Boundaries in Marriage

Scene One: 

Both of you are laying in bed, reading. It's 10:15 pm

Suddenly, your sister appears at the foot of the bed. She is crying.

"The date was dreadful. It ended at 9:30. I can't BELIEVE another bad date!!!"

How did she let herself in?

You know how inappropriate that is.

  • How could she just walk in here, at this hour, and demand attention?
  • How did she get the key?
  • What makes her think it's perfectly okay to just invade without permission?

And that romantic move you were about to pull? Out the window.

The conversation goes on for way, way too long. Even you know this. Your spouse's face has turned from mild annoyance to active agitation, and then real anger. You know what to expect when the conversation ends.

It's a repeat of an earlier argument.

Scene Two:

You are out together eating lunch. It's Saturday, and the day is beautiful, so you sit outside. Janet from work walks over, and pulls up a seat.

"What's up?" she asks, with no obvious awareness that she's just barged in on a private lunch. 

"Nothin'..." you reply, making matters much, much worse:

"What's up with you?"

Suddenly, your spouse could be the outsider, the intruder, and you're having lunch with Janet.

 Janet stays for 20 minutes.

You talk to each other about things your wife knows nothing about: Work stuff, the jerky thing your boss did last Tuesday, the client you have to both woo next Friday. And how hysterical that email was, that went around.

You let out a quiet chuckle. 

Occasionally, you look over at your spouse, during a lull in the conversation. You try to ask some questions, to try to distract her from unavoidable Janet's presence. 

"You're likin' the meal?" and she gives you a one word answer and looks upset.

When Janet finally leaves, you know what to expect.

"Janet's married!"  you say, a bit defensively.

It's a repeat of an earlier argument.


Scene Three:

You get up to go to the bathroom at dinner.  When you return, your friend Janet has left a photo on your dinner table. It's a picture of her partying with her friends. Her breasts are very prominently featured. She looks drunk.

Underneath the photo, she's written:

"Having such a blast tonight... Wish you were here!"

Your wife has seen the photo, obviously.

She asks:

  • "What's this?"
  • Why did she leave this here for you?"
  • "Why does she think it's perfectly okay to walk in here and leave this photograph for you?"
  • "Who does she think she is?"

It's a repeat of an earlier argument.

A man holds a ringing phone showing a caller ID picture of a scantily dressed woman

Scene Four:

A former boyfriend suddenly appears and joins you and your friends at a bar, during Lady's Night Out.

You chat.  

It was "no big deal." 

You broke up with him fifteen years ago.

You forgot to mention it when you came home. No big whoop.

It's hard to remember how long he stayed:  30 minutes? An hour?

It was harmless flirting, and besides, your girlfriends were all there.

When one of your friends mentions he was there to your husband, your husband seems very upset.

He confronts you.

It's a repeat of an earlier argument.


Scene Five

You know he'll be there at an upcoming professional conference. You've been chatting on the phone about it. You sent him a photo of yourself, so he'd remember you.

He sent you a single red rose.

Every time he calls (and the calls are becoming more frequent, later at night, and now on weekends...) the conversations are a bit longer. More about your feelings about your life, your career, your family.

Your spouse insists on coming to the conference. He demands you stop taking the man's calls. 

You call him "controlling."

It's a repeat of an earlier argument.


When it's in person, or even over the phone, it seems clearer that some boundary has been crossed. And to make matters worse, you haven't stepped up to re-establish that broken boundary with the interloper. You haven't even acknowledge that a boundary HAS been broken.

However, like an invisible white rabbit, when the intruder comes in through your mobile phone, laptop, or tablet, it sometimes gets confusing what exactly is happening. 

It seems innocent. You are just replying to a text. You are just answering an email. You are just looking at a website. You are just sending a pixel rose. 

While every couple needs to be able to calmly establish these sorts of boundaries in real life, they become more blurry in the virtual world.

They look more clearly like a boundary violation when they're taken out of the virtual world.


In Scene One

The conversation may need to be about when you both "shut off" the outside world, and keep intimate time alone, together. In the olden days, even true emergencies waited until the morning light. If your sister did show up, you'd both have an easier time telling her if or when she could stop by without calling.

