Boundaries in marriage

By Wendy Kittlitz

Pastor Peter Scazzero, author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, shares a powerful mantra: “As goes the leader’s marriage, so goes the church.” That is at once both awe-inspiring and immensely frightening.

We hear from so many clergy couples experiencing difficulties in their marriages. How can we lead effectively in our churches when our own personal relationships are struggling?How is it that there can be such a disconnect between people who are capable, godly leaders in their professional lives and yet have a hard time being authentically and consistently loving at home? As leaders, we all need to ask ourselves these questions. The pastoral epistles are very clear that those who would lead must be people who can manage their own homes well.

The following quote from Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott’s book Relationships helps explain this all-too-common phenomenon:

“If you try to find intimacy with another person before achieving a sense of identity on your own, all your relationships become an attempt to complete yourself.”

Further insight can be found in Boundaries in Marriage, where Drs. Cloud and Townsend remind us:

“While many dynamics go into producing and maintaining love, over and over again one issue is at the top of the list: boundaries. When boundaries are not established in the beginning of a marriage, or when they break down, marriages break down as well. Or such marriages don’t grow past the initial attractions and transform into real intimacy. They never reach the true ‘knowing’ of each other and the ongoing ability to abide in love and to grow as individuals and as a couple – the long-term fulfillment that was God’s design. For this intimacy to develop and grow, there must be boundaries.”

Some people think of boundaries as the ability to say “No” when appropriate and set limits. That is an important aspect, but we must base our boundaries on a clear sense of who we are and where we begin and end as individuals. I like to ask, “What belongs on my plate?” I am responsible for how I handle my history (both the good and the bad), for owning who I am, for the choices I make and how I relate to others. When I fail to own proper responsibility for these things, I am in danger of violating both my own boundaries and other people’s as well. This especially shows up in our intimate relationships.

Look back to the very first human relationship. Adam told God in the Garden after the Fall that it was his wife’s fault, failing to own what he was responsible for. This happens in intimate relationships every day. Men blame their wives when they choose to behave poorly (e.g., speaking unkindly, yelling, using pornography, acting out sexually or using violence to get their way). Similarly, women blame their husbands when they make poor choices (e.g., lashing out in anger, withholding affection and even sex or seething with resentment instead of honestly communicating their feelings and needs).

We sometimes justify our bad choices when our spouses fail to meet our needs – often without us recognizing that we are doing this. The attitude goes something like this: “I expected this person to fill the empty places in my heart and soul. Now that I have experienced the reality that they don’t (or won’t), I am hurt and disappointed and wounded and perhaps even hopeless that my needs can be met.” In turn, we hurt the very person we have vowed to love.

Having appropriate boundaries in your marriage starts with first knowing yourself and owning what belongs to you: Your feelings, thoughts, choices, behaviours, talents, strengths, weaknesses and needs, as well as understanding how your past impacts who you are now. Then we take all of who we are and recognize that our spouse is a separate and unique individual with all of their own feelings, thoughts, choices, behaviours, talents, strengths, weaknesses, needs and past. They are not us and we are not them. We must recognize and validate this truth in order to achieve real intimacy.

Though we become “one flesh” and have created a new future as a united team, we remain two individuals. We each need to respect and honour both our own self and the self of our spouse as separately but equally valued by God. In a truly mature and intimate marriage, each person can ask to have their expectations met. You can be free to say, “Yes, I can help meet that need today,” or, “No, I have to give my energy to something else right now. I will have to ask you to find another way to get your need met this time.” If each spouse is emotionally healthy and has appropriate boundaries, give-and-take happens and each person can accept the other’s “Yes” and “No” without being devastated because they own responsibility for their individual needs.

The most beautiful part of a Christian marriage is the fact that the two of us are not the only ones in it. We are not solely dependent upon our spouse or even ourselves to get our needs met; we can depend on God to know and enter the deepest places in our souls. As we meet Him in those places, we can be filled in the places where there are gaps between what I can do for myself and what my spouse can do for me (and vice versa). This takes pressure off our marriages to be the only place we can find intimacy and healing.

If you recognize that your marriage is struggling and needs appropriate boundaries, we invite you to call and speak with one of our counsellors. Sometimes we all need a hand with seeing our situations clearly and setting goals to take the next step into greater emotional and relational health. Call our Clergy Care call line at 1.888.5.CLERGY.


Wendy Kittlitz is a registered counsellor and vice-president of counselling and care ministries for Focus on the Family Canada. Wendy is also the Clergy Care program director.

© 2012 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.