How Do Boundaries Work In A Toxic Marriage?

Have you ever been told you needed better boundaries? Just what does that mean? And how do boundaries work especially in a marriage with toxic and destructive communication or behaviors?

light sage green background with a photo of a couple holding hands, but the women is looking away. The title is on the top that reads How Do Boundaries Work in a Toxic Marriage?

What Is A Relational Boundary?

A boundary, much like a fence, separates your physical yard from your neighbors. A relational boundary differentiates one individual from another. Just like you get to choose whether to plant hydrangeas or roses in your yard, you have the freedom to be you. A boundary defines who you are, as well as what you are willing and not willing to do. It is yes or no.

Mutual respect of boundaries does

not mean one person wins

and the other loses-

they are mutually beneficial.

Even within marriage, each individual is given the freedom by God to have their own ideas, opinions, beliefs, thoughts, feelings and behaviors. When there is mutual respect of boundaries then a couple can be honest in their opinions and desires and work through the differences with give and take. It is not win or lose, it is mutually beneficial.

Boundaries In A Toxic And Destructive Relationship

In a toxic and destructive relationship one partner will assert control and manipulation over the other and demand they think, feel, and act a certain way.

Imagine your neighbor came over to your yard and tore up your Hydrangeas because they don’t like them. You would be furious! But what if you knew that if you said anything they would call you names, or tell you your feelings were not Godly, and that you should forgive them? After all they had good intentions. You should like roses more anyway. You could start to question your own thoughts and opinions. This would be a gutsy move on the neighbors part, but scenarios like this play out time and time again in unhealthy marriages when boundaries are not respected.

A healthy marriage does not need both people to agree on everything, a healthy marriage needs both people to respect and hold space for the other person to have their own ideas, thoughts and beliefs.

So what do I do when my spouse does not allow me to think, feel a certain way, or have my own opinions?

What do I do when they are mean or hurtful over and over again? They tell me I have to forgive them. Doesn’t God require unconditional love (and forgiveness) within marriage? 

Good questions!  Unconditional love and forgiveness do not equal unconditional relationship! Even Jesus respected when someone chose sin over him. He pulled away from them and they had consequences. 

Unconditional love and forgiveness does not equal unconditional relationship

In a marriage built on emotional abuse or toxic and destructive behavior, the consequence might be seeking outside assistance (professional counseling), or a temporary or permanent separation. *

What if my spouse is choosing to be destructive and toxic and not respect my boundaries? 

Marriage does not give someone a “get out of jail free” card. Destructive patterns need to be addressed in therapy where a trained counselor can help you navigate your relationship safely. If the relationship is severely toxic and destructive, then individual therapy will be needed first to create safety in the marriage relationship.

How Do We Heal Our Marriage?

According to Leslie Vernick, in order to heal a destructive marriage you need evidence of a change of heart not just changed behavior. Luke 3:8 calls these signs the “fruit of repentance”.

Signs of a change of heart:

1. Accepting personal responsibility and no longer blaming the other person


2. Making amends and accepting the natural consequences of destructive behavior


3. Displaying a willingness toward humility rather than a willfulness (stubbornness)

When the signs of a changed heart are present you will know because your boundaries will be cared for and respected. You will feel the freedom to be you!

**Do not address boundary issues in your marriage if you are afraid for your physical safety, talk to a professional counselor, call a domestic abuse hotline or dial 911 if you are in imminent danger.

*New Life Counseling does not actively promote divorce in all situations, nor do we take sides in a marriage. Our counselors are here to support the individual needs of our patients. We do view divorce from the lens of the bible which lists abuse among the reasons for divorce. However, separation is a very personal choice and one that is made by the patient.

This Post was written by:

Julie Roche, MA, LMHC

“I believe wholeheartedly in the therapeutic process. Learning to trust in a loving God and gaining tools to change my thinking, behaviors, and beliefs transformed my daily life. I would count it as a privilege to come alongside you in your journey of transformation.”

Julie sees patients in our West Des Moines office. You can call the office or email her to schedule an appointment.

Julie’s Recommended Resource:

https://leslievernick.com The Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Leslie Vernick is a wonderful book for women caught in an emotionally destructive marriage who are looking for biblical and practical advice.