Wives Healing From Divorce

Knowing the Difference Between a Rule and a Boundary – Karla Downing

July 30, 2018

Knowing the Difference Between a Rule and a Boundary

In a difficult marriage, it’s key to understand the difference between a rule and a boundary.


Creating a healthy marriage involves healthy, biblical boundaries – and when we understand what a boundary is and is not, we’re more likely to live in a healthy marriage.


One of the things that helped me to have more effective boundaries in my marriage was understanding the difference between a rule and a boundary.


There were many long and difficult years where I tried to control my husband by telling him what to do. It didn’t work. Not only did he not change like I wanted him to, it caused a lot of unnecessary conflict in our home as a result because along with my rules, I had to explain, push, nag, and lecture.      


Many women tell me that they have set boundaries that didn’t work. One of the reasons is because like me, they tried to make rules for their husbands to follow. Most husbands don’t like to be told what to do and don’t do what their wives tell them to do.


Boundaries aren’t that complicated if you understand what they are. Boundaries aren’t rules.


Rules tell your husband what he must do. Boundaries tell your husband what you are willing to do and not do. You have no control over your husband; you have complete control over yourself and he has control over what he will do and not do in response to your boundary.


Consider these examples:


Rule: “You have to be home at 6 p.m. for dinner.”

Boundary: “I will serve dinner at 6 p.m. You can eat with us if you are here.”


Rule: “You cannot drive when you are drinking.”

Boundary: “The children and I will not ride with you when you are drinking.”


Rule: “You cannot yell at me.”

Boundary: “I will end the conversation with you when you yell.”


Rule: “You can’t watch pornography and if you do, you have to tell me.”

Boundary: “I will separate if you continue to watch pornography and refuse to get help for your sexual addiction.”


Rule: “You have to go to family celebrations with me and stay as long as I do without complaining.

Boundary: “I will go to family celebrations and stay as long as I want. I will not lie for you if you choose not to go.”


Do you see the pattern? You figure out what you are willing to do and not do given the situation you are dealing with. You allow your husband to figure out what he is willing to do. Both of you have the dignity to make your own choices as independent adults who happen to be married.


Wife Step: Think about the last boundary you set. Was it a rule or was it a boundary?


Now, think about an issue that is bothering you.  Brainstorm possible rules vs. boundaries.


Decide which boundary you will set.

Karla Downing, the founder of, offers Christian marriage help and Christian relationship help as a speaker, author, counselor, and Bible study teacher. Karla grew up in a dysfunctional family and then found herself struggling with Christian codependency in her own difficult marriage. Through her personal struggles, she discovered biblical and practical principles, which she now teaches to others. She also trains counselors, pastors, women’s ministry leaders, church leaders, small-group leaders, non-profit ministry leaders, and individuals to minister to Christians in difficult relationships. Karla’s passion is to see individuals, marriages, and families set free from the chains of dysfunction, misunderstanding, and emotional pain through a correct understanding of what the Bible teaches about relationships.

Karla Downing is the author of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association 2004 Silver Medallion Award winner, 10 Lifesaving Principles for Women in Difficult Marriages. Her second book, When Love Hurts: 10 Principles to Transform Difficult Relationships, applies the same principles to all family members. Her third book, The Truth in the Mirror: A Guide to Healthy Self-Image, offers a unique and life-changing approach to looking at self-image.

She holds a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy from Hope International University. Karla also holds a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in Communicative Disorders from California State University, Fullerton. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a licensed Speech Language Pathologist. Karla was also the director of Friends in Recovery, a Christ-based, Twelve-Step recovery program.

Karla lives in Southern California. She has been married for over thirty years and has three adult daughters.

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