Welcome to my online book Healthy Boundaries Made Simple!
My name is Stewie, and I’ve distilled the best ideas about boundary setting from dozens of books on communication and interpersonal relationships. I’ve also incorporated lessons learned from coaching clients.
Time is short, so let’s dive in!
Table of contents
Part 1: Boundaries theory
- Here’s where your personal boundaries begin
- Rules for respect
- Consent made simple
- When is it ok to say No?
- Don’t give unsolicited advice
Part 2: Boundaries in practice
Part 3: Learn more
Part 4: Frequently Asked Questions
- Am I a jerk for shaving off my long beard even though my wife liked my beard?
- How do I get my husband to do more chores?
- How do I convince my wife to grow her hair out like when we were dating?
- How do I persuade my wife to get a dog?
- How do I convince my Mom to stop indoctrinating my twin boys when she babysits?
This online book is for anyone who struggles to enforce healthy boundaries.
But can I tell you a secret? The biggest reason we don’t enforce personal boundaries is that we don’t know where they are. Not really. No one ever sat us down and said, “This is where your boundaries begin.” As a result, people walk all over us, and we second-guess ourselves about whether anything terrible even happened. We feel mistreated but have nothing to point to and say, “You’ve crossed this line!”
Our boundaries are fuzzy and shadowy and amorphous. We’re unclear on them until it’s too late, and we’ve allowed—or invited!—someone to tread on us like a dirty doormat.
- Unsure where boundaries began, this book is for you.
- Unclear when it’s OK to push back, this book is for you.
Who is this book NOT for?
If you want to “teach” another adult about boundaries, this book is not for you. (Honestly, others don’t need you to “fix” them!) A huge part of respecting boundaries is trusting other people to manage their lives. You can change your relationships, but not by changing other people.
If you want a quick fix or silver bullet, this book is not for you. The ideas are simple to understand but difficult to implement. As the old saying goes, they’re common sense but not common practice. You’ll need a lot of courage, and you’ll break a bunch of old habits. But if you’re ready to make lasting changes, read on!
Here’s where your personal boundaries begin
In five minutes, you’re going to hate me.
But in five days, you’ll have better boundaries. And be a better person.
The secret formula to healthy boundaries is just a mindset: As an adult, I’m responsible for everything in my personal life. Likewise, you’re responsible for everything in your personal life. And we mind our own business.
You might hear this and say, “Duh!” This attitude toward life seems obvious, yet few folks live this way. Instead, they waste their days meddling in others’ lives. And they allow—or invite!—interlopers to interfere in their own affairs.
Don’t do this. Take ownership of your life and trust others to govern theirs.
Let’s apply this principle to three areas of life.
1. Your body
You’re accountable for everything about your body: how you dress, what you eat, when you seek medical treatment, etc. You decide what’s best for your body because you must live with the consequences. Likewise, I’m accountable for everything about my body.
Sounds straightforward, right? Here’s the kicker: you’re not allowed to make comments about others’ bodies. No more suggestions about what they eat or snide remarks about what they wear. Why? Because other people’s bodies are not your responsibility.
Their body → their responsibility → their business.
In the same way, you don’t need anyone’s permission (or approval) to devour another Big Mac, decorate your body, or don a blazer. Furthermore, if someone doles out unsolicited advice, just walk away.
Your body → your responsibility → your business.
And if a busybody invites you to help them cast judgments about what someone wears to the summer barbecue, just shrug and say, “I’m not worried about what other people wear.”
Living like this makes it far easier to be friends with people who live differently than you.
2. Your mind
You’re in charge of your mind. This includes your education, opinions, and beliefs. In the same way, I’m in charge of my mind.
As such, I have no business telling others what to think. I don’t need to persuade flat earthers that the earth is a sphere (although I won’t nominate them to run NASA). There’s a wide spectrum of creeds, and I refuse to squander my time by knocking every door and convincing every soul.
