Thanks to Vice President Mike and Mrs. Karen Pence, it seems like everybody’s talking about boundaries in marriage right now – and as a husband-and-wife team that equips couples to strengthen their marriages, we couldn’t be happier.
This national conversation started after a Washington Post profile of Karen Pence that highlighted how close and loving her marriage to the vice president is – and also included this line:
“In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.”
That sentence has sparked a lot of controversy from critics who think the practice is sexist, outdated, or might hinder a professional woman’s career.
However, if the critics are being honest, they’d have to agree that most married couples – if not all – have some sort of boundaries around their marriage. It’s simply not a marriage if, at some point, you’re not “forsaking all others.”
So we think people on both sides of the Pence debate can safely agree on this: the concept of keeping boundaries around a marriage isn’t controversial – the question is about where a couple should draw the lines.
And that’s why Erin and I are glad that the nation is talking about boundaries in marriage. Because the bottom line is, it’s a conversation married couples should have.
Why? Because infidelity happens – even to good people who have good marriages.
Studies show that about 15 percent of married women, and 25 percent of married men, have had sexual affairs – and an additional 20 percent of married couples have been impacted by emotional infidelity.
And while many of these entanglements start out innocently enough – no one wakes up and says, “I think I’ll have an affair today!” – many studies show a strong connection between opportunity and infidelity. In other words, the more opportunities you have to cheat, the more likely it is you will.
So what are some boundaries couples can set up to protect their marriage? Here are some thoughts.
1. Have shared friendships.
Erin and I made a decision early in our marriage that it was not OK for us to have exclusive, opposite-sex friends. Quite frankly, we don’t think it is possible for a married person to have a healthy, opposite-sex friendship. But beyond that, what compelling reason is there to have a purely social relationship with someone of the opposite sex? We can’t think of any.
So what we do instead is to nurture friendships with our spouse. Practically speaking, that means we get to know people as a couple, or go on double-dates. And yes – for us that means that sharing meals one-on-one with someone of the opposite sex is off limits.
2. Keep open communication.
When it comes to social media, text messaging, and emails, couples should share passwords and include each other in the communication as much as possible.
And while there are times when there are legitimate reasons to text someone who is the opposite sex – let’s say you have a time-urgent work question, or have to coordinate child pickup – the key is to keep the purpose of the texting informational. Stay away from social texting, or include others in the banter through group texts to be safe.
3. Check your heart.
Make sure the opposite-sex relationships you have outside of your marriage and immediate family are within healthy boundaries. Dr. Todd Linaman has created a list of 20 questions that will help you see any warning signs that a relationship is becoming inappropriate, including:
- Is your spouse unaware of this opposite-sex friendship?
- Would you behave differently around your friend if your spouse were present?
- Would you feel uncomfortable if your spouse had the same quality of friendship with someone of the opposite sex as you do?
- Have you ever entertained romantic fantasies about your friend?
- Do you think about sharing important news with your friend before your spouse?
- Does your friend fulfill needs that you wish your spouse would meet?
The more “yes” answers to these questions, the greater threat that relationship poses to your marriage. Be open and honest with your spouse, and significantly limit or end that potentially dangerous relationship.
4. Engage in ongoing chats about boundaries with your spouse.
The conversation about boundaries isn’t one-and-done. As life goes on, situations change and people filter in and out of your circle. When these things happen, it’s important that husbands and wives check in with each other and make sure the other is comfortable with the new relationship and the boundaries around it.
It also means that there has to be a safe space for spouses to say, “Hey, I think you have to be careful with this person.” For example, on two occasions in our 25-year marriage, I (Erin) have had a gut intuition about someone that I’ve shared with Greg. Both times Greg accepted my influence – and both times we eventually found out that this person was struggling in her marriage or had been previously unfaithful.
5. When possible, keep things discreet.
Sometimes I (Greg) am home alone when a friend of Erin’s drops by return something she borrowed. When that happens, I’ll keep our visit on the porch, where everything is out in the open. This way I can keep things casual while also respecting the boundary Erin and I have to not be alone in the house with someone of the opposite sex. In other words, there’s no need to make that friend feel awkward by loudly announcing what I’m doing.
6. Be an intentional professional.
We can be both marriage-minded and a good colleague or manager. First, recognize that intimate settings aren’t necessary to achieve professional success, or to helping your direct reports advance in their careers. Instead of going out for a private lunch, meet one-on-one with a work colleague in the office.
Secondly, if you’re a manager, be intentional when it comes to your team. For example, I (Greg) have two direct reports who are women. And while I would never take them out for coffee, I am very intentional about coaching them, advocating for them, and investing in their professional development. I want to see them advance, because they matter.
By setting up some common-sense boundaries around their marriage, husbands and wives can honor each other and their marriage. When they do, they bless each other, and their children, with a marriage that’s filled with love, trust and respect. We hope you’ll talk through these issues with your spouse – after all, your marriage is important and worth protecting!
If you want to learn more about emotional affairs, please read our series on the topic.
And for those of you whose relationship has experienced the devastation of infidelity, please know there is hope for marriages in crisis. Visit Hope Restored to learn more about our Marriage Intensive Experience program that gives couples extended periods of counseling over multiple days at retreat centers in Branson, Missouri or Rome, Georgia. Scholarships are available. To learn more, please visit www.hoperestored.focusonthefamily.com.
Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley are the proud parents of three daughters and one son in Colorado Springs, where Greg is the vice president of Family Ministries at Focus on the Family. Equipped with a PsyD, Greg helps prepare individuals for marriage and parenthood, strengthens existing marriages and families, and provides support for couples and parents in crisis. Erin is program manager at Focus on the Family with an MA in clinical psychology. Prior to joining Focus, the couple worked at the Center for Healthy Relationships at John Brown University.