Five Essential Boundaries for Marriage in an Age of Distraction and Temptation

Playground Fences

When I was in elementary school, our playground sat next to a major city thoroughfare, with the swing-set located only ten yards from cars driving 50+ MPH.

Why were 8-year-olds allowed to play on a swing-set so close to the road? Because the playground was surrounded by a tall fence, which acted as a boundary which separated the play area from the highway.

Without the boundary, teachers would have confined the children to a very small portion of the yard. The full play area would have been restricted out of fear for a child wandering into the busy road. With the boundary, we were free to explore and enjoy the entire playground, even the swing-set just yards from traffic.

The lesson: boundaries do not restrain freedom, they establish and protect it.

Marriage is a union where two individuals become fused in relationship. Not that individual personalities are dissolved or morphed into one, but that the oneness of the two has formed a new entity — the entity of a marriage.

I know some couples who have given their marriage a nickname, and when one feels as if they have not had enough quality time together, she will say, “Harvey (the marriage name) needs some attention.”

The point is that this entity, the marriage, needs nurture, care, and… protection.

This is why boundaries are so necessary. They protect the marriage from the dangers of the road.

Consider these five essential boundaries.

1) Work

Humans have been created to work. In fact, work was established by God in the garden of Eden before the fall of Adam and Eve. Work itself is not part of the curse.

Work is a way we reflect being made in the image of God. We are mini-creators, developers, and cultivators. We build, paint, design, write, etc.

However, work can become an idol. An idol is anything — even a good thing — that is turned into an ultimate thing. A good thing becomes an idol when we attach our very identity to it.

Idols are ways that we pursue rightness, or righteousness — something in which we can boast concerning ourselves.

Work is one of the most deceptive idols in western culture. This is one reason why some of us work… so hard… and so long. We work in the morning, through lunch and after dinner (if not during dinner). This is especially tempting with many vocations that now may access work online. It is now possible to work 24/7 — even on vacation (which undermines the very nature of a vacation, where we vacate ordinary life for a brief season of renewal).

I’m describing the classic workaholic.

The term workaholic is not meant to imply that work is bad. It just means the workaholic has lost a grip on moderation and has become addicted to the high it gives us when we get rewarded for it — either the reward of money, praise, or advancement.

The workaholic makes his work his identity.

If work is getting all our time and energy, what does that leave for “Harvey.” Not much — which is why we need to put healthy boundaries on work.

For some, this will require time-oriented boundaries. For example, I will turn off my phone and close my computer at 6:00 p.m. I will not work on the weekend, or on Sunday.

For others, time for Harvey will be a location boundary. For example, I may decide not to work from home so that I can be fully present with my family.

Work boundaries come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

The key to creating these boundaries and implementing them is to recognize which idol tends to interfere with my marriage, confess it and find my identity in the gift-rightness of Jesus, where I no longer need to make a name for myself by boasting in my work. I boast in his work.

2) Social Media and Email

Another growing threat to marriage is social media. Social media seems passive and harmless. Of course, like work, with moderation, social media can be a good thing. A way to stay connected with friends. A way to catch news headlines. A way to post memories.

Let me explain why it is more destructive than it may appear.

Social media is not only time-consuming and potentially addictive (like work), it can significantly interfere with the marriage relationship. Even after we have turned work off, it is possible to turn social media on, spending time with everyone you know except your spouse.

I heard someone say that social media is way that we make those who are far, near and those who are near, far. In other words, it is possible to invest much more emotional, relational energy in those who are far away than the spouse who is sitting on the same sofa. Precious time that could be invested in “Harvey” is given to someone else.

If time is money, marriage needs funding. Not just with dollars but with time.

In addition to social media, email poses a similar threat. To help me in this area, a friend suggested that I turn off notifications and check my email twice a day — at lunch and before dinner. Then, good night email.

3) Hobbies

Hobbies are a great way to flourish in your humanity. Not all our creative expression and enjoyment of creation itself happens through our vocational employment.

Hobbies can be life-giving and renewing, whether running, hiking, throwing pottery, painting, reading, woodworking, music, playing golf, fishing, etc.

However, just like social media, we can overindulge our hobbies to the detriment of the marriage.