- Half of what I believe is wrong—I just don’t know which half.
- Life is fleeting. Why fritter it away arguing?
I don’t care what thoughts others have so long as they don’t trespass boundaries and govern how I, or others, live.
At this point, you may conclude, “Stewie is full of crap. He has no idea what he’s talking about!” And that’s OK—I’m not obliged to convince you of anything.
You and I can disagree on some things and still be friends.
3. Your obligations
You’re responsible for your job, bills, and any kids you may have. Likewise, I’m responsible for my obligations.
By now, you see the pattern and where this freight train is headed: every person needs to mind own their business about work, finances, and childrearing. (Disclaimer: Society has a moral obligation to intervene when children are in danger.)
You and I spend money on different things and give our kiddos different bedtimes (or no bedtimes). And that’s OK. We can peacefully coexist without getting up in each other’s business. As my wife likes to say, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”
We can have our own set of routines and traditions while at the same time getting along as friendly neighbors.
This is hard
The concept is easy to grasp but difficult to implement. It’s certainly not my default setting. Growing up, I thought it was normal to constantly interfere in others’ affairs. We called it “being helpful.” Little did I know how it alienated people.
After a lot of introspection, I discovered three forces that drove my meddling:
- I didn’t trust others to manage their lives—they need me to fix them.
- Intervening created the illusion of being needed—which feels good.
- Meddling was a nice distraction from the grueling work of fixing my own life.
Going deeper, sometimes, I want people to need my help, which encourages me to view others as helpless. The more incapable they are, the more they need me. This is a terrible way to view other people! Taken to its logical conclusion, I become everyone’s neurotic savior.
Meanwhile, everyone around me becomes estranged. This frustration is captured in Sara Bareilles’s song “King of Anything”:
I hate to break it to you babe, but I’m not drowning
There’s no one here to save
Nowadays, when I feel compelled to dive into other folks’ affairs, I stop and tell myself, “They can handle this. They don’t need saving.” But it’s a hard habit to break.
As I’ve changed, I’ve developed better relationships with the people closest to me. Friends and family are more comfortable telling me things because I won’t pounce on them with unsolicited advice. At work, I avoid entanglements, which allows me to focus and be productive. Lastly, I reclaimed time and energy to work on my goals. And life has never been better.
Mom was wrong: The secret to getting along with others isn’t by always being helpful. Instead, create boundaries by adopting this mindset: I’m responsible for everything about my personal life, and I only judge myself.
Specifically, don’t remark on how others look, eat, or dress. Don’t debate with them about what to believe. And lastly, don’t comment on how they handle their home or work obligations.
Living this way is hard at first. It requires time and patience to change ingrained behavior. But it’s worth it. As you transform, your closest relationships will transform. People will trust you more, and ironically, seek your counsel more often. And life will be amazing.
Rules for respect
Here are the rules for respecting others’ boundaries that I wish someone had handed me as a teen. I framed them following the Golden Rule, e.g., “I will treat people how I want to be treated.” and “I will not treat people how I don’t want to be treated.”
Enough preamble—on with the rules for respect.
1. Respect in relationships
a. Actions – I will be mindful of how my actions make others feel, just as I want others to be conscious of how their actions affect me.
b. Unsolicited advice — I will think twice before offering unsolicited advice. I will choose to believe that others can solve their problems and manage their lives just as I want them to believe that I can manage mine.
c. Negging — I will not undermine another person’s self-confidence (so they want/need my approval), just as I don’t want others to undermine my self-confidence.
2. Respect in conversations
a. Interrupting — I will not interrupt other people just as I don’t want to be interrupted.
b. Negative comments — I will not make snide remarks about another’s appearance or how they run their life, just as I don’t want comments made about me.
c. Demeaning nicknames — I will not belittle people with degrading nicknames—which suggest that they’re deficient and unworthy of respect—just as I don’t want this done to me.
