Let’s look at boundaries within your marriage today. Bill and Robin had been married about fifteen years. Overall they had a good marriage, but there was a conflict they never had resolved. Bill had a habit of being late. In talking with him, I think the pattern of lateness went beyond his marriage, but Robin was adamant it was only with her. If they were going to meet for dinner, Bill was late. If Robin cooked a special meal at home for dinner, Bill was late. If they were trying to get someplace on time, Robin was always ready but Bill was late.
For the first few years of marriage, Robin accepted Bill’s lateness. She really did not like it and would mention it to him at times, but consistently she let it go. Then one day as she sat in a restaurant waiting on Bill, she began to get angry. By the time Bill arrived she was furious and broke down in angry tears. That became their pattern for the next ten years. Bill’s lateness was driving a huge wedge between them. It was to the point that Robin would start getting mad before he was late because she knew he would be.
As we talked about this in counseling, I knew Bill’s commitment to work on the problem was not going to solve the problem. He had done that for years. I suggested setting a boundary. They listened as I laid out a plan for them. If they were to meet for dinner, Robin would wait five minutes; if Bill was not there she would leave. The same five-minute rule was true for dinner at home. After five minutes, Robin and the kids would eat without Bill; he could heat up his meal when he got home. If they agreed to leave home to go someplace at a certain time and Bill was five minutes late getting ready, Robin would kiss him good-bye and drive alone. I stressed that this was not punishment for Bill; it was just the natural consequence to his actions. They both agreed, and we put the five-minute plan into action.
This is what happened: Robin’s anger subsided. She now had a plan, and she was able to stop personalizing Bill’s lateness. For Bill, it took some time—and finding empty tables at restaurants, eating warmed-up dinners at home, and driving alone to events. It has now been two years since Bill and Robin agreed on this boundary. I saw them a couple of weeks ago. As we caught up, Robin said she could not remember the last time Bill was late, and Bill just smiled.
Boundaries must be fair and consistent and done out of love in a marriage. It’s not about either spouse winning. Robin and Bill set a boundary so their marriage could win—and it did!