5 minute read

5 Common Myths About Setting Boundaries

Last Updated: December 3, 2019

Coach Sarah

Coach Sarah is a Certified Professional, Relationship, and Partner Coach at Betrayal Trauma Recovery, trained by the Association of Partners of Sexual Addicts Trauma Specialists (APSATS). She is passionate about using her story and her training to help people heal from the devastation of betrayal trauma and the effects of gaslighting. Working alongside therapists, Sarah provides support and care through individual coaching, group work, classes and workshops. She’s also a mom to two amazing kids. Sarah lives with her daughter and son in Austin, TX.

Here’s an everyday occurance in my office: A woman who is betrayed, wounded, confused and traumatized, seeking to feel safe and stable within her own marriage, tried to set a boundary about porn in her home—hoping to avoid future episodes of betrayal and deception. In response to this attempt, her husband told her, “Stay on your side of the street, work on your own issues, and stop trying to control my recovery.”

Feeling defeated and powerless, she raises the question with me, half expecting me to agree with her husband. A look of utter relief crosses her face, when I say, “You have every right to ask for what you need to feel safe in your own home!”

As a Betrayal Trauma Recovery coach, I’ve spent the last six years coaching clients through the topic of boundaries—so I’m pretty clued in to the myths spoken by porn addicts (and believed by their partners). When porn users don’t want boundaries that minimize their access, they respond in ways that effectively intimidate, manipulate, or gaslight their partners, dissuading them from the act of setting healthy boundaries that protect them from the impact of porn within their homes and families.

Well guess what, friends? For every powerful myth, there’s an equally powerful fact. Here are five of the most common (and mostly incorrect) myths about boundaries, along with the facts that can save your sanity:

Myth 1: “You’re trying to control my recovery—and that’s not your responsibility.”

Partners of porn users often hear this when asking for specific and measurable recovery behaviors.

Fact: There’s a huge difference between controlling recovery and defining it! In reality, we define boundaries all the time, perhaps without even recognizing it. For example, when I tell my kids that we can’t have a cat (because I’m deathly allergic), I am defining what is good and safe for me to have in our house—and what is not. This is called defining my limits. It’s a statement about what I (and by extension, we as a family), can and cannot handle within the space we call home. Setting healthy boundaries is not about controlling anyone else. It’s is about defining what you need based on who you are and your unique set of life experiences and circumstances.

Myth 2: “You’re just doing this to punish me.”

Partners of porn users often hear this when asking for for physical and emotional space, like separate sleeping arrangements or periods of sexual abstinence.

Fact: This is one of the many classic gaslighting statements in response to healthy boundaries. In reality, although boundaries may feel like punishment to the one using porn, healthy boundaries are never created for the purpose of seeking retribution. Boundaries are not about doing anything “to” another person; boundaries are about doing something “for” your own soul, to give yourself (and by extension, your relationship) the best possible chance at healing the wounds of sexual betrayal. When a human being feels unsafe, a healthy response involves taking action to protect your fragile and vulnerable heart, mind, body, and soul. This isn’t only your personal right, it’s also your personal responsibility.

Myth 3: “I’ll never be good enough. You expect too much!”

Partners of porn users often hear this when boundaries have been violated, ignored, or dishonored, and it usually reflects the misdirected shame of loved ones who haven’t met your minimum need for healthy recovery behaviors.

Fact: While it’s true that we all have our limitations, and that human beings rarely change overnight, porn users often use this statement to gaslight others into believing that expectations (such as consistency, honesty, and fidelity) are the source of the problem at hand—when in fact, it’s chronic boundary violations (such as lusting, lying, and hiding) that most often undermine recovering relationships.

The reality is, you get to decide what healthy behaviors you need to feel safe, respected, clear-minded, and peaceful within your relationship. If your partner isn’t meeting these needs, this does not mean that you expect too much—it means the other person is not willing or able to work hard enough to maintain a healthy relationship with you.

Myth 4: “You’re trying to change me—but you’re the one who needs to change.”

Partners of porn users often hear this when confronting their loved ones’ lack of long-term emotional and relational sobriety.

Fact: In reality, there’s a grain of truth to this one. Unfortunately, the best boundaries in the world won’t motivate change in someone who doesn’t want to change.

When I coach women through creating and maintaining healthy boundaries, I emphasize that our “authentic power” is not about creating change in the other person; rather, empowerment involves owning our reality, embracing our needs, and understanding that we have choices in response to every reality. We can choose to make requests, create boundaries, and take positive actions to meet our own needs. We’re also free to change our mind, pursuing a different course of action—a decision sometimes motivated by our loved ones’ responses to our needs and boundaries.