3. Respect for personal space
a. Touching — I will not touch others (without their permission) just as I don’t want them to touch me.
b. Breathing Room — I will not invade another’s space just as I don’t want others to invade mine.
4. Respect in negotiation
a. Pouting — I will not pout (i.e., try to make another feel bad and concede) just as I don’t want others to pout.
b. Badgering — I will not endlessly try to persuade someone just as I don’t want people to badger me.
c. Threats — I will not threaten to harm others (or myself) if folks don’t comply, just as I don’t want others to make threats.
d. Blackmail — I will not threaten to expose a vulnerability just as I don’t want to be blackmailed.
5. Respect food choices
a. Comments — I will not remark on what others eat (or don’t eat), just as I don’t want people making comments about my choices.
b. Diets — I will not remind folks of their eating plans or dietary restrictions, just as I don’t want others to comment on my food choices.
c. Ordering — I will not order food for others (without their permission) just as I don’t want food ordered for me.
6. Respect on the Internet
a. Trolling — I will not post inflammatory things online that upset folks, just as I don’t want people to troll me.
b. Doxing — I will not post others’ private or personally identifying info, just as I don’t want to be doxed.
c. Harassment — I will not intimidate or attack other people online, just as I don’t want to be harassed.
d. Photos/Videos — I will not post photos or videos of others online without their express consent. Furthermore, I will remove photos and videos if asked, just as I want folks to do the same for me.
7. Respect for others’ time
a. Punctuality — I will strive to arrive on time just as I want others to be punctual.
b. Micromanaging — I will not tell people how to spend their time, just as I don’t want folks telling me how to spend my time.
8. Respect in public spaces
a. Loud talking — I will be mindful of how my voice carries in public areas (e.g., buses, restrooms, waiting rooms) so that others may have conversations just as I want others to grant me the same courtesy.
b. Sprawling — I will be mindful of how much space I take up and make room for others just as I want others to make room for me.
c. Blocking — I will not block others’ entrance or exit just as I don’t want my path obstructed.
Consent made simple
The Golden Rule can teach us a lot about boundaries and consent.
Let’s start with three easy scenarios:
- Your car is your property. No one borrows it without your consent.
- Your home is your domain, and a door-to-door salesperson does not enter without your consent.
- Your body is part of you, and a person may not caress your face without your consent.
Likewise, you don’t borrow someone’s things, enter their residence, or touch them without permission.
Easy stuff, right? Let’s dive deeper.
Consent is all about saying Yes
Some people think consent is about saying No. And if someone fails to say No, they’ve consented. Rubbish!
Consent is all about saying Yes.
Here’s why: Imagine your boss asks to borrow your car. You feel uncomfortable and make an excuse, “Uhh… my car is kinda messy right now. Maybe another time?” You didn’t say No, so is it OK for your boss to drive off in your car? Of course not. You must first say Yes.
Similarly, salespeople don’t waltz into your home when you say, “Right now isn’t a great time for a fancy vacuum demonstration.” They must stay outside unless you invite them in, which is a form of Yes.
This principle holds for intimate situations, too. Touching, kissing, and sex require a Yes from both parties. And this Yes can be nonverbal.
And if you’re ever in a coma (or even just intoxicated), you can’t consent to anything.
Consent is ongoing
Consent is not a contract, where you sign a document and are bound by its terms. Instead, consent is a living agreement that you can revoke at any time. For any reason.
For example: You invite a salesperson into your living room to regale you with the wonders of their latest vacuum. You can still revoke your consent at any time. Without explanation.
Also, past consent doesn’t imply future consent. Maybe you let a salesperson in yesterday but not today. Or maybe you lent your lawnmower to your neighbor last week but not this week.
So, strive to treat people with the same respect. Pay attention to how other people feel. Have you overstayed your welcome at the Halloween party? Is your neighbor really OK with your keeping their chainsaw for another week?
