I ask couples to clarify their personal boundaries so that they are more likely to work as partners. When you first start this process, though, it can feel as if you are getting “rejected,” particularly if those boundaries have to do with intimacy issues. Let me help you understand why setting boundaries is an affirmation of your relationship, not rejection.
If you’re not sure what boundaries are, take a look at my book, The ADHD Effect on Marriage, where it’s explained in far greater detail than I can go into here. I have an entire chapter on what boundaries are, how you set them, why it’s important to do so. To illustrate, I use examples from my own journey of improving boundaries in our relationship.
For purposes of this post, though, a simple explanation – boundaries are those guidelines by which YOU YOURSELF live your life in order to be your best you. Unfortunately, when a marriage is in trouble one of the first things we do is “give in” and accommodate the other partner, whittling away at these important boundaries over and over again until we one day look at ourselves and see a person who is almost unrecognizable. You’re in this place if you’re thinking “I used to be so strong! What happened?” or “I used to really like who I was, but now I feel like I’m just cranky or downright mean all the time!” or “I’m not really comfortable having sex with my partner any more, but don’t know how to say this”. Poor definition of boundaries leads us to feel dissatisfied with ourselves and with those who are impinging on our boundaries – often our spouse (but sometimes an unreasonable boss, unruly child, etc.)
If you are in a parent/child relationship, then for sure the boundaries the two of you have are not well enough defined to create a satisfying, adult, partner-to-partner relationship.
SO, a great approach to fixing this is to clarify your boundaries (again – see my book for details about how). But since clear boundaries sometimes mean saying “no” this process can be uncomfortable for your partner. It is particularly uncomfortable for those couples in which one partner starts saying “I’m not ready to have sex with you right now – we need to work things out better, first.” The other partner (often the husband) understandably takes this personally!
I want to urge you to think about it differently, though. Your relationship is marred by dissatisfaction, anger, frustration and this impacts your sexual relationship. Whether or not you’ve talked about this overtly up until this point, if your partner is saying “I need to be in greater control of my body” this indicates that you’ve had a bigger issue than you realize. In fact, part of the REASON you’re relationship is in trouble is this ‘boundary thing’ where one or both of you has been asked to give up too much. To fix the relationship, you MUST get to the root issues underneath the nagging, anger and frustration. That means not only treating ADHD symptoms, treating anger, and building better communication, but also setting boundaries that help you take control of your life again in positive ways.
I see setting boundaries not only as NOT being an act of rejection, but being an act of AFFIRMATION. ‘I care enough about me, and about us, that I’m going to start making some very uncomfortable decisions in order to help us become equal partners again.’
A spouse who is hearing “no” has some options for responding to the new boundary setting:
- Decide to remain angry or hurt by the new attention to boundaries. This will likely create further friction for the two of you, or at a minimum bad feelings that will seep into your lives
- Ignore your partner and insist that nothing change. (An invalidation of a partner’s expressed needs which will send you both hurtling in a negative direction – not a good option!)
- Accept that this is part of the healing process, and ask your partner why he or she felt it was necessary to put up these boundaries…and also ask yourself what boundaries might help you traverse your own life more easily. (I’m not talking “tit for tat” retaliation here, but genuine reflection about what boundaries might help you as you deal with your partner.)
Note that the final option also allows room for discussion and negotiation – so is the path that is most likely to lead to a workable agreement that satisfies you both even if your negotiated solution isn’t yet ideal.
I hope that rather than just instantaneously feel rejected and hurt when a partner puts up new boundaries (or, more accurately, reclaims old ones), all partners will come to see the process of putting boundaries back in place – in essence reclaiming who each of you is at your core – as a healthy step forward. Boundaries help one regain control of one’s life in the most essential ways, which clears a path towards progress and healing.