Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

The Proper Use of Boundaries - Creating Space for Healing and Change

proper use of boundaries in marriage

How does one ‘create space’ for healing you might ask? How can I create an opportunity for change in my own life, let alone my spouses? Well, you didn’t ask, but I’m sure it’s a question you would ask if we were to sit and have coffee together.

If someone steps on my foot I’ll probably say “ouch”. If they do it time after time I will eventually tell them to stop because they’re hurting me. The process of telling them to stop is where a boundary is set. I’m telling them their actions are hurting me and they need to stop stepping on my foot. I may even tell them what I’m going to do to avoid being stepped on, if they don't stop. 

At that point I’ve set the “don’t step on my foot boundary." Notice, my actions aren’t aimed at changing them, but rather in protecting my foot, as well as our relationship. The other person will ultimately have to decide whether or not they’re going to alter their behavior, but at least I’ve warned them and I know what I’m going to do in order to protect myself. 

Response Patterns

Relationships are no different. At times our mate “steps on our foot” and hurts us.

We then have several ways we can respond:

  1. We can ignore it and just hope it doesn’t happen again. (This may be okay if it's a first offense, but if there's a repetitive pattern more may need to be done before you grow resentful or worse, empower their behavior).
  2. We can say “ouch” and hope our mate notices our pain and makes efforts not to do it again.
  3. We can withdraw and make sure they don’t ever have an opportunity to step on us again.
  4. We can stomp on their foot so they’ll know what it feels like and will be more careful next time.
  5. We can be assertive and set a boundary, letting them know that stepping on our foot is not OK.
  6. After setting the boundary, we can also let them know what we’re going to do to protect ourselves from being stepped on.

Infidelity is certainly a more extreme pain than getting one’s foot stepped on, but the potential response patterns are the same. Some are helpful and others aren’t.

The goal for a boundary is self-protection and relationship regulation.

Within a relationship, the absence of a feedback mechanism to inform our mate of our wounds limits our ability as a couple to accommodate one another. Healthy couples communicate what they appreciate about their mate, what their mate is doing that’s wounding them, and they take responsibility for their hurtful actions by making amends for having wounded them. Without these three forms of communication it’s difficult to know if we really matter to our mate. Do they really care? Are they going to be there when we cry out for them? Do they have any sincere interest in caring for our needs?

Boundaries help define the expectations of our relationship. There are boundaries that define our space as a couple. These boundaries help protect our relationship. They define monogamy for our marriage and our rules of engagement. If others cross these boundaries we feel they are interfering with our lives. If a partner crosses a boundary, they betray the agreement they have with their mate. 

We often mistakenly believe the purpose of boundaries is behavior modification,
but this is not true.

Boundaries are for self-protection and the protection of the relationship as a whole. Hopefully, when the boundaries are bumped, out of respect, concern, and heartfelt empathy for us, the person violating the boundary will make amends and make it a point to honor our boundaries. If they refuse to honor our boundaries, we’ll need to quickly and efficiently do what is necessary to enforce them. 

While boundaries are essential for defining how we’re to live and interact with one another, they are ineffective when it comes to changing our mate. All too often I see the wounded mate establishing consequences to their boundaries in hopes that their mate’s fear of the consequence will get them to stop the destructive behaviors or patterns. While that fear may definitely serve as a short term deterrent, it won’t work as the only long term solution. 

The pain suffered as the result of boundary violations serve only as short-term deterrents to destructive behavior. They are effective only as long as the pain remains, or the fear of the consequence is in place, but once those fears are gone the motivation for change decreases. The new behaviors will remain only as long as the memory of that pain is fresh or they still care whether or not they lose what they have. But, when the new behaviors no longer provide the happiness they seek, it won’t be long until the allure of returning to old behaviors outweighs the benefits of the new behaviors. Hence, the reasoning behind expert care to begin the process of healing and restoration.