And yes, this applies to sex, too. Consent is ongoing, and you can rescind it. So create opportunities for your partner to respond with a Yes or No. Ask them questions like, “May I…? Do you like this? Is this OK?” And bear in mind that many responses will be nonverbal.
The Golden Rule says to treat people the way you wish to be treated. And this applies to consent, too. We want folks to wait for a Yes before borrowing personal property, entering our homes, or touching our bodies. Therefore, we should treat others the same way.
Furthermore, consent is an ongoing agreement and may be revoked at any time. So pay attention to how the other party feels. Are they OK with what’s happening? Do they want to continue?
As Jasper Jane says, consent should be active, enthusiastic, and ongoing.
When is it OK to say No?
One reader wrote:
Dear Stewie, I keep getting roped into stuff I don’t want to do. When is it OK to say No?
This is a fantastic question and something we all struggle with. And my answer is simple: Say No to any adult at any time, so you are free to say Yes to the right things.
- Everyone at work is going to a movie. Is it OK to say No? Absolutely!
- Your spouse asks you to make dinner. Is it OK to say No? Of course!
I know this may sound extreme, but you’re not obligated to give your time to other people, just as no one is required to give you their time. Your time is yours and yours alone. Let’s use this as a baseline and then delve into exceptions.
Four cases where you should say Yes:
1. You want to maintain a relationship.
Relationships need ongoing shared experiences to survive and thrive. You might go to a movie your friend picked just to spend time with them or make dinner for your spouse because they’ve had a stressful day, and a nice meal will delight them. You don’t do these things because you feel obligated but because you care about nurturing your relationship. Viewed through this lens, saying Yes to people we care about is not a burden but a joy.
Just beware of one-sided relationships, e.g., your friend always chooses the movies. Inequities are a sign of an unhealthy relationship.
2. Your spouse asks you to take out the trash.
A modern household has many chores, e.g., cleaning, laundry, and maintenance. No one loves to do housework—it’s work after all!—but everyone benefits when the work is complete. And the bigger the household, the more work there is.
So, keep this in mind before saying No to a task. Instead of complaining, ask yourself what life would look like if no one did this chore for a whole year.
3. You have accepted an obligation.
Some commitments are short-lived, while others are long-lasting.
For example, you may be a caregiver to someone in a wheelchair. They might need help reaching things on a high shelf or traversing a steep ramp but not need help with other life tasks, such as navigating friendships, finding a job, and filing their taxes. As such, you’re obligated to assist them with things they cannot reasonably do. At the same time, you’re not required to do anything they can do themselves.
4. You’re in a position to help someone in danger.
We have a moral obligation to help others in peril, though the guidelines about when/how to save them are murky. Use your best judgment.
You may say No to anyone at any time. But you don’t get to choose how they react or the lasting consequences. So, before you tell someone No, ask yourself:
- Do I want to maintain a relationship?
- Am I being asked to maintain my own household?
- Did I accept an obligation?
- Are they in danger?
Saying No to unimportant stuff frees up time so you can say Yes to the right things. And that’s really the point here: Say No to inconsequential matters, so you have time to say Yes to what’s essential. At the end of each day, ask yourself, “Am I saying Yes to the right stuff?”
Don’t Give Unsolicited Advice
Can I confess something? I love giving unsolicited advice. My instinct is to jump in as soon as I see someone struggle and offer my very best, top-notch, knee-jerk advice. Put simply, I blurt out the first obvious thing that occurs to me. What’s not obvious to me is that they also thought of the obvious thing.
But you know what’s really weird? I don’t love receiving unsolicited advice. I don’t want to hear about the obvious suggestion that popped into someone else’s head. (Am I a cantankerous old man? Absolutely.) In most cases, the advice-giver lacks the context to give good suggestions. They’re oblivious to my goals, constraints, and everything I’ve already tried to solve my problem.
But the steady stream of unhelpful advice never ends. It’s like that quote from Bernard Williams:
Unsolicited advice is the junk mail of life.