Myth 5: “When did this become all about you? Putting your needs first is selfish.”

Partners of porn users often hear this when recovery (the behaviors we need to heal from betrayal trauma) require our loved ones to make a practical, personal, or painful sacrifice.

Fact: Every single partner I’ve ever met has struggled with this question, because putting our needs first can legitimately feel selfish—even to us! Here’s why:

In relationships that exist without porn addiction, partners rarely need to articulate boundaries to provide self-protection; however, in relationships where one party uses porn, such relational “norms” go right out the window. Most of us didn’t fall in love with our partners believing they would undermine our sanity, safety, and spirituality; however, that’s precisely what happens when our partners use, choose, and hide porn (and more).

By one argument, one simple solution would involve leaving a damaged relationship, after it’s been proven to lack such basic, fundamental elements of relational safety. But the reality is, very few partners of porn addicts make that choice, especially within the first two years following discovery of their loved ones’ issue.

Instead, most of us do everything possible to save our struggling relationships, rallying to meet betrayal with new proactive, self-protective boundaries, choosing to create safety for  ourselves (and our children) by whatever means necessary—even when doing so feels uncomfortably selfish.

Let me emphasize this fact because it’s so important: Partners of porn addicts don’t work to protect ourselves because we’re selfish: we work to protect ourselves because our loved ones don’t. We don’t prioritize our needs because we are selfish; we’ve learned to prioritize our needs because our loved ones have ignored them.

We haven’t developed self-care, self-love, and self respect as the easy byproducts of basic self-centeredness; we’ve developed them from the rubble of our most sacred relationships, space wherein our most centered selves have been diminished, devalued, and depleted.

Bottom Line: Boundaries Are Not Selfish

Bottom line? It’s time for us to debunk the myth that setting healthy boundaries is about selfishness; setting healthy boundaries is, at its heart and soul, about self-preservation. As I close, let me tell you the same thing I told that wounded woman in my office:

Boundaries aren’t easy. Boundaries are complicated. Boundaries come in all different shapes and sizes, which means it takes take time to figure them out. Different people have different needs, so there’s process of trial and error, to see what works and what doesn’t.

All that being true, there is safety to be found in good, healthy boundaries. That’s why we need them, and that’s why we work so hard to create them. Learning to understand boundaries is one of the most important things you can do for your own healing—and trust me on this, it’s one of the most valuable keys you’ll ever find when seeking happy, healthy relationships.

If you’ve heard (and believed) one or more of these myths, here’s the good news: you’re now halfway down the path to overcoming these five most common (and most crucial) misunderstandings about boundaries! By overcoming these myths, and grounding yourself in these truths, you are well on your way toward creating safety and stability within your heart, home, and life.

If my clients and I can do it, I know you can too.

Note: Special thanks to Gaelyn Emerson for her editorial contributions to this article.

  • Comments on: 5 Common Myths About Setting Boundaries
    1. Heather on

      I would like to know more about how far boundaries can extend. Should recovering addicts drop all self-centered activities, such as sports, to focus on group accountability, Pastoral counseling, Church meetings, and family healing? I believe those things must take priority over recreational activity for the addict. My husband claims to be set free from porn, but I still want to see consistency in these areas. He says I am controlling for myself having a trauma response to his failure to go to Church over a soccer game. He has abandoned me and the family to soccer for years, and a lot of the time would see prostitutes before or after playing soccer. He has seen counselors, but nothing consistent. He prays regularly, talks about how Jesus has delivered him from this sexual struggle, meets with a men’s group once a month, and goes to Church as long as there is no scheduled soccer game to interfere. I am seeking divorce because I feel he is not willing to sacrifice self-serving activities, and show consistency with accountability. He and others claim I am to extreme, and should be satisfied with the positive changes he has made. Bottom line, the trust has not been rebuilt.

      Reply
      • Kay Bruner on

        Hey Heather,

        If your husband was seeing prostitutes before or after soccer, then I can completely understand your trauma response to the situation you describe. It does seem to me that if he really wanted to rebuild trust, he would do whatever it takes, including and especially giving up soccer when it is so closely associated with his sexual addiction.

        Given the severity of his acting out, where he has clearly broken the marriage covenant by visiting prostitutes, it looks to me like all of your options are open even with the most stringent religious standards applied.

        Boundaries can extend as far as you need them to extend.