I’m certainly not saying that things can’t change, but change that is externally imposed is short term, at best. True change comes from inside out. It’s about a change of heart, not a change of behavior. It comes because we care and we’re willing to do whatever is necessary to be different. Do not misunderstand, consequences must be set to protect yourself, and hopefully those consequences will serve as a motivation to begin the stages of long term transformation.

Marriage is hard. There is no way two people can negotiate a life together and not step on each other’s toes. There has to be give and take and the ability to communicate when our mate is hurting us. Hopefully, our mate responds and makes a sincere effort to stop hurting us. Healthy marriages are a process of negotiation and compromise where, because of our love, we try to act in our mate’s best interest. Research shows that a third of all marital problems are unsolvable. What happy couples have that others don’t is an ability to peacefully live and work around our perpetual problems. But for that to occur there has to be a genuine concern for our mate and not always, but often times a willingness, to forgo our happiness for theirs. 

The Three Stages of Boundaries:

If your mate continues to seek their own pleasure at the expense of the relationship and your well-being, boundaries need to be established, or reinforced. But, don’t forget that behavior doesn’t always equal motive. From time to time, we all fail and act in ways that are contrary to how we want to be, which is why I suggest the following progression when implementing boundaries. 

The FIRST stage is a request where you clearly communicate how their actions are hurting you and ask them to stop. Don’t always assume they are intentionally committing the offense. Explaining to them how their actions have hurt you and requesting that they not do it again gives them opportunity to show the condition of their heart. If they take responsibility and acknowledge that what they did was wrong, you’re off to a good start. If they are genuinely concerned over the fact that they’ve wounded you and are doing whatever they can to help you heal, then they’re acting in your best interest. If they're upset with themselves for having hurt you and are seeking reconciliation, then it’s a fairly safe bet that this person values you and the relationship and will do their best to avoid hurting you in the future.

The SECOND stage is telling them to stop. If you’ve asked and they continue their hurtful behavior, you turn up the volume by telling them they’re hurting you and telling them to stop. The goal of the boundary is for your protection. They may or may not respect your boundary, but if you love them, then for love’s sake the boundary needs to be set. Love always acts in the best interest of the other person. Allowing them to act in a way that is unloving, isn’t loving to them. It’s not okay to enable someone to act in ways that are self-destructive or to treat others in ways that are destructive. Love compels us to act in the best interest of the other person.

Their response to you telling them to stop is the next litmus test of their heart’s condition. If there is no response, it’s time to go to stage three. If they are grieved over their continued failure and are attempting to address the problem, there’s hope. If they say they’ll stop, but aren’t grieved over the damage they’ve caused you, their heart may still be hard and they may be ambivalent about stopping the behavior. Ambivalence is a state where a person holds two diametrically opposed positions at the same time and it leaves them stuck, unable to choose one or the other. For this person there is a strong likelihood that they will once again violate the boundary. 

The THIRD stage is demanding they stop and telling them what you’re going to do to protect yourself if they don’t. This is the last stage of consequences, but notice the point of setting the boundary isn’t to change them, rather it’s for your protection. We don’t control how they’ll respond, but we do control how we’re going to respond if they don’t stop the destructive behaviors. 

When enforcing boundaries it’s important to respond out of love. It’s not about vengeance. It’s not about controlling them. It is about telling them that it’s not okay to treat others the way they’re treating you. It’s communicating that because of your love and respect for them and your own self-respect, you will not allow them to keep acting this way. 

They will have two choices: they will either chose to do what’s necessary to honor your boundaries or they will continue to act in their own selfish interest. If it’s the latter, you'll have to follow through with the course of action you've chosen to keep yourself safe. This is not an attempt to get them to change, but hopefully the consequence will result in their re-evaluating the importance of the relationship versus their own happiness and at the very least, provide the opportunity for change or intervention to start the healing process from infidelity. If you are ready to begin that process, consider attending EMS Weekend, where you can discover boundaries and how to proceed in recovery as a couple.





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Very helpful in all relationships. Thank you!