Examples of junk-mail advice from Stewie’s life:
- When I feel down, one friend always sends me Tony Robbins videos.
- When I have a cold, one coworker always recommends “more orange juice, as long as it’s organic and not from concentrate.”
- When I need to shed extra pounds, one family member always suggests “just eat less” and some new-fangled fad diet from talk radio.
Each of these well-intentioned people has some oversimplified—and sometimes bonkers!—solution to my problems. They’re a lot like Gus, the father from My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), who believes that “every ailment from psoriasis to poison ivy can be cured with Windex.”
So I get annoyed when people peddle unsolicited advice. I know they’re trying to be helpful, which tempers my irritation, but their recommendations don’t help. And if this happens too often, I worry they don’t trust me to manage my own life.
John Gray sums this up with:
To offer a man unsolicited advice is to presume that he doesn’t know what to do or that he can’t do it on his own.
As a result, I try to restrain myself when doling out unsolicited advice. The urge is still omnipresent. I want to jump in and solve people’s problems, but I tell myself that they can manage their lives. I tell myself they’ll ask for advice when they need it.
So don’t hand out unsolicited advice. And when you feel tempted, remind yourself of three things:
1. It’s a distraction
Millions of people have the potential to be magnificent artists, musicians, and writers. But they never realize their potential because they fear rejection. They’re plagued by thoughts like, “What if I fail? What if everyone hates me? Or worse, what if no one ever notices me?”
This fear leads us to procrastinate. We invent “things to do” and hunt for “problems to solve.” And the easiest way to fill time—and the most interesting!—is to jump into other peoples’ business and tell them how to solve their problems.
We distract ourselves by getting embroiled with other people’s drama. It starts by giving out unsolicited advice, and then when the drama deepens, we give even more advice and become further entangled.
Don’t do this. Acknowledge your fear of rejection and push through it. Do the thing that scares you. Ignore others’ drama and work toward mastering your craft and achieving your goals.
2. Lack of Context
The advice we give people is only as good as our context. And we seldom see the whole problem, with its multiple facets and perspectives. Worse yet, we often don’t understand how little we know.
It’s like that time my coworker heard me cough over Zoom and said, “Are you sick? Are you drinking enough organic orange juice??” This guy meant well but didn’t know I had a sinus infection. And bronchitis. Furthermore, he had no training in treating respiratory infections. But he didn’t know what he didn’t know and therefore spouted unhelpful advice.
So don’t be like orange-juice dude. Before you give advice, consider how little context you have. Do you really understand the whole situation?
I’m not a financial advisor, nor do I play one on TV. I barely have enough knowledge to manage my own affairs.
Similarly, I’m not a trained medical professional. I have enough information to manage my own medical conditions and take care of my own body, but I’m woefully unqualified to recommend how others manage their health.
As such, I hesitate to give anyone any sort of financial or medical advice. I’d feel terrible if I spouted some off-the-cuff advice and things turned out poorly for the other person. I’d feel responsible if they had to live with the consequences of acting on my ill-informed suggestions.
Seriously, I don’t want that sort of responsibility. And neither do you.
Don’t give unsolicited advice.
That’s it. That’s the whole conclusion.
There’s really nothing else to say here. Just pause when you feel the urge to jump in and solve someone’s problems. Tell yourself, “I trust people to manage their affairs.”
And if someone gives you unsolicited advice, just nod your head and go about your day. Or if you’re a troll, like me, you can misconstrue their advice, as Bonnie McFarlane did:
When you’re pregnant, people feel like they can come up and give you unsolicited advice. When I was nine months pregnant, this one woman came up and she said, I have one word for you: epidural. And I was like, Oh my God, thanks. But we already picked a name.
Kids, Family, and Neighbors
Boundaries may sound fine and dandy in theory, but let’s apply them to real-life situations.
