This is a busy week this week for me. A lot is happening and I’d appreciate your prayers especially Thursday, Friday and Saturday during our conference. Next week I will be leaving for a cruise that we booked pre-covid and are finally able to go. My coaches will be answering some of your questions while I am gone.
Question: My husband won't engage or talk with me except when absolutely necessary. If I ask a question he gives short answers and mostly acts irritated by my presence. I understand how to put a boundary in place by walking away from a toxic conversation, but how do you put a boundary in place from no conversation at all? What would a boundary even be with someone who acts mildly irritated with you constantly and avoids being in the same room with you?
Answer: First, I’m so sorry for what you are experiencing. Marriage is supposed to be a loving partnership. Obviously, you are not getting that benefit and it’s painful and perplexing. Has this always been the pattern or is this something new? Was there a crisis or a medical problem or a bad fight that was never resolved that started this pattern? Is he experiencing depression or an addiction to something that may keep him absorbed in his own internal world and not very available to you? Does he engage with others (children, grandchildren, neighbors, friends) or is he completely disengaged?
There is no easy answer here and any of the choices you have going forward will present their own challenges. But I’m going to try to answer your question because I think that the whole topic of boundaries can be confusing for many people.
I also want to add that in any problem we face there are two tracks that we want to pay attention to. The first track I’ll define as your toxic marriage. Let’s call that the external life circumstance track. What’s happening “out there” track.
For you – what’s happening out there isn’t changing and now it is impacting you in negative ways. You’re lonely. It’s hard. Your marriage is demeaning, frustrating, and confusing. You can’t get him to talk (attempts to change the external) and when you try, he only gets more rejecting.
When the external track is not changeable (at least not now) your other option is to focus your energy on you. How is this situation impacting you? What is this teaching you? What do you need to learn from this? What do you need to let go of to heal? How can you grow from this? What do you want to do with the impact this is having on you, especially if he isn’t willing to change (or the external life track doesn’t change)?
Hear me: I’m all for changing the external track if possible. And I’m sure you have done all you know to do to get him to listen. To hear you. To care. To respond appropriately. To engage. And all you get is more hurt. Now what? This is where you might want to consider doing more internal work to have better boundaries.
Therefore, let me begin by defining what a boundary is and isn’t. Boundaries are always about you, not about the other person. There are two types of boundaries, internal (within your own self) and external (how you will interact with others or your environment). Boundaries don’t seek to control another person’s behavior towards you. Healthy boundaries define two specific areas of you. Identity and Responsibility
Let’s start with identity: Boundaries help you define who you are and who you are not. What you stand for and what you stand against. What’s important to you? What will you live with? What will you not live with? What do you value? What do you love? What do you hate?
I find a helpful way of thinking about this topic is to look at the 50 states in the United States. We do not have fences that define each state's border, but each state in the US has a border identifying where it begins and where it ends (identity). The 50 states have unique identities. One state does not attempt to control another state. Instead, they create laws, regulations, norms, and a value system that is unique to their particular state. For example, some states frown upon owning a personal firearm, and licenses to carry a gun are difficult to get. In other states, that’s not true. But the state that allows firearms, does not attempt to regulate or control the laws of the states that do not. Each state has its own unique identity.
The second area boundaries are helpful in assigning responsibility. Again the example of states is helpful. I live in Arizona. Arizona is responsible for its laws, taxes, voting processes, police force, water regulation, cleanup, sanitation, etc. Although Colorado is our neighbor, Colorado is not responsible for Arizona. Colorado is responsible for Colorado and its residents and property. That does not mean that a state would not be helpful if another state had an emergency, but Colorado is not responsible for Arizona’s laws, taxes, or the safety of its population. Arizona is responsible to take care of Arizona.
In the same way, each of us as people needs to establish a sense of who we are and who we are not. What we stand for and stand against. What we’re willing to do and what we’re not willing to do. What we will say or not say with our words. What we will eat or not eat. Drink or not drink. Do or not do. Accept or not accept. Not only is this important for the big deal things of life but also in our everyday life decisions.
