How to Establish Personal Boundaries to Protect Your Relationship from Infidelity and Betrayals of Trust: Part One: Distinguishing Three Zones

Part One of this blog series explores the importance of establishing personal boundaries to safeguard relationships from infidelity, distinguishing between three zones: the exclusive core activities shared between partners, interactions with others that pose no threat, and activities requiring caution and negotiation.

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How to Establish Personal Boundaries

How to Establish Personal Boundaries to Protect Your Relationship from Infidelity and Betrayals of Trust: Part One: Distinguishing Three Zones

Picture of Nathan Cobb, <small>Ph.D. in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych</small>

Nathan Cobb, Ph.D. in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych

Registered Psychologist and Registered Marriage & Family Therapist

One of the most challenging and painful problems an intimate couple can face in their lives together is infidelity.

In professionally written articles on healing from or avoiding infidelity, it is common to read about the importance of setting appropriate boundaries in one’s interactions with third parties. What does it mean to set appropriate boundaries? What should these boundaries look like? The following post is the first in a two-part series of articles that sets out to give one possible way of answering this question.

To start, let me walk you through an exercise. Take a piece of paper and write your name and your spouse`s name in the middle of the page. Now draw one circle around your two names, completely encompassing both your names. Now, inside that circle, make a list of all the different ways of interacting with your spouse that are exclusive to your relationship, that only occur in your relationship with your spouse or partner. No one else but your spouse engages in or should engage in these types of interactions with you, nor do you engage in these types of interactions, make these types of decisions, or behave in these types of ways with anyone else.

This is how you know if it goes inside the circle: is the activity something that is unquestioningly part of you being a couple, an exclusive, two-person team in relationship with each other? Is there at least an implied understanding, if not an explicit one, that engaging in the activity with anyone other than your partner would be a clear violation of accepted ground rules that define you as an exclusive couple? If so, it goes inside the circle. What you end up listing inside that circle are the core elements that define your exclusive partnership—intimate moments (sex, sleeping in same bed, sensual touch), decision-making (i.e. about finances, where to live, etc.), expressions of romantic love, and mutual responsibilities (i.e. parenting your children).

Giving one of these things away to someone else who is not your spouse might be a little like coming home and saying to your spouse, “I gave away our family car today. I just thought that this other person really needed it more than we did.” This would be very hard for your spouse to understand and accept because decisions about when and to whom and for how much to sell the family car are decisions to be made together as a team. The right to make such decisions belongs to both of you, not to just one of you. Giving away the family car without your spouse’s knowledge is like giving away something that each of you have put emotional energy into building up and preserving and cherishing, and then treating it as though it was only yours to give away, as though it was of no value or worth to your spouse.

This can be a very helpful way to think about your relationship. This line you drew on the paper represents a boundary that both protects and defines not only what is exclusive to you as a couple, but what makes you a couple, and what helps you tether your future to your partner, to journey through life with your partner. Everything inside the boundary is under the care of both of you equally. By becoming a couple, you have each made a commitment to cherish, honor and tend to these privileges and responsibilities, be cognizant of where the boundary lines are, and avoid giving things inside of it away to other people.

You both share the responsibility and privilege for managing these things together as a team, and for treating these types of privileges and responsibilities as a team effort. It is important that you are working on managing these things together and not just making decisions on your own.

Now draw another circle, outside of this inner circle. Make this second circle an inch or so wider than the first circle all the way around. Finally, outside of that second circle, draw a third circle, again about an inch or so wider than the second circle. Now you have drawn something that looks like an archery target, with a centre-circle, a middle circle, and an outer circle.

We’ve defined the bullseye of the target, or the centre-circle, as consisting of core activities that are exclusive to you as a couple, that are understood implicitly, if not agreed upon explicitly, as constituting “sacred space”, the inner sanctuary of your lives together where only the two of you enter and reside.

What are the other two circles?

The outer circle represents interactions with acquaintances, colleagues, friends, or strangers that pose no threat to your relationship because they do not compromise the explicit or implied agreement of exclusivity that you share with your spouse if you were to engage in such interactions with anyone who is not your spouse. They are activities that do not, by themselves, foster romantic, emotional attachment. Neither you or your spouse would take any exception to you engaging in these activities with another person. They do not “let the other person into the inmost parts of your heart.” They would not be threatening in any way to your spouse should your spouse see you engaging in these types of behaviors with someone else. These interactions would not be a source of discomfort for you in any way should you discover that your spouse was aware of how you were acting or what you were thinking or what you were saying when you thought you were alone with someone else.

The middle circle consists of activities and interactions you have with other people that are not inherently wrong, not automatic boundary violations, but that do require caution. Examples of such activities include going to lunch with someone that is attractive to you and with whom you have some chemistry or spending extended time talking with such a person, one-on-one about your life.

While it is not ill-advised or inherently wrong to do some of these activities found in the middle-circle with someone who is not your partner—and some of these activities may be a necessary part of doing business in life—these types of activities are a step closer to the activities in the centre circle than the activities in the outside circle. Middle-circle activities usually need negotiation between you and your partner ahead of time, a lot of communication, openness and transparency about them between you both, and some of the activities in this middle area are gray enough that they should be rare, agreed upon and not done consistently because, like the force of gravity when falling, they can pull you into centre circle activities eventually, but with someone who is not your partner. Going to lunch with an attractive colleague once to conclude a business deal is one thing. Going to lunch with that same colleague consistently is another. Why? Because, statistically, people don’t necessarily violate boundaries with people they go to lunch with once. If they do violate boundaries, it is with someone they’ve gone to lunch with consistently.

Stay tuned for Part Two In this series, in a few weeks, where I will go into more depth about how to handle middle-circle activities and interactions with people that are not your partner, and how to clarify with your partner the boundaries that define inner-circle, middle-circle, and outer-circle activities.