Raising my kids
My two kids are dependent on my wife and me for numerous things like food, shelter, and reasonable bedtimes. But they are responsible for several tasks.
They are responsible for cleaning their rooms, getting dressed in the morning, and some basic household chores. They are responsible for managing friendships with kids in the neighborhood. Unless someone is injured, we don’t intervene.
For the most part, we require them to do things that they can do themselves.
When they need help with something, we require them to ask for help instead of making demands or behaving in a passive-aggressive manner. For example, at lunch yesterday, my daughter said, “I don’t have any ketchup for my hotdog!” To this, I responded, “If you want something, you know how to ask for it.” I did so only after she asked me to get her the ketchup. This might sound mean or unreasonable, but when you need help, your task is to make a proper request.
Lastly, we work hard at letting our kids feel what they feel in the moment. We don’t discount how they feel or distract them from their feelings. For example, a few days ago, my wife went to a church activity in the evening. Our daughter cried because she didn’t get a goodbye hug from mom. I sat on the couch with her, and we talked about how she felt sad. I acknowledged her feeling, but I didn’t tell her not to feel sad. I didn’t distract her with a toy or a screen. I just let her feel sad. After a few minutes, she felt better and asked that I play a game with her, which I was happy to do.
Look up “Extended Family” in the dictionary, and the first entry will be “Drama.” (OK, not really, but it should be!)
At any given moment, someone in your extended family faces serious health challenges, someone feels the weight of financial troubles, and a whole bunch of people are not talking to that one uncle. In each case, you’ll feel tempted to get involved, interfere, or intervene. Everyone wants to tell everyone else how to run their damn life!
Some folks will go so far as to recruit other family members and build a coalition of like-minded people to stage an intervention. They’ll defend their actions with, “I’m just trying to help!” But it’s not helpful.
For example, say your Aunt has type-two diabetes and consumes 400 fruit punch flavored Jolly Ranchers daily. Should you say something to her? No, it’s not your task to tell to stop eating candy. (She already knows!). And it’s not your task to take away her candy. Your relationship with her has nothing to do with this. And it’s wrong to say, “I will avoid them because they keep eating candy.”
Another example: Your uncle has done something that royally pissed off a bunch of nieces and nephews, but it doesn’t involve you. Should you jump in and pick a side? Nope. Just because people are mad at your uncle doesn’t mean you should give him the cold shoulder and never speak to him again.
When you have a beef with somebody in your family, you don’t want the rest of your family to gang up against you. So don’t take sides and gang up against others.
There’s an old saying: “Good fences make good neighbors.” While the word “fences” generally refers to a physical barrier between properties, it also refers to healthy boundaries between you and your neighbors.
- Eat and drink differently than you.
- Have different friends and social engagements.
- Go to bed and get up at different times than you.
- Have different rules for their kids.
And that’s OK. Neighbors have their own lives and their tasks. It’s not your job to tell them how to live their lives.
How to say No to peers
A reader wrote:
Dear Stewie, my neighbor invited me to go camping with his family. I hate camping. I want to sleep in my own bed and not on the hard and cold ground. I don’t want bugs crawling in my mouth.
How do I say No?
Saying No is difficult. We worry about hurting others and losing their approval. As a result, we agree to numerous things we don’t want to do, only to resent it later.
Digging down, what we really want is to feel OK saying No. We want to feel capable of declining an invitation without the world crashing down around us.
Now I don’t have a panacea, but I do have six strategies that help me feel OK saying No:
1. Remember that saying No is uncomfortable for everyone
Modern life is incredibly complicated. We could devote eleven lifetimes to meeting all of the requests—and demands!—from our work, family, hobbies, civic duties, etc. As a result, we have to say No to many things, which makes us uncomfortable. That much is obvious.
What’s not obvious is that everyone feels discomfort as they say No to hundreds of things. Everyone is in the same boat as you.
So take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. You’re not the only person who regularly has to say No to all sorts of stuff. And you’re not the only person who, as Brené Brown advises, needs to “choose discomfort over resentment.”