Moderation is the principle here.

Enjoy hobbies and avocations! Just consider a boundary on the time will devote to lowering your golf handicap.

4) The Opposite Sex

This boundary is not an old wooden fence. It’s barbed wire, okay? Even if you feel compelled to push back. Wait. You want to treat spiked metal carefully.

Do not be alone with someone of the opposite gender who is not your spouse (or close relative). Period. This includes lunch appointments and running errands in the car.

I knew you would push back. Maybe even scoff.

You want to talk about playing on the swing-set next the street without a fence? Cross this boundary and you are asking to get run over.

For the sake of argument, let’s indulge the push back.

Why not have lunch with someone of the opposite gender?

For one, God has designed the eating of a meal to be more than merely fueling the body with calories. Sharing a meal (“breaking bread”) has been recognized from ancient times as a form of intimate fellowship. Even in our own day, when we take someone out on a date, we typically share a meal as part of that experience.

We deceive ourselves if we think that we are immune from centuries and centuries of experience here.

Not to mention, why dishonor your spouse with the unnecessary rumors. Even if they are not true. Do you really want your husband or wife sharing meals one-on-one with someone of the opposite sex?

The same goes for traveling together in a car. If you travel for a living and have an assistant who goes with you, either bring your spouse along or have an assistant of the same gender as yourself. Or take separate vehicles.

This is practical wisdom. Some call it the Billy Graham rule, as he was known to have practiced this principle of gender boundaries throughout his ministry.

Push back at your own peril. Billy Graham’s wife didn’t.

5) Opportunities

Some of us are simply over-committed. We say yes to every opportunity. We need to implement the boundary of “no.”

I have had to learn this hard way and wonder if I really have learned this lesson at all. The temptation to speak at events, lead a study, write an article, take on a meeting or go to a conference can be like a shiny bait spinning through the waves enticing me to take a bite.

Like the offer of salted caramel swirl, I find it hard to say no.

So, here is a challenge for you and me. We must learn to say no to the wrong things so that you can say yes to the right things. In order from becoming over-committed, we also will have to say “no” to good opportunities because if I am over-committed to everything, I cannot truly be committed to anything.

For the sake of your time and emotionally energy (which your marriage needs as much as anything else), you simply can’t do it all.

If there is no “margin time” in your day, you are too busy. You are over-committed. Which means you are not committed.

Just like the engine of a car shouldn’t be pushed at 7,000 RPMs for an extended period of time, neither should your emotional or physical capacity. Or just like books need some white space around the words, you need a margin for your marriage.

You may have to say “no” to serving on the committee this year, or teaching Sunday School, or taking the breakfast meeting, or speaking for the youth event. You may need to limit your business travel and time on social media. You may not make as much money or get the next promotion.

And your marriage will thank you.

While there is much more to say about boundaries, the one thing I want to emphasize is that boundaries are not merely rules to keep; they are ways to bless your spouse and family by giving yourself to them. It is this giving that reflects the sacrifice of Jesus, who laid down his life in order to bless his bride, the church.

What we discover is that establishing healthy boundaries is another way that grace manifests itself in marriage.

You may be wondering, “What about the sex boundary?” While we touched on that (no pun intended) above, an upcoming post will address that topic head-on. Get ready. Seat-belts are highly recommended.

Let’s Apply It

  1. Talk with your spouse about these principles. Ask, “What do you think?”
  2. Discuss and define your work boundaries.
  3. Discuss and define social media and email boundaries.
  4. Discuss and define boundaries with your hobbies.
  5. Reschedule any appointments with the other gender to the office, not the restaurant.

BOUNDARIES — Discussion Guide

  1. Why are boundaries important?
  2. What boundaries do you struggle with the most? How could this adversely affect your marriage?
  3. Why do you think we push back against certain boundaries, such as limiting social media or work? How can these good or neutral things become idols?
  4. Do you find it easy to say “no” to opportunities so that you can say “yes” to the right things? What happens when we get “over-committed?”
  5. Why is building in “margin time” to your life important for both personal and marital health?
  6. What would it look like and feel like to have margin time?
  7. How are boundaries a way to show grace to your spouse and family?