I have given him multiple chances

I have caught my husband again exchanging emails with other women ( this has happened numerous times) and he has now admitted to at least 3 affairs during our 16 year marriage 2 of them being this last summer! I am unsure if the boundaries I have set with him have been to easy for him to repeatedly cross? I just can't understand why he feels he has to continue to hurt me? Now he says he very sorry and that he is going to do whatever it takes to fix our marriage and put me first and love me unconditionally, but from his past history I am scared that I will open my heart again and he will damage it once more! I love my husband but I hate the why he has taken advantage of my love for so long!

Boundaries..is there ever a time when they're not necessary?

Excellent article Rick! My husband and I are 15+ years out from the infidelities....he dropped the boundaries 4-5 years ago (without any discussion...I felt betrayed) returned to the old patterns of behavior..having personal women 'friends' that he calls/they call him, emails/they email him and meets alone with. Isn't this putting oneself in a vulnerable situation? Risky behavior? After multiple times of repeating step 1 and step 2 I moved to step three and told him that if he wanted to have such an open marriage then I needed to withdraw myself because he has no regard for me, my feelings or our relationship. His behavior continued for many years....with only defensive responses.....'it's not necessary to have boundaries after all this time'....'if what he has done is'nt good enough then nothing will be'..'they're just friends'...He says he has no intent to do anything because if he did he has plenty of chances. Says that he fixed his problem! So much of the past has begun flooding my mind...things that I had long forgotten are now as if it is happening all over again. Reliving the trauma.
In your article Pimping Tenderness you say that .."All a man has to do is fain interest, pay attention, pay compliments and the game is on." You also say...."at the very least our risky behaviors will leave our mate feeling unsafe and uncared for." This is at the core of my feelings.
Rick... this is my quesiton: Does it ever reach a point after recovery that the boundaries can be done away with? Is this a 'common' issue that arises with couples after many years have passed? That you think all is fixed now... no need for boundaries because you believe that you won't ever do THAT AGAIN.
Are there others out there who are experiencing this?
Would love to have insights on how to work this out.


You are so insightful. It is as if you are describing my exact circumstances.

Thank you, another well

Thank you, another well thought out discussion for us to ponder. I wish his would've come at the point when I was dealing with my spouse's last indiscretion, which was emotional. I explained VERY calmly how his behavior was causing me great discomfort and anxiety. He laughed at me and told me I was crazy. My next step was to request that he stop working so closely with the individual and that they stop emailing after working together all day. He said " you have no right to tell me what to do, you need to stop trying to control me". When I reached the third level of confrontation I think he finally got it, but, it took my being willing to confront the young woman before he actually took me seriously. You make an excellent point as I lived through 2 physical affairs with this man, which he denied and I didn't challenge him on it. So this is what happened as he felt quite entitled to carry on his life with very little regard for me. Your article speaks very wisely on communicating your own boundaries, I only wish I would have with the very first infidelity instead of being a door mat.


Hi Rick, You've often mentioned that behavior does not always equal motive. Do you have anything written that can explain this further?
Thanks J


I came back and read this article after setting a boundary last night. Actually, it was more like step two. The woman in question no longer lives in the state, yet she continues to try to communicate with my husband via text and email. She is always the instigator, yet it hurts me that he even replies. I feel like it gives her hope or fuel. I also feel like she does this just for the sake of drama. I do not always see the conversations. I would love to confront her, but I also feel like she would have a feeling of triumph knowing that she gets to me. My husband claims that she is no longer in our lives and what she does is beyond his control. My response was that he can control HIS actions. I asked him to simply ignore her and that perhaps she would eventually leave him alone and go on to another-- although she has kept this up for at least once a month for 1.5 years after he ended it and she moved away. He gets very defensive and since last night he's very aloof and cool toward me. We have been married 21 years and have one child. The other thing that worried and hurts me is that even though he is affectionate, and does all the right things, he does not tell me he loves me. Sometimes he will respond with "I love you too" if I say it first, but he will never say it of his own volition. He tells our daughter he loves her without hesitation. I've told him all of these things and how they hurt me. It doesn't change. Before this affair (which I know was emotional but I'm not sure was physical) I never had ANY reason to doubt his faithfulness, so this was a complete and utter shock. He told me he loved me-- not a gushing romantic, but he did.

