Boundaries and Divorce: Cutting the Ties that Bind
by Kim Johnson
Your divorce is final at last (or close to it). You want to move on and leave it all behind. Yet, trying to navigate the murky waters of your new life can feel like you’re drowning. Anger, resentment and frustration are your everyday companions, especially if you share children with your ex.
The Need for Boundaries
Communicating with an ex-husband can be very difficult. It’s no surprise if your discussions always end in an argument. Deep resentments and hurts can still seethe under the surface. Hot buttons are not quickly forgotten and pushing them are way too easy. And before you realize it, you’re dealing with the same conflicts that occurred before your divorce.
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to establish firm boundaries. Knowing you need them is only the first step. Setting them takes time and thought because boundaries do not come naturally. If you didn’t learn them as a child, understanding when to say no, and even yes, can be hard to discern.
What are Boundaries?
The best place to start is to understand what boundaries are and how they apply to you. Dr. Henry Cloud, author of the book Boundaries, writes:
“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom. If I know where my yard begins and ends, I am free to do with it what I like. Taking responsibility for my life opens up many different options. However, if I do not ‘own’ my life, my choices and options become very limited.”
In other words, a personal boundary is how you control you, not how you control others. For instance, liking or disliking a certain food is up to you. But you have no power over someone else liking or disliking the same food. You can express how you feel about something, but you cannot tell someone else how to feel about it. No one can “feel” for us. No one can “behave” for us. No one can “think” for us. That’s why we need boundaries.
- A way to identify your personal responsibility.
- Needed in your mental, physical, spiritual, emotional, sexual, and relational life.
- Completely individual. You cannot control another’s boundaries just as they cannot control yours.
- A way to behave to minimize the impact of someone else’s choices.
Boundaries are NOT:
- Rules to control others (spouses, parents, friends, etc.).
- A way to punish someone. Boundaries may have consequences, but they aren’t punitive.
- A way to disconnect with someone, even God.
- A way to take responsibility and ownership for something that isn’t yours.
In a perfect world, ex-husbands (and even their new partners) could share their lives in peace. BBQ’s, parties, dealing with former in-laws and even co-parenting would be a breeze. Unfortunately, human nature prevents a divorce Utopia like this from happening. One hurt revisited, one hot button pushed or one disrespected situation lights a fuse that can blow the entire thing apart. With no boundaries, the fallout is constant.
A high-conflict ex-spouse can also create the need for setting limits. Other things to consider: Was the marriage healthy and free of abuse? Was the decision to divorce mutual or instigated by one partner who left abruptly for someone else? Was lying or gaslighting happening? Was one spouse a narcissist who was selfish and self-centered? Additionally, the orders in your divorce judgment may have some bearing on what you can and cannot do.
This is why a line must be drawn in the sand. It must be precise, well planned and protected. And it starts with giving some thought to the places in your life that carry the most friction. Areas like communication, time with kids, your home, your finances, and extended family relationships. There is no exact formula to setting boundaries. However, the following is an “IDEA” to help get the process started.
- I – Identify the frustration and who is involved (Examples: anger, meddling, disrespect, etc.).
- D – Decide your wish/want/need/limit.
- E – Express (communicate) your wish/want/need/limit as a boundary.
- A – Act on it.
To assist you in determining your boundary, here is an example and what to do:
- Identify the frustration. Anytime you try to communicate with your ex-husband about your children, the discussion ends up in an argument. He cuts you off or doesn’t listen to what you have to say.
- Decide your wish/want/need/limit. You sincerely want to have a calm conversation with your ex about your kids. There are things you feel he needs to know or decisions that need to be made.
- Express your wish/want/need/limit. Leave your ex a message, send an email, or write a letter carefully explaining your desire to include him in your decisions about the kids. You will continue to try unless he continues to allow his anger to take over. BOUNDARY: “When you become angry, I will stop the conversation and discontinue the discussion.”
- Act on it. This is the most difficult part of the process. Once you express your desire, set the boundary, state the consequence, then you must be ready to DO it consistently.
While the “IDEA” of setting boundaries may seem overwhelming or too difficult, think of it as protection. By establishing a firm limit, you are protecting what is important to you. Once the line is drawn, you will be able to relax and be more flexible. It’s like getting a security system in your house. You turn on the system at night so you can sleep knowing it will alert you if someone breaks into your home. When you establish your boundary and follow-through, you can begin to relax as frustrations are minimized.
Examples of Good and Not so Good Boundaries
You may have poor boundaries and not even realize it. Here are some things to consider to help you identify where you need boundaries in your life.
- You fail to speak up when you’re treated badly (allowing your ex to berate and criticize you).
- You give away too much of your time (dropping everything when your mom calls even though you have a load on your own plate).
- You agree with a person when you actually feel like disagreeing (go along just to get along).
- You say “yes” to a person when you want to say “no.”
- You feel guilty for dedicating time to yourself (you feel selfish for realistic me time).
- Your relationships are toxic (you are always giving and others are always taking).
- You are passive aggressive and might have manipulative tendencies (as a way of trying to regain your lost power).
- You’re out of touch with your needs.
- You have chronic fear about what others think of you.
If you recognize yourself in more than 3 of the statements above, you most likely have never been able to set boundaries in your life. You can start taking control by considering the following suggestions:
- Saying No
Fear may cause you to often sacrifice your needs for someone else’s. However, you can give yourself permission to say no if that’s what you really want to do. No can be said kindly but assertively.
- Refusing to Take Blame
When someone blames you for their anger, it really isn’t your fault. You cannot “make” someone get mad. That’s their response to own, not your responsibility. Acknowledge their pain, let them know you are there for them but emphasize you will not accept responsibility for their actions.
- Expecting Respect
Expecting kindness and good communication is reasonable. When someone treats you disrespectfully, you have the right to remove yourself from the scenario.
- Developing Your Own Feelings
When you’ve been part of a couple, opinions and emotions can become blurred. So, it can take time to understand your true feelings. Be aware of your emotions and don’t let someone invalidate how you feel.
- Finding Your Identity Outside of a Relationship
Codependency can lead to a melding of identities. And if you were codependent in your marriage relationship, “I” and “me” may have gotten lost in the mix. Remember you are your own person with passions, interests, and talents.
- Uneasiness in Communicating
Being single again can make it difficult or uncomfortable to articulate your feelings. Expressing your emotions, even discomfort, clearly will help in setting your boundaries. Speak up when you feel uncomfortable and let it be known you will not tolerate being put in that position. Then, plan a course of action when someone crosses that boundary. Phrases like “Please don’t do that, it makes me uncomfortable” or “I don’t like it when you _______, (example: use that word, touch me there, use that tone) are much clearer and more concise.
What is the bottom line? You can and should have a peaceful life after divorce. That means you will need to work to separate from any drama, disengage from endless arguments, and set boundaries to protect your time and space. The more someone pushes past your limits, the deeper the line must be drawn in the sand. In fact, you should expect boundary-crashers to ramp up their behavior. Toxic people seem to want to stay toxic. So be prepared to dig in your heels and push right back responsibly.
There is one more thing to remember. If your boundaries are crossed in a dangerous or illegal way, DO NOT hesitate to contact the proper authorities. This can be your attorney or even the police. Harassment or stalking in any form must not be tolerated. If you find yourself in physical danger, your safety is a job for professionals.
Post-divorce, an ex-spouse can cause havoc or even try to block your attempts to move on in a healthy and positive way. Setting boundaries and being firm in your resolve will ultimately help you move forward in this new season. It is possible for your heart to heal and to live an emotionally whole life after divorce.