Setting Boundaries vs. Building a Wall

Dear Neil: We have been married for over 25 years. On occasion my husband has verbally scolded me in front of other people socially. I’ve also received verbal put-downs in front of our children and their partners. He chooses to mix with others at social functions, especially attractive women. Is this just bad manners, or does he lack respect for me?

Feeling Disrespected in New Zealand

Dear Neil: I have a husband that seems frustrated and angry when I express my feelings. He tells me he is never allowed to express his, but all his feelings come out in anger.

Unable to Express Myself in Iowa

Dear Iowa and New Zealand: You need to sit your respective husbands down and have a very sober talk with them. An intimate relationship requires you to be able to express your feelings. If you don’t, your relationship ceases to be intimate. You need to tell your husbands that you’re getting hurt by their behaviors, and you need some changes in your marriage.

I would recommend you ask them what is disturbing them about you and/or about the relationship. See if you can encourage talk about the deeper reasons he is upset or resentful toward you. Clearly something is disturbing each of these men. Have you offended him? Rejected him? Do you act defensive or dismiss what he says, so he has become afraid to express his feelings to you? Is he angry with you? Have you hurt him?

After your respective husbands address these issues, you need to create an agreement that changes the way the two of you interact—together and with others. This is going to require you to set firm boundaries on what your husband can and cannot say publicly, as well as the need to regularly and privately air grievances you have with each other, so they can be talked about and hopefully solved or resolved between the two of you.

It is also appropriate to talk about consequences for failing to live up to these agreements, and consequences can include having a wandering eye. I am saying you must communicate the behaviors that you will not tolerate, and you must create boundaries by setting limits on what is and is not acceptable behavior—alone and around others.

You are getting what you have permitted by not standing up for how you want to be treated. We teach people about our boundaries by how we allow them to treat us. If we don’t create these boundaries, we allow somebody else to use behaviors that are hurtful and insulting to us. And if you don’t set effective boundaries, you’re going to build up a wall to protect yourself. If you do that, you can stay married, but you will no longer be in an intimate relationship.

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