        Your husband can say that Jesus has saved him, but actions speak louder than words every time.

        Here and here are a couple of articles on divorce that should be helpful, and that you might pass along to others.

        Peace to you,
        Kay

      • Tish on

        10 years ago after dealing with a husband who was addicted to pornography…I chose to leave him…because he refused to admit that he was doing anything wrong with any consistency. So between that and other mental health issues…I felt that my boundaries had to include a complete and total cut off of my relationship with him. Because my mental health was going through the wringer.

      • Kay Bruner on

        You are a woman of strength and courage. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

      • Michael W on

        For many of us addicts, sport can be an important activity, a healthy activity that is to be encouraged. But, what you are describing is not sport, but sport-watching. Also, what you are describing does not sound healthy because it is all-consuming. It actually can be quite addictive in its own right because it is another form of escape from real life.

        I am a member of a 12-step Sex Addiction Recovery group. We define behaviours as inner-circle – like porn. Outer Circle – like attending recovery meetings, church, prayer, bible-study, meditation etc, and Middle circle, which covers everything in between these.

        It is for each addict to define their own circles. We are addicts by our own definition. Whilst this might seem like watering down the strict Biblical position, it is not. It is more about recognising what we can and cannot do at the moment. it is about progress rather than perfection.

        I wonder where your husband would put sports-watching? It does not sound like outer circle, nor inner circle. But, because it can lead him towards his inner circle, and is closely allied to inner-circle behaviour, I would suggest is it a ‘boundary behaviour’ – something that is in the middle circle close to the boundary with the inner circle. As such, he needs to be extremely careful around it, possibly giving it up entirely because it is so dangerous for him.

        There is another 12-step principle that is at stake here: we go to any lengths to get recovery. This can be very, very tough at times. But, necessary.

        So, I can fully understand you seeking divorce – because he is not going far enough to satisfy you that he is doing all he can to get recovery.

        God Bless you

      • Justin on

        Heather – as a husband who put my wife in a similar situation, an affair and an attached porn addiction, I feel for your situation. I’m now almost fully recovered from these situations and addictions that almost ruined my life. My wife is pregnant with our third child, and could have left, but chose to stay. I have to chime in and say that your husband is completely wrong to not stop playing soccer, for many reasons. He doesn’t have to stop forever, maybe just for a season so you can heal. The fact that this hobby is a source for his acting out tells me he may still be partaking in infidelity. Even if not, and I say this in the most non-judgmental, loving way possible, he needs to be in church for his sake and your peace of mind. I reiterate this: the fact that his weekend soccer was a tool used to selfishly cheat on you is even more of a reason for him to commit to not going anymore, for however long you see fit. I pray he drops his pride and changes his stance, so your relationship can be fully restored and thrive in the future.

      • Amy on

        Hi Heather,
        I want to validate your choice to leave the marriage if your trust has not been rebuilt. I tried to regain trust, from my ex-husband, over four years after his confession and I could not come to feel “safe” or trust him again. We had two children and I was having to do everything–working, groceries, meals, daycare, bills, holidays, and simply keeping the household running. I could not do that any longer, as I was experiencing many physical and emotional stress related symptoms. The situation got to where I did not even feel safe for my kids and I. My ex-husband tried, but it was not enough to keep me feeling safe and helping me want to stay in the marriage. I am a strong christian and believe in trying to “save” a marriage, but I was risking my own life and two children’s lives. Finally, I realized that I had to leave the marriage and God told me (through prayer) that it was okay. My ex-husband was not going to change and therefore I had to end the marriage to save the kids and I. I am happy to tell you that my ex and I have the best relationship now than we ever have–after five years of being divorced; almost six years since separation. There is hope afterwards!

    2. Armida Pope on

      well when I discover my husband that he has las year 2017 an affair I was devastated because he ask me for divorce. after pastor intervine he decide to stayed and work in our marriage in the beginning he was sleeping with me for 4 months and then with excuses he decided to sleep in another room….we start having arguments because I didn’t trust him and in May after suspicion in my heart I confronted him and he confess about his porn addiction and that he didnt want to quick because was nothing wrong do it. ….so I ask him either to work in our marriage and his addiction or to leave…..and he decide to move out of the house……now he dont speak to me at all and the only way of communication is through my teenager son…..he told me to lie to our boys and said he got a job in another city and he later will divorce me…….I so hurt and rejected

      Reply
      • Kay Bruner on

        Armida,

        I am so, so sorry for the pain you are going through. Your husband’s choices are heart-breaking. Of course you are hurting, but I hope you understand that his choices are not about you, they are about him and how he chooses to deal with life.

