Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Old-Fashioned Boundaries in Marriage

I was recently directed to this article on creating boundaries in marriage which I thought was so wonderfully written that it deserves a fair amount of attention and a lot more discussion - particularly within Christian circles.

The author of the article, Anne Wilson, very honestly points out that no one is above having an affair. While Christians today are not divorcing at quite the rate as the rest of the world, they are still getting divorced. And why? Frequently because one spouse or another (or both) ignored what the Bible has to say about marriage and how the individuals within it are supposed to be behaving, causing a disruption in their union.

The fact of the matter is that God created marriage. He created and designed it to demonstrate Christ's love for the church and the "mystical union" between God and His "bride." With our lives and our marriages we are - knowingly or unknowingly - supposed to be accurately portraying the sacrificial love of Christ and the devotion of the church to following hard after God. Instead of thinking about marriage in these terms, we're more apt to (selfishly) think that marriage is really all about us. It's about what we want, what makes us happy, and how attractive our mate is. We've reduced marriage to the concept of a "free choice" which we are free to back out of whenever we feel overly important.

When Jonathan and I got married, I would say that we loosely understood the concept of what marriage was. We are both products of healthy, committed marriage relationships so we had good precedent. We were mercifully surrounded by people who were further along in their marriage than we were and who were willing to offer us advice whenever we thought to ask for it. In theory we had a good marriage relationship between the two of us. Then came trials and tribulations and children (those things weren't always separated) and we had to become serious about what we said we believed that marriage was. We learned a great deal about boundaries. Sometimes (more frequently than not, it seemed) our boundaries were not understood by others. But you know what? Whether we were understood or not made no difference because we understood in the abstract and in actuality that we two were truly becoming one - in a way that God intended. Suddenly marriage wasn't about having a great time with one another (although there was still that) but it was about trusting God to care for us, worshipping Him when we didn't feel like it, and submitting our own selfish desires and "personality quirks" to God's refining fire. Suddenly we were married.

Let me be clear when I say that we did not find the setting of boundaries to be a natural and/or enjoyable thing. Learning how to implement and explain them (when explanations were necessary) was not a barrel of laughs. But we believed one thing: God put us together for a reason and we made a commitment to stay married to one another "'till death us do part.'" We verbalized to one another our commitment not to divorce but to work together to sustain the marriage God intended for us. And, like it or not, one of the chief ways that we did this was to draw boundaries so that the outside world would not be able to drive us apart. We affirmed that whatever trials would come, we would face them together.

One of the things that we believe was so important to strengthening our marriage at that crucial point were the boundaries that we set. We noticed that life was a lot less frustrating to the both of us when we were in sync with one another.

The word "boundary" has such a negative connotation in today's society. Boundaries mean that you are bigoted (towards any given thing), small minded, insecure (I don't know what this means, exactly), or just plain mean. The word "boundary" can be defined as "something that indicates a border or limit." The modern world isn't exactly known for liking limits. The world thinks it impolite to say "no." But look around you. Since we won't say no, when it truly is necessary, our homes are falling apart and society is crumbling all around us.

As Christians we aren't supposed to think as the world thinks. We understand that saying "no" sometimes is the best thing that can be done. The word "no" can teach and instruct. It also can protect. When it comes to our marriages, they most definitely need protection from a worldly society that would like to redefine marriage and pretend that they own and can create the terms. First, we should understand that even if the world tries to claim marriage for their own, they cannot do so. God created marriage therefore He owns it now and for all time. We need not be afraid for it. Secondly, we should not be afraid to say "no" in a way that establishes a boundary for the sake of protecting that which God designed. Jonathan or I saying "no" isn't done (and shouldn't be) to expressly hurt another's feelings, but rather it is to protect our relationship with one another. We care about it and so we are forced to say "no" to maintain the healthy status of our union. See, we made a promise to each other, before God and a cloud of witnessing saying that we would protect and maintain this union for the glory of the Lord and that is our bounded duty. (Incidentally, when our marriage is healthy, we are happier. So we are also the ones who benefit, primarily, from a solid marriage.)

Because society likes to think "outside the box" and prefers for people to live without boundaries, we find more and more young couples (i.e., those "younger" than ourselves) afraid to set boundaries. Instead they are pressured to feel guilty if they explore and set their own healthy limits for the way which they relate to others. This is such a shame and should not be so. Young couples should be pointed to scripture and taught the beauty of marriage and what it represents the very moment they suggest that they wish to enter into a relationship with one another. From the get-go they should be encouraged to view the marriage relationship as a sacred one, designed by God and gifted to them for their pleasure and for God's glory. As they grow and discover what it means to safely protect their promises, they should not be discouraged from building a tight and solid marriage - rather they should be praised for it and their efforts should be supported!

As Anne Wilson points out in her article, there is not a specific list of Rules and Boundaries that couples (or singles!) should engage with in order to establish a healthy marriage relationship (for themselves or others). It's not an A,B,C,D sort of arrangement. That said, there are wise principles which should be implemented. I think the basic set of boundaries which she lays out in her article are balanced and reasonable.

If you ask a couple who has been married for any length of time if it's always fun to be married, they should honestly tell you no. It's not always "fun." Some days are quite the opposite. It is in those hard days that your agreed-upon boundaries will be of help for you. Agreeing not to talk about your spouse in a negative way is a healthy boundary. Agreeing not to go off and spend time with a person of the opposite sex who is not your spouse is a wise boundary (for as she mentions, one-on-one time with anyone creates inside jokes and a deeper relationship which sometimes ought not to be). If this seems prudish or hard to relate to, then consider the beauty of the boundary observed: it sets you free. Within the boundary you are free to share your whole self with your spouse. You know where the limits are when conversing with other people. You've spent the time talking out your issues with one another so that you can easily present a united front with others (because there is a united front!). You are free to enjoy the company of others and know that your spouse is enjoying others because you have committed to staying within certain boundary lines that you can trust are not being crossed. (If there is ever a temptation to cross the agreed-upon boundary lines you need to think fast, back up, and have a serious heart-to-heart with your spouse!)

Best of all, by creating boundaries you are free to love, wholly, knowing that you are as safe as you can be with the person you committed spending your life with. Any which way you look at it, the boundaries are beautiful. So let's make them. Not be to be mean and stodgy, but to protect the beautiful relationships in our lives that God chose to bless us with. Let us acknowledge the gift is sacred, thank Him for it, and be brave enough to protect it.