comment to Diane

I am in the same situation Diane. My husband and I have been married for 25 years. Back during the years between 2003-2006 he had two one-night stands and one long physical affair. For various reasons I decided to forgive him and try to move on, concentrating on what I could do to change. I thought all was going well until he hooked up with an old "friend" he grew up with in another state. They have been having an emotional relationship now for over a year. He responds the same way as your husband and says he does not want to be told what to do, and how it is not an affair because they are not having sex. I am in stage 3 now, but it seems to not make any difference. We are in counseling, but I wonder with all the lies and wounds how we can ever get to a point of a healthy marriage, even if he wanted to make the effort. This sounds depressing I guess, but I just wanted to let you know you aren't alone.

To Diane and Schmitzerlee

You are not alone. My spouse has had 2 emotional affairs with the same coworker. I have no idea if they ever became physical or not. I cannot believe my spouse when he says they did not have sex because he has lied so much. I forgave the first affair and moved on....the second one I consider a conscious choice both made and now, 14 months from confrontation, I have still not been able to forgive and move on. I don't even know if they are still together or not. I cannot monitor his work cell or email and he won't give me access or be transparent. I tried steps 1 and 2 of setting boundaries. He could have cared less. He stonewalled, evaded, and avoided. He became verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive when I continued to question him and press the issue about his most recent affair. After the last nose to nose screaming tantrum and the twisting of my necklace to tighten it around my throat, I just skipped step 3 and moved out. I remain separated to this day, 6 months later. I refuse to go home until he is safe. Moving out seemed to mobilize him into getting some help. He is now in anger management therapy, but has just begun, so I don't know how long before I can feel safe with him again.

As to the comment about the emotional relationship not being an affair --- that is total BS!!! An emotional affair is secretive and there is aheart to heart attachment, which is a precursor to a physical affair. It is harder to overcome because your spouse has given away a piece of his heart to another person that should belong to you. He has probably shared his hopes and dreams, secret desires, how you don't meet his needs, and a bunch of other lies with the AP, who validates him and strokes his ego.He probably texts and calls incessantly and does it in secret. That's what my spouse did....until I caught on. An emotional affair IS an affair and is probably the hardest to overcome. I read once that anybody can take off their clothes and have sex, but when you share your innermost secrets, dreams, desires, etc,with someone other than your spouse, THAT'S being naked! I believe it! Rick Reynolds has a series of articles in the recovery library about emotional affairs and how hard they are to "get over" and they are beneficial to read. Just wanted you to know that there are many of us out there and you are not alone. I am sending positive thoughts your way.


After years of violating her bounderies she left me, (groping) all my fault, her only fault lies with that she didnt state her bounderies clearly, when she finaly did it was to late. She had an affair ( possibly multiple) and still may, thats my boundery , how do i communicate that, we still have almost daily contact


I was just telling a dear friend who recently discovered her husband was texted a nude photo from his friend's girlfriend that she needs to set boundaries. I am going to copy and send this to her. Thank you.


Please explain what is meant by this statement; "don’t forget that behavior doesn’t always equal motive". found in the article about proper use of boundaries .


When someone does something wrong it doesn't always mean it was done with harmful intent towards you. That's why its good if the motive can be identified as it clears alot of misunderstanding. It doesnt remove the pain but you have understanding of why the person chose to behave (do wrong)


This is very good advice but sadly I have tried everything and he won't give up the AP
I now have to walk away


This was so well done. I wished I had this information a few years ago it may have prevented a lot of heart break. Using the example of stepping on the toe was so clever and logical that my husband will get it !
Thanks again to Rick and affair recovery.
Healing one day at a time !