        You don’t need to lie to your boys or anyone else about what’s going on here. You find the boundaries that work for you, and work on creating a healthy life for yourself. You might want to find a counselor who can help you process your emotions. You might consider a support group as well. And the online resources at Bloom for Women are fantastic.

        No matter what your husband has chosen, you can choose to be healthy and whole.

        Peace,
        Kay

    3. James Marshall on

      It is so sad when marriage partners fail to realize that their bodies (including sex organs) belong 1st to God and then to their marriage partner. Their bodies are not to be used to seek pleasure solely for themselves. They are to use their bodies to glorify God and to serve their marriage partner. When a partner seeks pleasure outside of their marriage through pornography, masturbation or another partner, they are destroying the oneness that God intended to protect the relationship. Setting boundaries are critical and appropriate. We initially set those boundaries when we pledged our love and faithfulness to our partner at our wedding. When one partner fails to abide by those boundaries, then it is acceptable for the other partner to protect themselves by setting ones that will provide safety and security.

      Reply
    4. Robert on

      I had no problem with porn until my wife started witholding sex. The irony is that it was after I shared that I was feeling more temptation because we already had sex just a few times a month. I was a healthy guy who would have preffered to make love several times a week if she was willing. Now she says I have made it into a duty to “service” me. Doesn’t faithfulness mean serving each other not just avoiding sex outside marriage?

      Reply
      • Eleanor on

        You shouldn’t be serving each other you should be enjoying and loving each other. It’s a huge difference. Something is not working, and for women there is a lot of damage done by thinking your partner is using your body while thinking of his pornography. Its degrading, and devalues the relationship.

    5. Jade on

      I am not married to the man I am with. This is not by my choice. I am over 10 years older than him. He promised marriage multiple times and has yet to commit. Now, I have found that he downloaded dating apps. One woman came to me and said they spoke, but no more and only in casual after he contacted her. We have had issues with lies and hiding things since the beginning. He blamed me and told me I cause him to do these things. He has always told me he doesn’t need porn. Yes, I have constantly caught him watching it. About a month ago he promised no more porn, lies, hiding. He broke those promises. He says I am trying to control Mother Nature! He has started touching me less and he says down in not as good a mood. We only are intimate if I start it and that only began on the last two weeks. I don’t know what to do!

      Reply
      • Kay Bruner on

        So your partner is lying to you, and blaming you when you catch him in those lies. When someone reinterprets reality in that way, we call it gaslighting. Here’s a short animation that helps to explain this pattern.

        Of course you don’t cause him to do these things. These are his choices.

        What can you do, given the reality of this situation? Assess your boundaries. Here, here and here are some articles that will help.

        Find a therapist, just for you, someone who can help you process your emotions and who will support you in your boundaries. Find a support group for yourself. Access the online resources at Bloom for Women.

        Whatever he chooses, you can choose to be healthy and whole.

        Peace,
        Kay

    6. Justine on

      Great article. My problem is what to do once trust is broken. So a boundary would be no more porn use in this relationship. What do I do if I find out he’s using porn again? Leave? I feel like that’s the only option. I’m not ready for a divorce but it does seem like the only option at this point. Yes, he had other behaviors in the past and maybe I should be glad it’s only porn at this point but it doesn’t make me feel safe.

      Reply
      • Kay Bruner on

        You get to decide what is healthy for you. That’s the whole point of boundaries: defining what does and dooesn’t work for you.

        I personally think your decisions about whether you stay in the relationship or not have to do with whether or not your husband is actually doing the work that he needs to do. When someone has been doing porn for a long time, it becomes almost a natural response to everything. Bored? Look at porn. Sad? Look at porn. Mad? Look at porn. It takes a while to undo that programming and to replace that automatic behavior with healthy behaviors. It’s not about perfect behavior, it’s about taking responsibility for his emotions and actions. Is he doing that?

        I think that you’ll be able to tell if he is engaged with you, or if porn is his ongoing interest, by what Dr. John Gottman calls “turning toward.” A relationship is not just about “not looking at porn!” A good healthy relationship is about being emotionally trustworthy for the other person, and you should see your husband gaining those skills over time, if he is doing his work. I wrote an article about this a while back, and it might help as you think things through.

        Ultimately, it’s about you knowing the truth and deciding for yourself, given your particular set of circumstances, what is healthy for you.

        Peace,
        Kay

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