For example, “Are you willing to drive in a car with a smoker?” Yes or no? You can’t control whether or not a person smokes cigarettes but you can decide whether or not you will be in an enclosed space with that person. If the answer is no, then that is a boundary you have for YOU, not for them. Your boundary is: “I will not drive with someone who smokes in the car.” Not, “You can’t smoke when I’m in the car with you.”
Do you hear the difference? You can control you. You can’t control the other person. The best you can do is ask the smoker not to smoke, but then that is a request, not a boundary.
You live with someone who non-verbally communicates that he doesn’t want to talk with you, play with you, hang out with you or solve problems with you. You can’t control him; you can only control you. Therefore, are you willing to stay living like this? And if not, what are your alternatives? (Taking responsibility for you)
Here are a few choices that may help you move forward.
Choice 1. Start with a short statement about what you observe. For example, “I see that you don’t enjoy being around me. You get short with me when I ask you a question. You never initiate a conversation. You don’t want to talk or go out or hang out together. This isn’t the kind of marriage or relationship I want (You are defining who you are). Where would you like us to go from here?” In a soft way, you are stating your boundary. “I don’t want to continue living this way. Do you have any desire to change this pattern?” His response will influence your next choice going forward.
Now he has choices to make too. He may default and do nothing but ignore you. That’s been his typical pattern. Or he may get critical or sarcastic to shut you down. Or he may decide to reflect and be honest and say “I’m not happy either, what do you want to do?” Now you both can have a conversation about that.
Choice 2. Reflect on what you can do and can’t do, will do or won’t do. Pay close attention to your needs as well as your limitations. For example, perhaps as you think about it you realize that your health (physical limitations) will not allow you to work full-time to support yourself financially if you were to seek a new living arrangement. Or, you do not have the education or skills that would give you a job that paid enough to do so comfortably. Limitations can be a boundary. If we cannot do something, we must learn to live within those limits until we don’t have those limits anymore. But recognize that you still have choices even when your choices are limited.
For example, you might “choose” to live peaceably with him without asking him to have a conversation, meet your emotional needs, engage with you socially or be a companion to you. But you also choose to recognize and are grateful that he is meeting one of your important needs, which is providing for your physical welfare, food, clothing, shelter, medical care.
I don’t know whether or not that is true. But if it is, what might be possible for you going forward if you accepted what he can give you with gratitude, and accept what he can’t give you without resentment or demands? That decision is totally up to you. (Internal track). It’s not the marriage you wanted or pictured, but what do you want to do about that given both his and your current situation and options? This is the responsibility part of boundaries. You get to decide. You are responsible for you. For your mood, for your health, for how you handle adversity and challenges in your external world (like your current living arrangements).
What might be different if you stopped being angry or despondent that he wasn’t talking with you or engaging with you and just went about living your life as fully as you can? That might mean getting involved in some volunteer work. Joining a women’s group at church. Spending more time with your grandchildren. Making meaningful connections with other single women and planning outings and trips with them so that your loneliness and need for companionship and connections are being met elsewhere.
Choice 3. Continue to do nothing as he continues to do nothing. Doing nothing to change (external or internal) is always a choice. Usually not the best one but it is a choice.
Once you recognize that you DO have choices here no matter how small, you regain some sense of personal power to do something about how you are feeling inside and what you want to do to take care of you.
When you depend or demand that someone else changes so that you are okay, you give your personal power away. When you do that continually, you feel like and stay a victim of someone else’s choices. That is not good for you, for him, or for the relationship.
One more word of caution. Many times we get stuck right here because we don’t like our choices. We keep believing that if only the other person would change we wouldn’t have to make this choice. But remember, when we depend on the other person to change so that we can get healthy, safe, or grow, then we give away our personal power to take care of and be responsible for ourselves. Yes, I agree, it would be easier if they would change, but reality often tells us that is not going to happen anytime soon. If that’s true, then what is your next best right choice for you?
Friend, what other choices do you see she has or what boundaries do you put in place for yourself so that you don't continue to be at the mercy of other people’s choices and then repeatedly feel hurt, angry, resentful, or powerless over the person who won’t change?
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