Focus on the Family

Focus on the Family with Jim Daly

Establishing Healthy Boundaries in Your Marriage

Establishing Healthy Boundaries in Your Marriage

Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend explain what healthy boundaries in marriage are, and offer practical advice for establishing those boundaries and re-establishing them if they've been broken.

Original Air Date: September 28, 2012



Dr. Henry Cloud: It’s really the fruit of self-control, because the Bible tells all of us that we have to have self-control. Now what happens is, if somebody is not takin’ responsibility for their life, whenever we don’t do that, there’s collateral damage in a relationship.

End of Excerpt

John Fuller: Self-control is something we don’t talk much about in the context of marriage, but it’s such an important spiritual truth. And that’s Dr. Henry Cloud, who, along with Dr. John Townsend, is probably best known for writing the landmark series of books about boundaries. We’ll hear a lot more from Drs. Cloud and Townsend on today’s Focus on the Family. Thanks for joining us; your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly and I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: John, this is a critical message for our culture today because in our ‘anything goes’ society, we see the tragic results of broken commitments in marriage and unbridled lust. People living by their own standards instead of any kind of morality driving their decision-making. We need self-control more than ever and I think it’s self-evident, but even us Christians, maybe especially as Christians, we need that. And why? So the world can see the difference God makes in our lives! The Bible tells us that self-control is evidence of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts and we need to be a faithful witness of that in how we communicate and interact with each other.

We’ve mentioned before, this is the 40th anniversary of Focus on the Family. We’ve been featuring some of our favorite guests and topics that have been so helpful and encouraging to families throughout the decades and John Townsend along with Henry Cloud are certainly among the finest guests we’ve ever had on the program.

John: I would have to agree; they have been great friends to this ministry since back in the late 80s and they’re premier psychologists, leadership experts and best-selling authors.

Jim: Not to mention believers in Christ!

John: Well, certainly, that is a key component of who they are and what they do– in fact, that really is the foundation of what they teach from is the Scripture, especially as they address the context of marriage and family relationships. And a few years ago, John and Henry joined us at a marriage conference in Colorado; it was at the famous Broadmoor Hotel– a very memorable night. And we explored some themes from their book, Boundaries in Marriage. here’s more from that presentation today on Focus on the Family.


Jim: Dr. Townsend and Dr. Cloud, let’s start there. Uh … how can boundaries … what are boundaries and how can they be set?

Henry: Basically a boundary’s a property line. You know, if you think of your house, you … you’ve got a fence around it and then you’ve got a neighbor. And so, all a boundary does is tells us where one person ends and another begins. Now when you talk about becoming one in marriage, uh … that concept is throughout the universe, that you know, God is one God, but there’s three Persons with distinct identities. Marriage is somethin’ like that.

Jim: Do uh … you have an example? Where would uh … in a marriage, where does a boundary break down?

Dr. John Townsend: A lot of times it breaks down when one person tries to take responsibility for or control something in another person’s property line.

You know, when you go to Genesis, you kind of quoted that … that part about, you know, we’re one flesh, it does say “one flesh.” It says one flesh; it doesn’t say “one soul.” There’s two souls. You gotta start in the beginning there. We are one flesh in the marital bond, but it’s two souls. So, when one person’s soul comes into another person’s soul, you got a problem. For example…

Um … one person um … has some sad emotions. They … they’ve got a struggle, a struggle with the kids or whatever and the other person says, “Well, you know, I don’t think you oughta feel that way. You know, I know, now husbands never do that. But if husbands (Laughter) did do that and try to give advice and sort of try to fix it, you know, what a husband needs to do to respect the wife’s boundaries is to say, you know, “How can I help you? Let me listen to you.” As opposed to you [saying], “You’ve got a problem called ‘sad emotions.’ Let me fix ‘em.” He’s crossing into her yard and tryin’ to control somethin’ that God never intended. `

So, when couples really love each other and feel like it’s okay to have those two separate properties, they can connect. They can love each other, can support each other, but they each are responsible for their lives.

Jim: Hm.

Henry: It’s really the fruit of self-control, because the Bible tells all of us that we have to have self-control. Now what happens is, if somebody is not takin’ responsibility for their life, whenever we don’t do that, there’s collateral damage in a relationship.