Social phone skills means the capacity to not answer the phone, turn off the ringer, and feel fine about it. Maybe listen to the message before you do. Better still, maybe leave the cellphone outside of the bedroom.


In Scene Two

A text is a more intimate form of conversation, reserved for your family, your closest friends, and your spouse. Why does this woman believe she has the right to text you outside of work hours or at all? 

Social texting skills means not encouraging the behavior by delaying your response until normal work hours, reinforcing your bond by mentioning you can't talk as you are out with your spouse, or simply not responding at all. You can easily explain that you leave work for work time and family for family time, once you see her again on Monday.

Nothing personal.

There are ways to shut off text or Slack (et al) messages until working hours you and your spouse agree on. Use technology instead of technology using you.


In Scene Three

The boundary violation is more severe. The woman obviously believes she can "pull you in" to her party life. Perhaps she has feelings for you even SHE doesn't understand. 

Seek your spouse's counsel about how to respond. If you truly have nothing to hide, be more concerned about your wife's feelings, than about how this work-mate might take to being snubbed. What if you respond as a couple:

"Hi Janet, Abbie and I wish we could join you, but we're having a great time together, alone. See you Monday!"

Consider crafting your response to the photo together. Then block her from texting and ask her to use a work email for correspondence.

Nothing personal, Janet.

And if she mocks you for having a "ball and chain," tell her your wife is an "anchor" that keeps you grounded and sane, and you wish her that same level of emotional connection with someone special, too.

Then change the subject.

It's not about whether or not you "invited" her to get personal. It's about her feeling entitled to do so. And how both of you re-establish the boundary that this woman should have known were there to begin with.


In Scene Four

Shared Facebook accounts put a quick end to these sorts of misunderstandings.

"Barbara & Bob's Facebook" may seem a bit like "too much togetherness," but it sends a clear message.

Know the  facts and figures about Facebook Affairs. How they start, how damaging they are, and how insidious they eat away at marital intimacy.

These facts, especially from divorce attorneys, are likely to shock you, as much as they did us.

At the very least, reach an understanding to ignore private texts from old beau's, and make sure your spouse chimes in on flirtatious banter in a positive but clearly territorial way:

"Ya, Bob, my wife is the most beautiful creature on earth, especially to me. I remind her of it daily..."

No need to be rude or aggressive to get your message across. This Facebook old beau is just testing the waters. Tell him it's as cold as the stuff surrounding Alcatraz Island.

Or it should be.


In Scene Five

A pixel rose is still a rose. A chat is a phone call. A photo is a photo in any context, regardless of how it is delivered. 

If you feel a twinge of regret when your spouse wants to attend that conference, give that some careful thought. 

  • Just how anxious are you to see that old colleague?
  • How clear did you make it that you were (so!) happily married?
  • Treat any feelings you have for this meet-up as a sign that maybe you need to do some re-connecting and intimacy building with the man who is (or should be) your best friend.

Sue Johnson said it best when she said that the essential element of a happy marriage is:

"Emotional responsiveness...Emotional responsiveness means that you have enough trust, and emotional connection between the two of know how to turn toward each other, reach for each other, when it really matters. You have what we would call "Secure Attachment."... 

     "Are you there for me?" 
     "Do I matter to you?"
     "Am I special?"
     "Will you cherish me?"
     "Will I come first with you?"
     "If I need, if I call, will you come?"

The next time you find yourself in a fight about a text, a photo, or an email, ask yourself not:

  • "Why is my spouse so controlling?"

But instead:

  • Have I been sending the right messages to them about how important they are in my life?
  • Do they feel like the most important person to me? Ahead of work, friends, or even children?
  • Am I able to give my undivided attention to them for some period every day?
  • Do I know their worries and concerns?
  • Have I been reaching out each day to tell them how much they mean to me?

Your capacity to know where the doors to your marital house are, and who to let in, will transform your relationship.

About the Author Dr. K

Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her Intensive Couples Therapy practice over the winter in Miami, Fl and the rest of the year on the edge of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. She is a Gottman Certified Couples Therapist, has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and is a board-certified sex therapist.

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