How About Some R-E-S-P-E-C-T?

Dear Dr. Deb,

I found one of your articles while searching for advice on boundaries in romantic relationships.

I was searching that topic for a reason. I was wondering if you could tell me what I can do if my husband won’t respect my personal boundaries?

Secretly Googling

Dear Secretly Googling,

I’m glad that my article on boundaries led you to reach out. It’s not always easy to examine your marriage, especially when things start going wrong. 

It’s no secret that I went through my own marriage turmoil: The man I was married to for 17 years left me and my two young children for another woman.

At the time, I believed he was the love of my life, and the questions that kept spiraling in my head were: Whose fault was it that the marriage fell apart? Mine? My husband’s? 

Eventually, I set myself to the task of healing what felt like a broken heart, and went on a journey to understand what my role was in the demise of my marriage.

What has this got to do with boundaries, you ask? 

Well, if you want to improve your relationship, you’ll need to acknowledge something from the start: the transformation of the relationship begins with you.

So let’s talk about boundaries. Contrary to the physical definition, personal boundaries are not about restrictions or keeping the other person out.

In a marriage, especially, boundaries provide an understanding – the rules of engagement – so both you and your husband can safely express individual needs and feelings, thoughts and ideas, in a way that honors each other. They mark the place where your reality ends and your husband’s reality begins. 

But this is one of the hardest things to navigate in a relationship, so boundary violations are quite common in marriages (and keep me very busy in my practice).

While you weren’t specific about which boundaries your husband was crossing, I’ll assume that in some ways, it relates to values, wants, needs, and limits in areas finances, friendships, physical space, and sexual life.  

These questions might make the situation clearer for you:

  • Knowing that you don’t like something, does he do it anyway?
  • Does he respect your time and privacy?
  • Does he call you derogatory names?
  • What other lines does he cross?

Your biggest challenge, Secretly Googling, is figuring out what to do when your husband violates your boundaries. Ignoring your boundaries doesn’t instantly mean he is a bad person. He may have his own unresolved emotional problems that make it difficult to honor yours. 

The bad news: you cannot force him to respect your boundaries.

The good news: you can communicate your boundaries more clearly by using this method that sidesteps struggle and puts you in control:

Step one:

Recognize that the most important relationship you have is with yourself.

Self-awareness enables you to be clear about what treatment you will and will not accept from your husband.

Step two: 

Identify specific behaviors that violate boundaries and clearly communicate them to your husband.

Don’t sugarcoat your boundaries. Being clear and direct about what you mean is kinder for all concerned.

For example:

  • Please respect my privacy.
  • I feel pressures to have sex, and that makes me uncomfortable.
  • I would feel safe if you drove slower while I’m in the car with you.

And most importantly, learn to say “no” simply and clearly, even in uncomfortable situations.

A word of warning: As with any change, it’s not going to be easy. When you start setting your limits and advocating for yourself, your marriage will transform.

I can’t promise that you and your husband won’t have any more disagreements over values, money, and sex, or that he won’t be offended by your choices. My hope is that he will be motivated to look at his own behavior and adjust.

What I can promise you is what I learned in the aftermath of my divorce and what I teach my clients:

You can change the course of your life and your relationships.

Look deeply to understand yourself first. Your work in self-awareness will redefine you and your relationship in ways you never imagined.

Sincerely yours,
Dr. Deb

Do you have a burning question – Your comments in response to a column are welcome. ​I will do my best to answer as many of your questions as I can. Please email me at


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