling

In Your Sexually Addicted Spouse (a ‘must-read’ resource) Marsha Means and Barb Steffens explain how in our traumatic stress reaction to learning of our husband’s infidelity, we become obsessive safety seekers. An obsessive safety seeker is likely to try and control her environment in order to keep herself safe. Does that mean that when erecting boundaries she’s trying to control her spouse… hmm?

There’s a subtle difference between boundaries to keep ourselves safe and boundaries to make him stop certain behaviours. From the outside they may look no different. In fact, they are so hard to distinguish, I’d venture to say that no one but God and the woman herself are likely to know which is motivating her in a given moment (and perhaps our motivations are, frequently, mixed).

An angry sounding ultimatum is more likely to come off as controlling… but I’ve been manipulated in very smooth tones before. Thus, I don’t believe tone is the only giveaway. (As I argue in Beyond Betrayal: ‘how we communicate’ is often very culturally influenced).

Certain counsellors and recovery groups make quite a big deal about wives trying to use boundaries to control their husbands. This is sometimes stated as if it’s the ultimate ‘no-no’.

Let’s face it. Trying to control our husbands would be less of a breach of our wedding vows than say… cheating on him. Thus, I don’t worry when I see a woman acting in ways that could be interpreted as controlling in the early days after discovery (or any time she’s triggered). In Worthy of Her Trust, Jason Martinkus, tells men that controlling behaviour will generally subside in time, as a man helps his wife feel safer, and works to rebuild her trust. I agree. This also goes for our anger and angry communication style.

Sadly, few husbands enter into the trust-rebuilding journey with their wives. And even for those who do, there’s still a place for boundaries. In fact, the husband who is serious about repentance and healing the relationship, puts his own boundaries in place to help protect his wife… and his own recovery.

So whether your husband is engaging recovery or not, please don’t let someone’s accusation that you are being controlling keep you from setting boundaries.

Just remember that ‘controlling’ someone else is ultimately an illusion. If our overall sense of safety depends on someone else’s behaviour, we’ve inadvertently set ourselves up for an unhappy life.

I don’t want to be glib about this though. It is only natural to expect those close to us to adhere to certain ethical standards. It’s equally natural to hurt and feel disoriented when it turns out they haven’t. Those we have made ourselves vulnerable to have the power to hurt us: dreadfully.

But one thing we can learn on this journey is that there is One who will never exploit our vulnerability. One who has made himself completely vulnerable for our sakes. This is the perfect time to learn to make Him our ultimate refuge. Let’s focus in on His love, faithfulness and care for us and put boundaries in place in our marriage that show what we (and He) stand for.

Next post: Common Boundaries Wives (and couples) Set