2. Turn the tables
Imagine you invited your neighbor to your upcoming Dungeons & Dragons night, but they don’t like D&D. In fact, they find anything fantasy-related to be incredibly boring. They haven’t even seen the first Lord of the Rings movie all the way through because they always fall asleep during the first 30 minutes.
So imagine this neighbor politely declined your invite to D&D night. They said, “Thanks, but that’s not really my jam.”
Would you get mad? Or irate? Would you flip over tables and chairs? Of course not! You’re a reasonable person. You might feel a tinge of disappointment, but you’d get over it. Furthermore, you’d prefer they say No instead of showing up and being miserable the whole time.
Similarly, you should trust that your neighbor won’t freak out if you say No. Trust them to behave like a reasonable adult.
3. Remember that life is short
We have a limited number of days left before we die. Much of this time is spent on our day job and household chores. And too often, there’s precious little time for recreation.
So don’t squander limited free time on recreation you don’t like.
4. Stop seeking others’ approval
You’ll always get sucked into unpleasant activities until you cease craving others’ approval. Stop approval-seeking, and your life will get simpler and brighter.
Now, this is easier said than done. Here are two exercises that help me:
- Imagine you have just 24 hours to live. Would you go camping? No. Would you worry about your neighbor’s opinion? Not a chance! You’d spend time doing what you wanted to do. You’d be free from worrying about what others think (or what you think they think about you)
Next, imagine you had six months to live: Would you go camping?
- Imagine your neighbor dislikes you. They give you the stink eye anytime you see them. Could you be OK with this? Could you still have a good life? Would you still have food, shelter, and medical care? Yes. Do the people closest to you still love you? Of course!
So why trouble yourself with your neighbor’s opinion?
5. Find a role model
I have a friend I’ll call Mickey, and he is exceptionally good at diplomatically saying No to stuff he doesn’t want to do: Want to buy overpriced tickets for Disney On Ice this weekend? No thanks. Want to help me re-roof my house? No thanks.
At the same time, Mickey regularly suggests activities and shared experiences that we would both enjoy. This way, our friendship remains strong.
So, when I have a hard time saying No, I ask, “How would Mickey handle this?” And this gives me good ideas on how to graciously say No.
You need a Mickey you can look to.
6. Make sure you actually say No
If you decline the invitation by saying, “Yah, maybe next time,” with a smile, your neighbor will hear, “I should invite them in the future.” Don’t do this. Instead, say, “Thank you, but camping isn’t really my thing.” This politely declines the invitation and closes the door to future invites.
And, ultimately, that’s what you want—a way to decline invitations without feeling like a horrible person. You want to say No and not get ensnared in things you don’t want to do.
Just remember that saying No is uncomfortable for everyone, but turning the tables can help. Also, limit approval-seeking, and you’ll be well on your way to establishing healthy boundaries and feeling OK with saying No.
Mistakes from Stewie’s life
When I got married, I believed my job was to solve my wife’s problems. Big mistake. Whenever she had a conflict with a family member or someone at work, I’d jump in and try (but fail!) to solve her problems. With limited understanding, I’d lay out a plan detailing how to fix everything. Whenever she felt stressed about an upcoming project or deadline, I would tell her exactly what to do.
So it should come as no surprise to you, gentle reader, that my interference pissed off my wife. She didn’t want me to solve her problems, nor did she even want advice. Instead, she just wanted me to listen and help her feel heard.
It’s like that quote from Laurie Buchanan:
When we listen, we hear someone into existence.
But I was more interested in solving her problems. I wanted to be the hero. Turns out, solving my wife’s problems was actually about me.
Early in my career, I told my boss how to do his job. I thought I knew best. I was always polite about it, but I believed I had some fantastic counsel to share with my manager. These conversations never ended well. I damaged my relationship with my boss, and he stopped sharing information with me. Eventually, he came to see me as a judgmental jerk. And he was right.
