I just finished your book The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, and learned a lot. But I also noticed that one of your research findings is the importance of not holding anything back emotionally. Yet I’m also reading Boundaries in Marriage by Henry Cloud. It feels like a tension there between his conclusion and yours. Can’t boundaries be a healthy part of a happy marriage?
-Out of Bounds
Dear Out of Bounds –
Well, first… thanks for your kind words about my book! I almost always tackle personal advice here, but you raise a great question that we’ve heard from many others so I wanted to address it. And please keep in mind: I’m not a counselor! But here’s what I’ve seen in the research.
When I talk about the danger of holding back emotionally and not being “all in,” I’m specifically talking about situations where a spouse is doing things like holding back their heart, keeping secrets, sharing things with a friend that they don’t share with their spouse, or having a secret bank account in order to not fully commit simply because they don’t want to, or because they have a hard time giving their full trust. (“What happens if he flakes out on me? I’ve got to have a stash on the side just in case.”). I’m not talking about someone who is fully committed to the relationship but must set up guardrails around a difficult situation – like, for example, someone who has a separate bank account because her husband has gambled away the family savings.
Big picture: there’s a huge difference between “drawing a boundary” and “holding back.”
What we normally think of as “boundaries” are only healthy for a marriage if they are set up with the goal of not just protecting a person but also protecting the relationship.
Even in a really serious case — like, say, a marriage suffering from the husband’s volatile anger — a healthy boundaries-oriented protection for the wife (“If you start shouting, you will need to find somewhere else to sleep tonight”) has the broader goal of trying to teach healthy behavior and ultimately heal the relationship. Of course there are going to be cases (abuse being one!) where protecting the person has to take priority even if it means hurting the relationship. But in most other cases, people don’t want the relationship to be hurt!
All of which means that yes, actual boundaries can be used in a healthy, happy marriage, but those situations are probably limited to smaller boundaries that are purposefully designed to keep the relationship healthy.
For example, let me share an actual example I heard from a happy couple I’ll call Rick and Joanie who have been married 30 years. When they were in their first year of marriage, Rick saw a common pattern. Something would happen, he would suspect Joanie wasn’t happy, and he didn’t understand why or what he did to make her mad, and so didn’t know how to address it and prevent it happening the next time. He would ask “Are you okay?” and Joanie would turn away and say in a clipped voice, “I’m fine.” Now, he knew she wasn’t fine, she knew she wasn’t fine, and they weren’t getting anywhere. Rick wasn’t a mind reader. So after a few months, Rick put a boundary in place. He said, “I’m not going to play games; if I ask ‘are you okay?’ and you say ‘I’m fine’, I’m going to believe your words.”
That boundary worked well. Joanie realized she needed to be more honest, and share what was going on. And it drew them closer.
Any “boundaries” other than those designed to protect the relationship are likely to cause problems, not solve them.
To get a counselor’s “read” on this, I shared your question with Kim Anderson, a licensed counselor in the Nashville area.
Let me conclude with what she wrote back to me:
In marriage it is essential that we are “all in”, and that we don’t hold anything back emotionally. When we hold back a part of ourselves, we lose the opportunity for the true intimacy that we can have with our spouse. Until we can be open, honest and vulnerable, we can’t experience the beauty that comes from an emotionally healthy relationship.
When we don’t hold back, it means we are willing to show up in our flaws, in our sins, in our guck, so that we can be seen and loved for who we are, not for the mask that we might wear in public. It does not mean that we don’t still have boundaries, or areas in our lives that are ours. It means that we show up, we do the work, and we keep the mask off.
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Shaunti Feldhahn is the best-selling author of eye-opening, research-based books about men, women and relationships, including For Women Only, For Men Only, the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage, and her newest book, Through A Man’s Eyes. A Harvard-trained social researcher and popular speaker, her ﬁndings are regularly featured in media as diverse as The Today Show, Focus on the Family, and the New York Times. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.