What Happens in Your Marriage When You Try to Set Personal Boundaries?

Coupled Moms who try to set limits get different reactions. However most experience extremes. They are either, rewarded with stronger connection or penalized with passive aggression, from their partners.

How does setting boundaries with your partner affect the relationship? Nearly 200 coupled Moms responded to this question anonymously. The results? Like everything-married-life, it’s complicated. Positive outcomes only slightly outpace negative ones for surveyed Moms. Trying to protect time and energy by renegotiating expectations with your spouse, gets tricky.

“It’s hard to ask for time for myself. When I do ask, even after a full day at work and taking care of the house and kids, I feel like my partner isn’t supportive. Even if he’s not doing anything productive himself. It makes me resentful.”

One surveyed Mom’s response

Did you understand how marriage would change after kids? Right. Few people do. Hours of togetherness become little scraps of ‘hey’ and ‘did you buy milk?’ The tenderness drains from daily discourse. Slowly. Time to connect is completely displaced by the kids’ schedules. Married time becomes time spent working together. Working on the beast that is running a household. Working for the right to keep working at our jobs. If we’re not careful, all of this working, juices the romance out.

Starved of time, the marriage and the people in it, suffer. We begin breathing little puffs of air into ourselves, and our partnerships, intermittently.

The State of Married Boundaries

Moms, who get positive relationship outcomes from setting boundaries (51%) have their needs respected right away (38%) or the relationship eventually gets stronger from healthy debate (13%.) However it’s not a clear win for all couples. Nearly half of surveyed Moms (45%) experience negative (33%) consequences like conflict, tension, passive aggression and loss of intimacy or it’s completely unpredictable (12%.) One Mom explained her mindset going into the discussion matters, “If I’m grounded in my request or response, and feeling healthy and positive about our relationship, it strengthens it. If I’m in a reactive or emotionally unsteady space or feeling undervalued, it can create distance or misunderstandings.”

7 Ways The Relationship Changes When Coupled Moms Set Personal Boundaries

Improves mutual respect and/or the relationship.38%
Prompts a discussion or debate but ultimately improves the relationship.13%
Creates conflict, disagreements or tension.20%
Variable or unpredictable outcome.12%
Creates guilt, hurt feelings &/or sadness.7%
Negatively affects intimacy.4%
Leads to passive aggression &/or lack of help with household.2%
Other4%

When it works, it’s amazing and validating. However, because asking for what we need is vulnerable and can feel awkward, most Moms report approaching boundary setting discussions with caution.

Healthy Debate With Your Spouse Is Possible

Moms, who are in couples that get it right, explained they’ve learned to trust the process, even if the first conversation doesn’t go well. One Mom said, “It’s uncomfortable in the moment but does not affect things in the long run.” Several Moms, quoted below, shared similar stories:

“… I’m encouraged to take care of myself and feel my decisions/requests are respected. Sometimes my needs are in conflict with my husbands, but we’ve gotten good at sorting through it pretty unemotionally/rationally and respecting each other.

“My partner is incredibly respectful and sensitive to my boundaries. I am very lucky.”

“My partner is very supportive of my boundaries and does a lot to help me protect them, so when I do step up and say something and he responds in a very respectful and positive way, I feel like it makes our relationship a lot stronger. He understands that I don’t often ask for things and so when I do, he makes it a priority to respect that.”

“It makes me much happier and it eventually leads to my partner having a higher respect for me.”

Equitable Sharing of Housework & Childcare Remains Divisive

A lot of Moms expressed challenges sharing housework and childcare arrangements which then lead to problems keeping personal boundaries. To underscore this point, a recent time use study, showed Moms partnered to Dads, do more housework and sleep less than single Moms. Dr. Ramani Durvasula, Author, Psychotherapist and Couples expert said, “Many couples maintain equality with household chores until they have kids. (The shift) is stealth, it happens when you take on the mothering role.”

When Moms married to Dads realize that instead of sharing the work, his presence magnifies the work, it changes everything. The shock and resentment becomes corrosive. The sentiments shared are consistent with ‘couples’ results from the Mental Load Study, if a partner resists when asking for help from overwhelm, our very personhood feels at stake! Several Moms, quoted below, expressed frustration: 

 “It’s hard to ask for time for myself. When I do ask, even after a full day at work, taking care of house and kids, I feel like my partner isn’t supportive, even if he’s not doing anything productive himself. It makes me resentful.”

“…My boundaries are adjusted when partner works more than I would like and I have to carry more of household strain in evenings. This makes me frustrated and impacts the relationship.”

“…Not well. It feels like my needs should always come after everyone else’s. Even when in general this is the default in the rare instance of me insisting on something for myself it is always met with huge resistance and I need basically to fight and debate endlessly in order to obtain anything. Meaning most of the time I don’t consider it worth my while and just take care of things myself.”