See, if we are in control of ourselves, we’re in control of our feelings, our attitudes, our behaviors, our choices, then damage doesn’t fall over the fence, you know, over our property into the people’s property that we love. And so, if you think about, you know, way back in the Garden of Eden, that’s when we stopped takin’ responsibility. God comes to them and says, “What’s goin’ on here?” Adam says, “It’s the woman you gave me.”

Jim: Uh-hm.

Henry: Okay? And then He goes to her, “Well, you know, it’s the serpent,” right? And so, what we do as humans, is we blame. Okay, so take that into the kitchen.

He comes in and he kind of like, you know, is not in a good mood and she goes … instead of, you know, a good sort of speakin’ the truth in love, like what’s wrong or whatever, she feels hurt by that. She comes back at him like, “Well, aren’t we in a great mood today?” And then he takes that as criticism and instead of giving something better back, he … and … and they’re just in it at that point.

And this basic human tendency for us to not back up and take responsibility for, if you’ve hurt my feelings, give something better than we got and take ownership and responsibility and self-control and love, then that’s the only way we turn it around.

Jim: Well, let’s role play that, because uh … to be honest, Jean and I can get into that and it’s so natural and I don’t know if it’s simply our human state, that we tend to fall downhill. What I mean by that–

Henry: Right.

Jim: –is we escalate the problem rather than de-escalate. I don’t know why that is as human beings.

Henry: We experience it–

Jim: But I’ll do that with Jean.

Henry: –as that you’re in control of me, right? You … if you say something mean, then what do I do? I go, “Well, you’re making me mad.”  

Well, that by itself is a problem. How can you really “make me” anything? If I’ve got control of myself ultimately, I’m gonna do somethin’ with that, that if I’m mature enough, and we’re all on that path somewhere, to give something back better than the anger that I would be blaming you for.

Jim: Okay, so, my spouse says something to me that is negative. How should I respond in a way that’s healthy? How should that spouse respond to de-escalate, to take the high ground, to create the boundary?

Henry: So, you’re supposed to do something for her. You don’t follow through. She’s bugged with it and she says, “How could you forget somethin’ like that…?

Jim: Exactly.

Henry: …Right? Now what happens from that point is, you’re gonna feel that as a ding, right? That doesn’t feel good. But it’s how you take responsibility for your feelings. So, if you’re feeling hurt, a good mature, taking responsibility response would be something like, “You know what? I’d love to talk about this, but the way you said it was kinda hurtful.”

Jim: Well, I … you know, I don’t care about how you feel about how I said it. I want to make sure you heard what I said.

Henry: Well …

Jim: ‘Cause half the time you never hear what I say.

Henry: All right. I … I did hear what you said and I’d like to talk about it. If you want to talk about that first, we can talk about it first. (Laughter) But at some point, I do want to talk about how you say things, because we need to have that conversation.

Jim: Now …

Henry: But I’ll be glad to talk about the … the dry cleaning, or whatever it was.

Jim: Now maintaining that kind of cool composure is very difficult as a human being when somebody–

Henry: Right.

Jim: –is attacking you.

Henry: It is difficult, but it is the standard of the New Testament. And …

Jim: Where do you find that illustration?

Henry: You see it throughout the New Testament — putting away things like anger and malice and wrath and bitterness and all of that stuff. Forgiving one another as Christ has forgiven you.

John T.: Don’t return evil for evil.

Henry: Don’t return evil for evil, on and on and on. It is a high standard for us to have the boundaries of self-control. But it’s still the standard. Now it doesn’t mean that we always pull it off, right? But that’s the goal that we oughta be working towards.

Jim: Let me … let me read a letter that we received at Focus on the Family. We’ve changed the names here, but you can respond to this boundary issue.

Trish has been married for four years. When she was pregnant with their second child, her husband, Scott made contact through Facebook with a woman he’d known from church years ago. Their relationship moved from Facebook to texting to a physical relationship. Uh … now three months since Trish has known about her husband’s affair, he still isn’t sure what he wants. Uh … Scott tells Trish that he loves her, but that he isn’t “in love” with her. What should she do?

John T.: Well, let’s go back to the principles again. She’s in a nightmare, right? Her husband has been unfaithful and he’s not even sure he wants to come back. So, her life’s upside down.

