Home Anger Management Setting and Respecting Boundaries

Setting and Respecting Boundaries

by hrcounts

My husband retired 3 years ago and he is 77. We have been married for 47 years. It has been a tough marriage not due to the usual reasons like cheating or addictions or sex or any of that. We are financially good, are both healthy. Our kids are settled and we are close to them. I have plenty of outside interests, friends I go out with, I volunteer and I write.

This is the problem. Our relationship sucks. I used to think we are just very different people and so compromised, adapted, forgave, stayed positive, tried to keep conflicts to the minimum, see the good and ignore the bad, gave him a lot of space which he demanded. I am just tired now. I feel it should not be so hard.

I am new to the concept of boundaries. I know how to set them but not sure how to apply them in action, in expression. Sometimes I think my husband has no boundaries, but perhaps I am not respecting what he has set such as wanting space. I feel caught between protecting my boundaries and respecting his. Our interaction is always tense and very quickly escalates into explosions and shouting. He talks a lot, lectures, is very loud and brooks no interruption. This is his idea of a conversation. Divorce is not the solution I am looking for. I would like to bring warmth, friendship, and harmony into our relationship although I feel exhausted trying. I feel as though setting boundaries is for enemies. So how will protecting and respecting each other’s boundaries work with my goal? sometimes I wonder how much I am contributing to this situation. How can I maintain my peace and still have a happy life with my husband? (age 65, from US)

Thank you for writing in with your question and I’m sorry you are experiencing these difficulties. In many ways I think you are doing everything right, and obviously some things are working since you and your husband have been together 47 years. It would be unfortunate to see the marriage end after so long, and especially now that you are both retired and should be able to enjoy this phase of your life together.

However, your relationship does not sound enjoyable. As much as you have tried to focus on the positive, it sounds like your husband has not met you half way. Relationships are a two way street and if your partner isn’t also trying to make things warm, harmonious and respectful, it’s no wonder you are exhausted.

I do disagree with you when you say that boundaries are only for enemies. All human relationships require boundaries in some ways. It really comes down to respecting yourself and your partner. You relate that you respect his boundary by giving him space, but it does not sound like he respects yours if he lectures and shouts at you. This pattern will be difficult to change after all these years, but it’s a good place to start. You can let him know that you want him to speak to you softly and listen to what you have to say, or you will simply leave the conversation. If you do this enough times, he should start to get the point.

Divorce is definitely not the only answer, but if he is unwilling to work with you to make things better it may be an option you need to consider. Sometimes mentioning the possibility at least gets the other person’s attention enough that they will begin to work on things. Obviously the two of you would benefit from marital counseling, but you could also try a weekend couple’s retreat, a self-help book (such as one by John Gottman), or having some meetings with your priest or pastor if appropriate.

Finally, I have certainly worked with some couples who have decided to stay together but basically live separate lives for the most part. Maintaining the outside interests that you mention would be key in this regard.

Whether you decide to stay and work to make things better, stay but find your happiness in other ways, or ultimately make the difficult decision to leave the marriage, I hope that you find the peace you are looking for.

All the best,

Dr. Holly Counts

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