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Setting Boundaries: Couples Make Each Other a Priority

If you and your partner struggle with setting boundaries with others, you are not alone. Many couples struggle to make their relationship a priority. Forces pulling them to spend time and energy include kids' activities, aging parents, careers, friends and even hobbies and fitness.

Today's busy lives can create conflict for couples. There's so little time just for the two of you. Feeling pulled in many directions can weaken a couple's bond over time.

I'll explore the concept of setting boundaries and how the importance of prioritizing your relationship can make a difference for you -- and your family.

Couples often Struggle with Setting Boundaries

Here are some examples of boundary issues that often challenge couples:

--How much do we help adult children? With financial assistance, babysitting the grandchildren.

--How do we assist aging parents? This can be an issue of time, financial support, living arrangements

-- Time constraints can contribute to arguments. How much time does one partner spend at work? Do both bring work home frequently, leaving the other partner feeling neglected? How much time is spent on electronic devices, such as the Internet, games, etc.?

-- Setting limits with children. How does the couple decide rules for kids? How much time is spent at kids' activities? Can the couple create time for themselves or are pressures from kids limiting time for connection for the couple?

-- Financial agreements. How a couple saves or spends can be the source of disagreements.

--Sharing information outside the marriage. Couples often fail to discuss how issues between the couple might be shared with extended family members. This is often a cause of disagreement when the couple is having difficulties.

"Setting Boundaries" Defined

Boundaries are the rules and limits we set for ourselves -- and as a couple -- in our relationships with others.
couples setting boundaries
Healthy boundaries enable us to say "no" and set limits with others while also allowing us to have closeness and good, positive relationships. Examples include: sharing information in appropriate ways, being able to communicate your wants and needs, being able to say "no" to others and accept when they say "no" to us. We don't feel we have to compromise our values to please others.

Rigid boundaries may keep us distant from others, may prevent closeness with others, both emotionally and physically. We may be hesitant to ask for help, we can seem detached even from our partner and we may keep a distance to avoid rejection.

People with porous boundaries may tend to become over-involved and concerned about others. We can share too much personal information, struggle with saying "no" and may act against our values in order to please others.

Setting Boundaries Can Be a Mixed Bag

Establishing healthy boundaries can be challenging for some people more than others. Much may depend on what we were taught or experienced in our families as we were growing up.

As we mature, we can examine our own ways of connecting to others and determine how we feel comfortable.

Different cultures may have varying traditional boundaries. Some avoid closeness; others freely share information, hugs and connection with family and friends.

Also, each family develops its own style or culture as well. Some families maintain closeness with extended family members, neighbors and friends. Others are more distant.

Types of Boundaries

Several different types of boundaries are common and can include:

--Physical boundaries are how we handle physical touch and personal space. Healthy boundaries include an awareness of what makes others comfortable and how much physical contact you welcome from others. Some of us are "huggers" and easily embrace those close to us. Some people are less comfortable with physical contact.

--Emotional boundaries involve how and what we may share with others. For couples, the sharing of information with friends and family members can be a cause of hurt feelings if not first agreed upon. Poor emotional boundaries can include criticism, blaming and put-downs of others.

--Material boundaries include how we handle money and possessions. If we feel pressured to lend money or an important possession (such as a car), our boundaries help us identify when to set limits.

--Time is also a source of boundary confusion. How and how much time we spend with others can impact any relationship. Couples often neglect to have thorough discussions of how their time will be spent: Pressures to spend time with children and extended family members may leave sparse time for the couple to have to themselves.
boundary setting
--Sexual boundaries. Healthy boundaries around intimacy are discussed between the couple as they evolve in their intimate lives together. Frequency of intimacy and sexual preferences, when discussed, help resolve any differences and enable the couple to continually explore their intimacy desires, including how these may shift over time.

Setting Boundaries as a Couple

Most couples encounter boundary issues at some times in their relationship. The potential for conflict is great. However, the solutions offer the possibility to avoid or minimize arguments and hurt feelings.

Often I find couples have failed to use one crucial step in setting boundaries: Having a meaningful, heartfelt discussion of the emotional feelings underlying the boundary concern.

Sounds simple, I know. Yet, sharing your genuine concerns related to boundaries in a calm, opem manner can lead to new understanding and developing of solutions.

Having a Healthy Boundary-Related Discussion

John and Mary are feeling pressured and overwhelmed. Mary's mother is recovering from surgery and Mary feels guilty if she doesn't visit often, even though her mother has a lot of helpers. Their two kids each need rides to after-school and Saturday activities. John's way of relaxing from his high-pressure job is his favorite video game.

They seek to get to the "heart" of their concerns by having a conversation in which they share their deeper feelings. Here's how their conversation can help them make some positive headway:

Mary discusses her concerns about visiting her mother. John listens, does not try to solve the problem and asks how he can support his wife. Mary says she just needs to be able to tell him about her guilty feelings so she doesn't have to hold them in; that would help her feel more calm when she chooses to visit less frequently.

Mary brings up the kid' activities. Calmly, each expresses his and her feelings, taking time to genuinely hear each other. They agree they need to review the kids' commitments, and they then take out a calendar to see exactly how the schedules look. Then, together they decide to talk to the kids and help everyone set priorities.

Then comes the video game. Mary says, "I know this is a big stress-reliever for you. However, I feel left out and a little hurt and I miss having time with you." John avoids getting defensive and what he is able to hear is how important he is to his wife. Because Mary approaches him softly and he feels loved by her, he's able to agree to play often. He also agrees that he'll let her know if he's feeling stressed so he can share his feelings with her and lessen his own burden.

Mary also agrees to be more vocal about requesting time with him. She knows she won't hold a grudge if she simply tells John she'd like to have some connecting opportunity.

What This Couple Knows

John and Mary are able to calmly discuss their concerns because they've learned to have the type of conversation that gets to their deeper emotions and concerns. They understand the key principles of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, the world's leading and most-successful approach to helping couples reduce arguing and regain trust and close emotional and physical connection.

They've learned to slow down, avoid defensiveness and more deeply understand and appreciate their differences. John and Mary reinforce the strong bond they share with each other.

This couple is able to work toward resolution of issues related to setting boundaries as well as other concerns they face with each other and as a family. As a side benefit, they talk to their children in a similar way. Their kids learn why their parents set rules, how to speak up about their own wants and needs in a positive fashion and how to truly understand each other.


linda-schwartz-therapistLinda Schwartz is a Licensed Professional Counselor who works exclusively with couples and individuals on relationship issues. She uses Emotionally Focused Couple therapy, the most effective approach to helping couples recapture their close connection. You can learn to resolve issues through deepening your understanding of each other's needs. We also work to heal infidelity and any past hurts in the relationship. Linda offers a free, 15-minute phone consultation to answer your questions about the counseling process. She can be reached at (602) 882-0533 or Linda @

Aware Counseling

Linda R. Schwartz, M.Ed., LPC

Aware Counseling & Consulting, LLC

1130 E. Missouri, Phoenix 85014

9260 E. Raintree Drive, Scottsdale 85260

Email Linda