Boundaries for Couples Facing Porn Addiction

Henry Cloud and John Townsend have written a marvelous book called Boundaries in Marriage. They define a boundary simply as “a property line” between one person and another. They make this statement:

“When two people together take responsibility to do what is best for the marriage, love can grow. When they do not, one takes on too much responsibility and resents it; the other does not take on enough, and becomes self-centered or controlling.”

That, I think, is a dynamic that so many couples dealing with a pornography addiction can understand. The addict is addicted, and the spouse takes responsibility to “fix” and help.

Now, there’s no shame in trying to fix things. Fixing and helping is what happens when you’ve got a problem in the family. That’s normal. I did it. My friends do it. Every wife I’ve worked with in therapy does it.

Unfortunately, I’ve never seen the fixing and helping actually fix or help anything.

It just leaves everybody feeling frustrated, exhausted, discouraged, and stuck.

The Boundaries Way

When fixing and helping don’t work, there is another way: boundaries. But boundaries are a total paradigm shift, and it takes time for us to be motivated enough—usually by extreme pain—to stop fixing and helping, and get some boundaries in place.

With boundaries, we draw a line between “me” and “you.” We differentiate. Instead of all living in the same lump of a problem, trying to fix it and help it, we step back and breathe a little. Then we start to see what belongs to you, and what belongs to me. We each have God-given freedom and responsibility. We each acknowledge this and make new choices accordingly.

God has given me a free will, and I receive it. With that gift of freedom comes responsibility, and I embrace my own choices, behaviors, and emotions.

God has given my husband a free will, and I allow it. With my husband’s freedom comes his own responsibility, and I allow him to have that as well. Even if he chooses not to take responsibility for his choices, behaviors, and emotions, I won’t carry it for him. It’s his to do with as he chooses.

That sounds simple, but when I talk about this process with women, they often feel scared. They’re afraid their husbands will do terrible things if they stop fixing and helping. What’s more, they feel guilty about considering their own needs and wants. They are sure that boundaries are selfish, mean, unloving, and just too scary.

It is true that, with boundaries, my husband makes choices for himself, and those choices are not always what I want. He says no to my preferences sometimes. That’s hard, and I have to learn to trust that God will be with me, even when I am scared and disappointed and hurt and angry. God will carry me through.

God is my God, not my husband.

It is also true that, with boundaries, I make choices for myself, and those choices are not always what my husband wants. There are times when I just say no. I have had to learn to trust that the he will be okay, even if I disappoint him. The way I respect him in that situation is by letting him feel how he feels.

  • He might be mad or hurt or disappointed or scared. God will have to carry him through.
  • If he tries to push the responsibility for his emotions onto me, by verbal put-downs or angry outbursts, I will remove myself from the situation so that he and God can be alone together and work it out.

God is his God, not me.

Here is another thing that I’ve found. When I am first very clear and honest about what I feel and what I need and what I want, I can then make a real choice. I can choose what I want, or I can make a choice that is not exactly what I want, out of sacrificial love for the other person. When I choose to give, it’s a real gift.

When I am not clear and honest about what I feel and what I want, then I will spend a whole lot of my time giving other people what I think they want, hoping that they will in return spend an equal amount of energy giving me what I want.

That’s a “sacrifice” for the purpose of manipulation. And while that might masquerade as love, it’s just control with lipstick on it.

God’s love for us is a sacrificial love, not a controlling love. He loves us, and He lets us choose whether or not to be in a close relationship with Him. I think of the parable of the prodigal son. The Father’s love never wavered, but he let that kid go into the far country and live in a pigsty until he was ready to come home. I don’t think that was a fun time for anybody, but it speaks to me when I think about how freedom and responsibility and love and boundaries all work together.

Here are some example boundaries from Boundaries in Marriage, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

Verbal boundaries might sound something like this:

  • “If you speak to me that way, I will leave the room.”
  • “I love you, but I don’t trust you right now.  I can’t be that close until we work this out.”
  • “When you show me that you are serious about getting some help, I will feel safe enough to open up to you again.”

Physical boundaries might comprise:

  • Removing yourself from any situation that makes you uncomfortable
  • Taking time away to think through situations for yourself
  • Moving out for a period of time
  • Separating from an abusive situation

Emotional boundaries could include:

  • Bringing in a third party to help resolve conflict
  • Finding a support group for yourself
  • Attending counseling sessions for yourself 

I wish I could tell you that having good boundaries will for sure fix your life into exactly what you want it to be, right now, today. But the truth is, real boundaries are a risky thing. We don’t know what the other person will choose. The truth is, life is scary and it hurts and sometimes I get mad and I wish I could control it and manipulate it and fix it and tie it up in a pretty pink bow.

But in my saner moments I know this: I will choose freedom and responsibility, and an honest mess of love that hurts over the fake-perfection of pretend, every time. Because when we hold onto our boundaries, and battle through with God’s help, there is real love and real relationship and real freedom waiting at the end of the road.

So every day, I try to do these things.

  • Tell the truth: the straight-up, honest truth about what’s happening.
  • Feel the feelings: sad, mad, scared, disappointed, jealous, abandoned, neglected, overlooked.
  • Receive God’s grace and freedom for myself, right now, in the mess.
  • Extend grace and freedom to others, right where they are.
  • Make my choices.
  • State my boundaries clearly.
  • Let go and let God.

This is a joyous and life-giving way to exist in every area of life.

Also, it is messy and painful and challenging. And God is enough, even for this.