Setting Boundaries Can Surface Unexpected Differences  

A number of Moms detailed that the hardest boundary challenges arise when there’s a fundamental difference in expectations. As shared by Moms quoted below, in some couples it’s how to spend time and for others, who to spend it with:

“He crosses my boundaries often because he likes a lot more activity than I do and wants to socialize all the time. He always invites people over and it is tough for me. We have had many arguments about it!”

 “… Not wanting to spend another holiday away from my family, puts a stress on our relationship.”

Many Moms also described conflicts when standing firm on decisions about their own bodies, including how they look and what they eat.

“He is a saboteur! Don’t cut your hair … Making sweets when I am clearly dieting.”

“I have never felt pressure on boundaries outside of perhaps weight loss. The occasional times it comes up as, ‘it’s important to look good for your partner and vice versa.’ It has occasionally led to arguments over perceptions.”

The Strain Can Lead to Distance & Loss of Intimacy

The disconnection that can happen in a relationship makes the grind of the work that much harder. A number of Moms including those quoted below, explained boundary setting can negatively affect sex and intimacy, or that different levels of desire present challenges:

“Sometimes it strengthens it, but sometimes the boundaries get in the way of greater intimacy.”

“Well, we obviously do better as a couple when we protect boundaries and make time for the relationship. Depending on the particular phase we are in, it ranges from being totally doable to aspirational at best.”

“I think this is the trickiest of all for so many reasons….knowing that you’re letting someone down that you love If you don’t engage physically as much as your spouse would like when your spouse is actually very understanding of your sheer physical and mental exhaustion. And you know if you just engage more physically it will Make everyone happier and more Fulfilled but because of the physicality of it, feels like you’re explicitly crossing your own mental and physical boundaries to do it.”

Some Partners Behave Badly & the Tension Escalates

We begin to mistrust the motives of partners who can’t respond to our pleas for help. Some surveyed Moms, including a few quoted below, opened up about how advocating for themselves can lead their partners to act out.

“He gets irritated and I hate arguing and am bad at it.”

“I’m considered ‘moody’ or (perceived as thinking) that he’s not important. It’s frustrating and emotionally draining!”

“(I receive) the silent treatment. Childish obviously.”

“My husband doesn’t always seem to care when I give feedback that he is doing something that bothers me. I ask him several times a day to stop talking over/interrupting me or turning something positive into something negative.”

Healthy Boundaries at Home Are a Must 

We love our partners. When the relationship is strong, it magical and we’re happier. Moms, if you’re already a boundary setting ninja with great outcomes, bravo! For the rest of us, finding ways to maintain personal boundaries, is vital for self-care and growth. It’s especially tempting, in our noisy and pressured world, to make concessions that lead to peace at home. However, unresolved conflict isn’t good for anybody, and ultimately hurts us. Imagine how transformative it would be to soak up, not just give, support?

If you need to get in sync with your partner about sharing household and childcare, Drop the Ball by Tiffany Dufu and Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love & Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte are brilliant books, about exactly that. The Better Life Lab, where Brigid now works and writes, recently began posting short ‘experiments’ to demystify having tough conversations that lead to fairness at home. However, if you’re generally prone to martyrdom and people-pleasing (let’s face it our society seems to give Moms prizes for this) then KJ Dell’Antonia’s awesome book ‘How to be a Happier Parent’ tackles the subtle and direct ways to bake more joyful experiences into how we think and structure our time.

Equal partnerships, of all kinds, thrive. One surveyed Mom shared the beauty of setting boundaries, “I think it helps my relationship in that I know some parts of me are off-limits. Protecting boundaries can be a quiet but loving gift.” YES! Let’s commit to achieve this with our partners, even if the progress is slow, the breakthrough potential for our wellbeing is worth it.


Thank you to all of the Moms who participated in the survey and special thanks to Dr. Ramani Durvasula for her sage advice on boundary setting, couples dynamics and guilt. 

About Dr. Ramani,

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Monica and Sherman Oaks, CA and Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, where she was named Outstanding Professor in 2012. She is also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

She is the author of the modern relationship survival manual Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist. She is also the author of “Don’t You Know Who I Am?”: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility, and You Are WHY You Eat: Change Your Food Attitude, Change Your Life, as well as the author of numerous peer reviewed journal articles, book chapters and conference papers.

Dr. Ramani received her B.S. in Psychology from the University of Connecticut, and her MA and Ph.D. degrees in Clinical Psychology from UCLA.

She brings a wealth of expertise in relationships, sexuality, health and wellness. Dr. Ramani was the co-host of Oxygen’s series My Shopping Addiction, and has also been featured on series on Bravo, the Lifetime Movie Network, National Geographic, the History Channel, Discovery Science, and Investigation Discovery as well as in documentary films on health. She has been a featured commentator on nearly every major television network, as well as radio, print, and internet media.

Dr. Ramani is also involved in national governance in the field of psychology and has served as the chair of the Committee on Socioeconomic Status at the American Psychological Association and is presently a member of the Advisory Board of the Minority Fellowship Program of the American Psychological Association.

Enjoy Ramani’s TEDx Talk and follow her great adventures on her website, Twitter, FacebookInstagram and  YouTube.

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