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.