One of the things we find for example in … in marriages where a spouse has been unfaithful and is what we call “ambivalent,” I’m not sure if I want in, is the No. 1 rule is, you can’t live with me. Because if you stay with me and you get the benefits of being with me and my warmth and structure and our family legacy and you also have somebody else out here, you’re livin’ in what they call the uh … the affair fantasy, where you can have your excitement and your stability and your … all this.

And in no way can you put up with that, not for only the kids’ sake and your sanity’s sake, but for his sake, as well. So, the first boundary has to be, “Well, until you decide you want to marry me and stay with me, you’ll have to live somewhere else and figure that out.”

Jim: What is the typical reaction in that situation when he or she puts that boundary down? What do you see normally in your counseling practice that ends up being the next step? What–

John T.: On the–

Jim: –happens in the couple?

John T.: –Scott’s side of things?

Jim: Either … both of them actually, Trish and Scott.

John T.: Well, now, bear in mind that this is not done in isolation. That the New Testament says, all this stuff’s gotta be done in community. Boundaries in marriage work when there’s a community that supports righteous, healthy living, right? So, this is done with all the right accountability structures and support structures and all that.

So, what tends to happen — let me play two tapes. When it works right, what happens is, Scott kind of, you know, complains about it, but then she and the counselors and the elders finally say, you … if you’re not in with her, you’re hurtin’ everybody. And he has to leave and he gets an apartment somewhere. And then Scott has to experience what it’s like to live with the fantasy and not live with the reality.

And then he starts to feel lost and he starts to come back into reality and the ether, you know, goes away and he has to make some choices about what he really wants on a deepest level. And a lot of times, if she holds to that and says, “Really, I love you, but I’m not … you’re not back until you’re all in.” He comes and repents and changes and finds out what he did in the first place and go … does some good counseling. That’s the good tape.

And the bad tape? He puts up a big fight. He doesn’t want to leave. Um … she gives in, because she feels guilty and they do this back and forth thing for many, many years and it’s always a big mess. So, the clarity of the boundaries … God’s truth is always so clear. The clarity of the boundaries and following through with them, so that … and here’s the kicker, she, Tricia, is having to make Scott responsible for his choices and the consequences of those choices cause him to grow up. That’s how God works it.

You look at Hebrews chapter 12 and the author says, “Discipline hurts and it’s painful at the moment, but for those who are trained by it, it brings the peaceable fruit of righteousness.” Trish must set up a structure which allows Scott to feel the peaceable fruit of righteousness.

Jim: And in that …

Henry: And …

Jim: Oh, go ahead.

Henry: One … one of the things you see about that, too is, it’s always a process. You know, God tells us to start one on one, like in Matthew 18. You know somethin’s wrong. You go to the person one on one. You try to have a conversation. If they’re wise, they listen; they take ownership. They repent.

But it says, if they don’t, then what he says is, a stronger boundary is needed. In fact, he even uses the words in there that we are to “bind” this kind of behavior, right? In a body where two or more of you are gathered. So, if they don’t listen, what does he say do? It doesn’t say, “give up.” It says, “go get two or three more people” and have a stronger boundary. And that’s where you bring in the leverage of people that have relational power with him, you know, people that … that he cares about. And then you start to surround him.

And if that doesn’t work, you bring in a little bigger group, right? But ultimately as John said, you just keep turnin’ the heat up until the final, the biggest boundary we have is the boundary of separation. And that loss, hopefully, will lead him, you know, to a place of godly sorrow.

Jim: So, in that context, you’re really … the purpose is to isolate the violator, so that they can only taste their fantasy and not have a taste of reality.

I think a lot of people would be askin’ themselves the time frame of that. I’m sure particularly a woman who has really done the tough love–

Henry: Yeah.

Jim: –and has put her husband out there, separated, done all those things, what do you see in your experience in terms of how much time that should take? What’s a healthy normal response time?

John T.: Well, there’s three or four factors that’ll determine that. One’s gonna be how severe the issue is, more severe, more acting out, more sin, it’s gonna take longer.

Another’s gonna be um … Scott’s character. Some people have a pretty mature character and they really messed up, but they repent faster. Some people have a very, very uh … narcissistic character and that takes a longer time if it’s … he’s in denial and really entitled and that sort of thing. That’ll take a longer time.

