See if the following description applies to you. You hate to fight and so you do your best to keep the peace. However, your spouse seems to always be on your back by telling you to “do this” or “do that,” and then criticizing you if you didn’t do it quite the way she wanted. You put up with this, trying to do your best and trying to keep the peace. Your spouse eventually becomes even more critical about something that you think is unjustified. You finally go “over the top” and let out all the fury that you’ve been storing up, while letting yourself feel victimized. Your rage only creates a mess that takes a very long time to clean up. If this describes your situation, then you’re probably well on your way to losing your autonomy and your attraction for your spouse. You won’t have any passion left when you feel that you’ve finally been backed into a corner.
In order to understand the danger of this kind of situation, it’s best to first understand some things about personal boundaries. Boundaries are a hot topic in self-help literature and pop psychology. You will hear frequent references to “setting boundaries.” I’m going to discourage you from using that phrase as it is commonly used. Not because boundaries are a bad concept, but because I think there’s a real drawback to thinking that boundaries are something that you consciously set. That way of thinking is misleading on two fronts. First, it misleads you to think that your boundaries are always conscious. The second misdirection is to define boundaries as necessarily occurring in external behavior. These two errors suggest that we must have boundaries by acting like a reactive adolescent who has something to prove. Let me suggest an alternative.
I encourage you to think of a boundary as an involuntary visceral feeling. It’s the felt sense that you own or deserve something. It’s an implicit assumption about what belongs to you. It’s not an explicit act. You can have a strong boundary by merely feeling your deservingness. For example, if you strongly feel that you deserve privacy, then your boundary is strong in that area. Let me also suggest that you use the word “limit” to refer to the assertive act of refusing unreasonable requests or unacceptable behavior. If you refuse to disclose something that you want to keep private, then you’re setting a limit. Setting a limit is your external behavior, while feeling your entitlement to privacy is your boundary. Limits are external, while boundaries are internal. Using these two terms will help you to think more clearly about the subject. For example, you can aspire to strengthen your boundaries to the point that you have a good internal defense system. If you can get to that point, you won’t always have to react with external limit-setting.