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Dr. David Hawkins
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Log in to the Community to tell us how you struggle with setting boundaries. Dr. Hawkins monitors this message board and will respond to some of the issues you raise.
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Nine Critical Mistakes Most Couples MakeNine Critical Mistakes Most Couples Make

Are You Living With Paper Fences in Your Marriage?

Dr. David Hawkins
The Relationship Doctor Boundaries. Fences. Partitions. They perform a vital role in our lives.

I have the benefit of working in an office. Many visitors to “my space” tell me it feels like a living room. “Good thing,” I reply, “because this is where I live much of my life.” The walls of my office allow me to define how I am different from my associates, whose offices are down the hall from mine. My walls, for example, are adorned with pictures of my family. I have pictures of my youngest son, Tyson, and me during a fishing trip to Alaska and a picture of me and my sons on a mountain biking trip to Arizona. You can tell a lot about me by visiting my work space.

Besides defining us, walls keep others out of our space when needed. I can close the door to my office. In other spaces, workers can position their desks in such a way as to suggest, “Knock before you enter.” Walls are very important boundaries, much like fences around yards define private property and protect turf.
Personal boundaries are much like walls and fences. Personal preferences, feelings and thoughts are all examples of boundaries.

When my oldest son, Joshua, was sixteen, he said he needed to talk to me. He approached me quite firmly one evening.

“Dad. You’ve taught me well. I know exactly what you think. I know about your spiritual beliefs and values. But, I am not exactly like you. I need to decide what I believe. It won’t be the same as you because I am different. So, I don’t want you trying to make me just like you. I’m different.”

I stood looking at him, amazed at his maturity. While I would not like all of his decisions in the next several years, he was actively discovering and defining his identity, and doing a good job of it.

We should not be surprised that boundaries are an important topic since they were ordained by God. God established the universe with a certain order and specific boundaries. We read, in the story of creation, that “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the face of the deep.” (Genesis 1: 2) Then something wonderful happened. God created -- and He used boundaries to create. “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” (Genesis 1: 6) God took out His giant color crayon and made definitions between the land, water and heavens.

God created and created. Different animals, different plants and vegetation, different celestial bodies. Then He created His masterpiece. He created man, and ultimately someone quite different from man -- woman.

Just as geographic boundaries help us define where our property begins and ends, emotional, spiritual and physical boundaries help us determine what things are and are not our responsibility. Not understanding this principle is a critical mistake many couples make. Allow me to illustrate.

Kate was a devout Christian woman in her fifties who came to see me for symptoms of depression. Dressed perfectly in matching blouse and skirt, her gray hair neatly styled, she had been struggling with low energy and a lack of enthusiasm for several years. She told me that her friends thought of her as “sweet as honey,” but Kate wondered if any of them really knew her. Odd as it may seem, Kate’s troubles stemmed from her obsession with not hurting anyone’s feelings.

“It’s the way I was raised,” she said. “My mom taught me never to talk back to anyone. She said I should always put other’s needs above my own. That’s the way she lived her life.”

Kate offered an occasional smile when referring to herself as a “proud Southern woman. You never put yourself first, and you always make others comfortable before yourself. It’s the way of the Bible.”

Kate was married to a “strong, independent man, who likes his control.” Now retired, Gene had been a successful businessman, and he demanded a great deal from Kate while giving little in return. For years she enjoyed the benefits of his six-figure salary. She liked entertaining in the spacious, Mediterranean-style home on the hill overlooking the city.

Still, Kate wondered why she was irritable. She wondered why her husband’s dominance made her unsure of herself. She gave numerous examples of how he told her what to do, how to think, and even how to feel. Yet, surprisingly, not until recently did she recognize this as inappropriate -- even taking its toll on her self-esteem.

Kate loves her husband and commonly defers to him in decisions. It was difficult for her to see how his control was having a potent impact on her. In counseling, she discovered that she had actually enabled him to treat her this way. She learned that his violation of her personal boundaries caused her to be unsure of her own thoughts, unaware of her own feelings, insecure about her decisions. Over the years she had even grown wary of making decisions on her own, fearing his subtle ridicule.

Together we explored the notion of healthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries help you:
• Know what you think
• Say ‘yes’ to good things and ‘no’ to bad things
• Make healthy decisions
• Accept that our thoughts are different from others’ points of view
• Take responsibility for our actions, and not the actions of others
• Set limits on others’ intrusions into our lives
• Respect others’ ability to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and honor their decisions

As you can see, boundaries can bring great freedom, especially in marriage. From her work in counseling, Kate learned to calmly, but firmly, tell her husband how her feelings and thoughts differed from his. She practiced letting him know that she wouldn’t always live exactly the way he expected, but would always honor him with her words and actions.

While there have been some tense times in her marriage, Kate and Gene are doing well. They still subscribe to the Biblical mandate to “become one flesh,” but now realize it doesn’t mean being identical twins with identical thoughts. They have discovered that sharing differences, with respect, can bring a new vitality to their marriage.

How are you doing with boundaries? Are you living with paper fences, allowing your mate, or others, to tell you what to think, how to behave and what to feel? Consider sharing with them the concept of personal boundaries, and the importance of individuality within a loving relationship. Learn to enjoy the excitement that appreciating differences can bring to marriage.

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