Henry: And also, who’s enabling him while he’s out there?

Jim: Hm.

John T.: Yeah, who’s–

Henry: Who’s making it harder?

John T.: –making it easier for him not to hit bottom is another factor. Another factor’s gonna be, where’s the resources of the community around there? Is he an isolated guy, who’s sort of a hermit and he doesn’t have any friends?

Well, it’s kinda hard to get to him. But if he’s got a bunch of people and they start sayin’, “Look, we really can’t hang out with you if you act like that towards Trish.” That adds some more things. So, the more resource and the better it’s done and … and the more people around it and the less enabling, the faster it goes.

Henry: One of the things that we know about this process is, that when you have somebody with a character problem, okay, talking to them more, Proverbs is very clear, that if you’re talking to what’s called “a fool,” somebody who is not taking feedback, it says stop talking. Do not confront a mocker lest you incur insults upon yourself.

And so, we know that more nagging is not gonna work. But the Bible tells us that limits and consequences will work. Now here’s what we know. Limits and consequences don’t work 100 percent of the time. But in those scenarios where nothing else is working, they are the only thing that do work. 

John T.: You’re guaranteed if you don’t use ‘em, nothin’ will work.

John F.: Hm. I’m John Fuller and this is Focus on the Family with Jim Daly and today we’re listening to Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend as they share principles from their book, Boundaries in Marriage. And if you’d like to know more about the book or our guests, or to get a CD or download of our conversation, stop by or call 1-800-A-FAMILY. And now, here’s more from that marriage conference where Drs. Cloud and Townsend were speaking.

Jim: Let’s move to something a little more difficult then. In the culture we’re in, it’s highly sexualized. Um … and even within Christian marriage, infidelity is occurring, what seems like at a much higher rate than perhaps what generationally was experienced in decades past.

With that in mind, how does that establishment of boundary … let’s say that trust has been broken. Uh … the next steps, let’s say the two people are committed and they want to make it work. What are the ways that that should play out in terms of boundaries? Because so often when women particularly write to us, they’re saying, “I don’t know if I can ever trust him again?” What’s a normal time line and what does that look like to rebuild the trust in that relationship?

John T.: Well, the Bible has a lot to say about who is trustworthy. You know, it’s not just apologizing and saying I’m sorry about that. It’s actually repenting. And the word in the New Testament means to actually change.

So, the wife’s stance has to be, I’m in the marriage and I love you and this is really hard and I love you, but I don’t trust you.  And always remember in marriages, or any relationship, love is always free. There’s a duty to love, but trust is earned. You never trust somebody that never earned the trust.

So, her stance is to be healthy and be connected and be open and listening and be getting all the help she can get. But she’s now time … it’s now time for her to watch. He’s got a job to do, because he has to prove that he’s now a trustworthy person.

And that generally involves things like not only having good healthy, biblical standards of sexual sobriety, you know, keeping the blinders up and keeping away from the people that are wrong and the influences that are wrong, if it’s a porn addiction, all that stuff.

But not just that. But also, he’s got to talk to her deeply about the impact that he had on her. He’s got to have that face to face where he says, “I need to know how this affected you.” And she needs to have her day in court, where she can tell him what it felt like and it … what … how it demoralized her.

Henry: For days.

John T.: Huh.

Henry: Days and days.

John T.: Days and days and days.

Henry: It’s a process.

John T.: And a good husband, instead of saying, “Look, I’ve changed. Don’t you see all the changes I made.” That’s the worst thing you can say. A good husband’ll say, “All I need to do is to listen to how I’ve affected you and you can tell me anytime you want as long as you want, because that’s what it takes to show you that I care.”

Jim: Hm.

John T.: And she needs to honest about what it did and how it devastated. She doesn’t know right from wrong or whether she’s attractive or she’s a good person. He needs to be a man enough to listen to that. We call that in psycho babble, “containing.” He needs to contain her as long as she needs.

And a third thing he needs to do, he needs to get to work on the root. Somethin’ drove him to those activities. Generally speakin’ it’s not just sort of a … an act he did, but was it because he was mad or lonely or stressed out or tryin’ to punish her or because he wanted to go into fantasy life. He’s gotta get a good counselor. And he’s gotta say, “I’ve gotta figure out what this was about. What is it [that] drove me to that, because I’ve got a bad fruit in my life. And the Bible says good trees have good fruit and bad trees have bad fruit.

