My friend Lisa started looking through her husbands email the other day while he was out of town. Her husband has had an affair partner for a while but he swore to Lisa it was over (sound familiar?). It’s come up 4 times now that he said it was over and she learned it wasn’t. I wasn’t surprised when she contacted me the other day and sent a screen grab of a graphic email between her husband and this other woman.
Now Lisa is beating herself up for looking at his email in the first place. For the sake of her son, she hasn’t asked her husband to move out. Lisa is obviously disappointed, and confused – and she has no idea what to do now. Should she Divorce? Call the other woman’s husband? Have an affair of her own? These are all extreme reactions and probably not the best choices but her confusion is made worse because she didn’t prepare herself for this day.
Because of Lisa’s experience I am going to write AGAIN about setting personal boundaries. I can’t tell you how important it is for anyone who deals with infidelity in marriage to know your limits and have a plan in place BEFORE you find out that he is still lying or cheating or who knows what. The time to make these decisions is not in the midst of a crisis. These decisions should be made when you are sane and strong and clear headed. I live in California and I have an earthquake plan. I know where the water and first aid and batteries are stored and know where to seek shelter in a major quake. It’s not a good idea to be figuring these things out while my house is falling down around me. This same concept can be applied to a marriage that is trying at times.
I can’t stress enough how valuable it is – in any relationship, but especially those with a history of wrongdoing – to have a comprehensive, written list of boundaries and consequences. It’s not an easy list to create, it takes a bit of time and editing to come up with something that both you and your spouse can abide by, and that at the same time makes you feel protected.
At the time I created my list, I didn’t realize how comforting it would be to pre-plan my reaction if there are any slips on his part in the future. It is a sign of respect to myself to put my needs first in a time of fear or crisis. The list is specific enough that there is no grey area for misunderstandings.
Some examples of boundaries are: Must share all computer/phone passwords, Must install anti-porn software on your computer, Must attend couples counseling, Must tell me within 24 hours if you have communication with any acting out partner, etc. Your boundaries will include any and everything that you feel needs to be on the list but realize that we still need to live in the real world. It’s unrealistic for me to say “if you ever lie, even for a second, about anything in the world, I will leave you”. That’s crazy. For my husband, his learned behavior from his crappy childhood is to lie when under pressure. He has been dealing with this a lot and has made progress but lying is an easy thing to resort to. That’s why he has 24 hours to come clean. That gives him time to call brothers from SAA, talk to his sponsor or therapist, etc. It’s fair. That’s what marriage is about.
Then their are the consequences. This does not mean punishment!! This is what I need to do to feel safe and take care of myself if I am ever in this situation again. For me, the concept of a therapeutic separation is vital – it gives me time to sort out my feelings and discuss my options with my therapist if something goes awry. There is no time limit on this separation, but when the shit hits the fan it’s important to have a specific plan in place including which of you is to leave the house, where will you go for the separation, etc – in the case of an emergency, you don’t want to be worrying about which friends couch you can sleep on.
Boundaries lists can and will change over time, but a starting place is really important. I urge everyone in a relationship that has been fraught with secrets, lies, affairs, etc to create a list and stick with it. If your list is fair and your husband won’t agree to it then it might be time to consider further your reasons for being in the relationship. This is why the consequence portion of this list is so very important.
In a million years I never dreamed my marriage would end up with such a list attached to it. But that’s life – and in this life us women sometimes need to put our needs first in order to thrive.
I want to remind you of a few other things that I previously wrote about on this subject:
First and foremost – a list of boundaries is not intended to be punishment for your partner/spouse. It is a list of behaviors that you will not tolerate. If we don’t define what we think is acceptable behavior it’s pretty shocking the things we will end up accepting. But if we utilize boundaries to create fences around our relationships, it helps us to stay on track. Once we know where the fence line is we know that we need to stop and reconsider our direction when we get to close to the edge.
Once we clearly state the boundaries in our relationship then there can be no excuses or misunderstandings. You see, if I never say that I’m not comfortable with my husband going to a strip club – and then he goes one day because it’s convenient and those things happen – he could just say “It was nothing – I didn’t know it would bother you” and I wouldn’t have any legitimate repercussion. Our partners can’t read our minds so we need to be very specific. There can be no grey area when it comes to setting boundaries, especially around sexual activities or other addictions. I say this because if your list is too vague then you might find excuses not to adhere to it when push comes to shove. If my friend Lisa simply said I will leave you if you ever cheat again – but didn’t define cheating to include emails – then she would still be confused about what to do today.
It’s not intended to be an unreasonable list which turns your mate into a married version of a monk. The list needs to be reasonable and is best created with an empathetic heart . It’s essentially a more detailed extension of a wedding vow. If he was willing to commit in front of God and family that he would be faithful and loyal on your wedding day – then expanding on what exactly that means to you shouldn’t be an issue. Your boundaries could include details about money, your children, how you communicate – anything that you feel is necessary to make yourself feel safe. It took me weeks to finalize my list – to make sure that it was inclusive and that it was fair.
Most of all, it’s not about what he does – it’s about the consequences and how you will react in response to him overstepping his boundaries. I have been in horrible relationships in my life. I have accepted lying, cheating, drinking, abuse – you name it. I had very few boundaries and the ones I did have kept getting pushed away as things got worse. The reason my ‘boundaries’ didn’t work was because I hadn’t determined the consequences if they weren’t adhered to. You need to state very clearly how you will react if boundaries are violated. And you have to follow through with any consequence you set – if you don’t follow through then you’ll be telling your partner that your wishes don’t need to be respected. A boundary without a consequence is just a hope.
None of this is easy but I am lucky enough to have an exceptional therapist who guides me through this process. Also, my husband is committed to getting & staying sober and is supportive of implementing these tools. I am so grateful for that.