Betrayed partners often want to know whether they should share with their spouse the consequence they plan to follow through with when they set a boundary.
When thinking about responses to boundary problems or violations, it’s important to remember that boundaries are not something you impose on another person. However, you can create boundaries around how you respond, or what you do, should a certain action or behavior occur.
For example, a common non-negotiable boundary for a betrayed partner is that she/he will end the relationship if her unfaithful spouse has sexual contact in the future with an affair partner or sex worker. Non-negotiable boundaries are deal-breakers. They involve something you must have or something you cannot tolerate in order to stay in a relationship. Understanding the difference between non-negotiable boundaries and important relationship needs is vital. You can read more about the differences here.
Non-negotiable boundaries are an example of a boundary that doesn’t require anything from another person. You have the power to create the boundary—leaving the relationship—should the action or behavior occur—sex outside your committed relationship.
For boundaries other than non-negotiable ones, the follow-through or consequence is often more difficult to determine. For example, if you have an agreement with your spouse that he will tell you in advance if he plans to have a working lunch with a female co-worker, and he breaks the agreement, you may not know in advance what consequence or response you will have if the agreement (boundary) is broken.
Betrayed partners sometimes want to share with their unfaithful spouse what they plan to do, or the consequence that will occur in response to a certain event, especially boundary violations or recovery slips or relapses. It is extremely common for a betrayed partner to say, “If he slips again, I will leave him.” However, she rarely does. Not because she’s weak or powerless, but because when faced with the reality of the situation, leaving is not her best option. Her initial, stated consequence may feel severe and outsized based on the circumstances.
For example, if your spouse discloses to you, within 24 hours, that he engaged in solo sex after consistent recovery work and 18 months of sobriety, would you leave? Probably not.
When it comes to sharing consequences for certain behaviors that are unacceptable to you as a betrayed partner—or for recovery slips and relapses—I generally recommend that a partner refrain from doing so, and here are 3 reasons:
Maintaining Credibility and Trust
If you repeatedly tell your spouse that should such-and-such occur that you will respond in a particular way, and you don’t follow through, you lose credibility with your spouse, but worse—with yourself.
Futurizing v. Responding to Reality
When you’re considering how you believe you would think or feel in the future if a certain event occurs, it is not uncommon for your authentic real-time response to be quite different than what you thought it would be. The example above regarding a recovery slip applies here. You may think you will have a certain response, but in the moment the consequence you committed to doesn’t feel appropriate or right for you.
Embracing Authentic Power v. Power Over
When you’re feeling highly charged or activated, it can feel powerful to say, “If you ever ___________ I will leave you.” In other words, sharing consequences can give you a momentary sense of control and power. But it’s not grounded on a firm foundation. In fact, the intention behind your shared consequence may actually be a threat intended to get a certain response or reaction. If you state a consequence with the sole intention of getting a reaction from your spouse, you are using strategies of control and power.
It is just as effective, and more authentic to say, “I’m not sure how I will respond in the future should ___________ occur, but I trust that I will know how to take care of myself and how to respond if it happens.”
Leaving your options open in terms of how you will respond in the future may not give you the same surge of intensity, but it protects you from the consequence of not following through in the future, or using power-over strategies which are always toxic to relationships.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2018)
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I never tell my husband any consequences and the only reason I could come up with was “what if I didn’t do what I said I would, then what?” I never wanted to just “threaten”. However, occasionally I would wonder if I was being a “pushover” because I wouldn’t state a consequence? Thank you for clarification!
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Hi Julia, your instincts are spot on! Delaying decisions about consequences frees you up from the pitfalls of not following through, and gives you more options to decide what course of action you’ll take if you need to set a boundary. Not a “pushover” at all!