And so to dig it out. So, she knows it, it’ll never happen again, because not only was he accountable to the process and accountable to sexual sobriety with her, but he was accountable to his roots, too, so that she knows he’s a different transformed person. He’s gotta come back and say, “I’m a transformed guy.”

Henry: And … and Jim, many times what … what he will do is he will say, “I’m sorry; I repent and I’ve changed and I’m gonna be different and trust me.” Okay? Well, that’s a good start, but I think that it’s very important for her to look at a biblical criteria, a set of stuff that the Bible says builds hope and builds trust.

And throughout the Scriptures, I mean, it’s all the way through there. How do we know there’s a good future? If somebody’s developing character, there’s a future and a hope for them.

So, is this person now in some sort of verifiable spiritual growth process that has community, that has proven results, okay? Is he going to a sexual addiction group? Is he going to a counselor? Does he have an accountability partner? Is he seein’ a shrink? Whatever it is, something with proven results, that he is independently submitting himself to that process.

The next thing, is he gaining new skills? You know, is he learning? He didn’t know how to communicate before. Well, now she sees him trying to learn new skills. He’s opening up about the stuff he wasn’t bringin’ to her, but taking to a lover.

Is he self-motivated to do this? Or is she having to push him? You can tell a person that’s in real recovery because you don’t have to talk them into goin’ to their counselor or going to their group. You can’t talk ‘em out of it. You say, “Let’s go play golf” or “Let’s go bowling,” they go, “Oh, man, I can’t. I would miss my group if I did that.”

Jim: Hm.

John T.: You can’t stop ‘em. And then you want to see some sort of change happening. And if you’ve got a list that you’re looking for, then she doesn’t have to be in that flimsy water of do I trust him or do I not? She’s got some real criteria to measure it by.

Today's Guests

Boundaries in Marriage

Receive the book Boundaries in Marriage for your donation of any amount!

Recent Episodes

Focus on the Family Broadcast logo

Loving Your Spouse Unconditionally (Part 2 of 2)

Dr. Bob Paul and Tara Lalonde share their marriage counseling expertise to help couples communicate in a healthy way and build a marriage that is emotionally safe for both people. They offer some of the powerful tools taught to couples at Hope Restored marriage intensives, including the reactive cycle and heart talk. (Part 1 of 2)

Focus on the Family Broadcast logo

Loving Your Spouse Unconditionally (Part 1 of 2)

Dr. Bob Paul and Tara Lalonde share their marriage counseling expertise to help couples communicate in a healthy way and build a marriage that is emotionally safe for both people. They offer some of the powerful tools taught to couples at Hope Restored marriage intensives, including the reactive cycle and heart talk. (Part 1 of 2)

Focus on the Family Broadcast logo

Developing a Passion for Evangelism and Discipleship

Bible teacher Ray Vander Laan has been exploring ancient Jewish culture for decades. As he shares his insights and stories, he’ll help you to develop a passion for evangelism and discipleship. Ray unpacks Scripture to aid your understanding of what it truly means to be a disciple of the Rabbi and Messiah – Jesus.

You May Also Like

Focus on the Family Broadcast logo

Affair-Proof Your Marriage (Part 1 of 2)

Pastor Dave Carder offers couples practical advice for protecting their marriages from adultery in a discussion based on his book Anatomy of an Affair: How Affairs, Attractions, and Addictions Develop, and How to Guard Your Marriage Against Them. (Part 1 of 2)

Focus on the Family Broadcast logo

Affair-Proof Your Marriage (Part 2 of 2)

Pastor Dave Carder offers couples practical advice for protecting their marriages from adultery in a discussion based on his book Anatomy of an Affair: How Affairs, Attractions, and Addictions Develop, and How to Guard Your Marriage Against Them. (Part 2 of 2)

Focus on the Family Broadcast logo

Balancing Gender Differences in Your Marriage (Part 1 of 2)

Robert and Pamela Crosby help married couples understand and celebrate their gender differences so that they can enjoy a stronger bond and deeper intimacy. Our guests offer practical tips for improved communication, successful conflict resolution and offering affirmation to your spouse. (Part 1 of 2)