The Secret to Happy Marriage Is Boundaries

Relationships are difficult, and without meaningful boundaries, you could end up giving or taking too much.

by Jayme Moye

Respect, or more to the point, a lack of mutual respect is a core issue often addressed in couples therapy. Comments like I just don’t feel like she takes me seriously me or I feel like I’m losing myself in him are common examples of someone who’s having difficulty maintaining self-respect in a relationship. Even if a couple isn’t aware that they’re struggling with issues of maintaining self-respect in their marriage, psychotherapist Karol Ward, author of Find Your Inner Voice, says that nearly every couple she works with is dealing with it on some level.

Ward coaches couples that the first step to maintaining self-respect in marriage — or any relationship — is to know your boundaries. And there should be consequences when your partner crosses those lines. The consequence isn’t necessarily leaving the relationship — different boundaries have different weights. The consequence may be letting a wife know that if she’s going to continually be late for dinner because she keeps getting caught up chatting with friends after yoga class, then the family is going to have to start without her.

When someone’s self-respect has been compromised, low-level anxiety about the relationship and an inability to fully relax are warning signs of diminishing self-respect, says Ward. So is holding in mental tension — the kind where you keep ruminating about the relationship — even though “nothing’s wrong.” Another is the persistent feeling of being sad and lonely. “Sadness is a typical response when you’re letting your boundaries get trampled, which in turn can make you feel alone in your relationship,” Ward says.

“One of the things that really chips away at our feelings of self-respect is tolerating what we perceive as disrespectful behavior,” says Ward. “It almost always leads to feelings of resentment toward the other person.”

There are also ways of reframing your thinking that can help avoid the pitfall of losing your self-respect in marriage. One effective technique, according to psychologist Dr. Mark E. Sharp, Ph.D., founder of Aiki Relationship Institute and author of Not Lonely at the Top, is to recognize that, apart from people married to narcissists or sociopaths, the root cause of not feeling respected comes more from the fact that you’re tolerating unwanted behavior, rather than the fact that your partner is a jerk.

This is because both men and women in our culture are socialized to undervalue their own needs in a relationship. For women, it’s the belief that it’s more important to take care of their husband and her family before taking care of herself. For men, it’s the belief that they needs to be the provider, and to make whatever personal sacrifice necessary to take care of his wife and kids.

To ensure these social tendencies don’t lure us into tolerating behavior from our spouse that we otherwise wouldn’t (and losing our self-respect because of it), Sharp coaches couples to think of the relationship as having three entities: the person, their spouse spouse, and the relationship itself. All three must be tended to for the marriage to work. All three hold equal value.

That doesn’t mean that all three hold the same weight at all times. Certain situations require a couple to prioritize one over the others. Consider the example of a job opportunity necessitating one partner to travel 80 percent of the time. The couple may decide it’s too good for that person’s career to pass up, even though the partner at home may suffer from running the household mostly solo, and the relationship runs the risk of becoming disconnected. In that case, the couple would look for ways to proactively counter the impact to the individual at home, and to the relationship, thus tending to all three elements even though one was prioritized higher in the short term. “If two people value and respect each other, themselves, and the relationship, then it’s rarely a simple conversation,” says Sharp, “Healthy relationships aren’t easy.”

The items below, adapted from Ward’s book Find Your Inner Voice, are always damaging to a person’s self-esteem, and if repeated over time, can destroy a relationship. Learn to be vigilant, and if these problems are noticed, root them out early.

1. The Sarcastic Slam

Biting sarcasm is never funny. It’s demeaning, and it can make your partner overly self-critical and damage her self-respect.

2. Fearsome Fury

Rage, that out-of-control form of furious anger, devastates self-esteem — not only for the person on the receiving end, but also the one delivering the anger.

3. Name Calling

Like the sarcastic slam, calling your partner an idiot or a ditz, even if done in a half-joking way, is never good for her self-respect.

4. The Cold Shoulder

Freezing your partner out — that long, punishing type of silence — forces her into a holding pattern, waiting for you to be ready to talk it out. It’s disempowering and belittling.

5. The Counter Punch

She says something negative to you, you return the insult, and back-and-forth it goes like a tennis match. This one hurts everyone, especially when the kids see it.

6. Fountain of Tears

When one person is unable to participate in a disagreement without collapsing into tears, it traps the other into not being able to have their feelings and needs heard. Both people take a hit to their self-respect.

It’s common to feel like self-respect is lost in a marriage. But without discussing it openly and honestly — and interrogating one’s own perspective and internal biases — the issue can be resolved.