In retrospect, I didn’t have sufficient information to give good advice. Worrying about other people, their tasks, and what they were doing used up valuable time and emotional energy that I should’ve directed toward my work. As a consequence, my work suffered.
Nowadays, I worry about my own job. I figure out what I’m responsible for and then take care of those responsibilities. And I don’t tell my boss or coworkers how to do their job.
- Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg
- The Courage to be Disliked by Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi
- The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
Frequently Asked Questions
Am I a jerk for shaving off my long beard even though my wife liked my beard?
One reader wrote:
My wife has always had a thing for men with big bushy beards. And last Saturday, I shaved off my beard for the first time in three years. My wife didn’t like that one bit! She said she didn’t even recognize me. Am I a jerk for shaving off my beard?
No, you’re not a jerk.
Part of setting healthy boundaries is acknowledging that your body is your own. You and you alone are responsible for your appearance and grooming. Similarly, your wife is responsible for her appearance, and it would be unreasonable for you to get mad if she adopted a different hairstyle.
How do I get my husband to do more chores?
One reader wrote:
I love my husband, but he refuses to do any housework. Like, not a damn thing. We both work full-time, and I have to do everything! How do I handle this without violating personal boundaries?
This is really tough. I’m sorry you have to deal with this. Your husband should
help with do 50% of the housework because he benefits from clean clothes, clean dishes, cooked meals, etc.
Now, I don’t have any killer advice for you. But I have two strategies that may help:
Strategy 1: The Bossy Approach
Make a list of all the weekly housework to be done. This includes things like sweeping, vacuuming, cleaning out the fridge, grocery shopping, paying numerous bills, cleaning 2 bathrooms, doing 4 loads of laundry, cooking 7 dinners, doing dishes 7 times, taking out the trash when it’s full, etc.
And if you have kids, the list is 2X longer!
Next, show your spouse the list. Ask, “Which chores will you own completely without any reminders from me?” Let them pick a couple from the list. Let them pledge to do just those jobs.
Next—and this is super important!—don’t remind them to do those jobs. Don’t hint that the sink is full of dirty dishes. Don’t nag them about how it’s laundry day, and you really need your work shirts/pants clean for work the next day.
Let them fail. Let them feel your frustration/anger/rage about how they had one job to do but instead played video games or watched sports.
When they fail, show them the list of all the work that has to be done to maintain a modern household. And ask them one question: Are you someone I can rely on?
Now, if they repeatedly fail to do just a few things, they’re not someone you can rely on.
And who knows, maybe they will surprise you and do their chores. Perhaps they’ll gradually become OK with doing housework. I mean, no one loves doing housework; it’s work, after all! But the goal is to get them to the point where they’re willing to do half the housework.
Strategy 2: Radical Acceptance
Accept that you can’t change your husband. Not one bit. To be clear, people can change. They do it every day. But they have to want to change. (It’s cliché, I know. But it’s a cliché for a reason.) And the older they are, the less they want to change.
So assume that your husband will not change. Not at all. He’s going to keep playing video games or watching sports instead of helping with basic household chores. Do you still want to be with him? Do you want to spend the next five years—or 50 years!—with someone doesn’t share in household work?
Maybe you do want to spend your life with them. That’s totally OK. No judgment from me. But you need to be real and honest with yourself about your inability to change other people.
How do I convince my wife to grow her hair out like when we were dating?
One reader wrote,
I love my wife, but the short hairstyle just doesn’t work on her roundish head. How do I convince her to grow it out like when we were dating?
Let’s guess how this will play out. You say, “Sweetie, I hate your hair. How about you grow it out?” (I know you’d be more diplomatic, but the message is the same.)
How will she feel about herself? And about you? How will she feel in two days, two weeks, and two months? Is this a road you want to go down?
Now let’s turn the tables: Do you want your love badgering you about your receding hairline and exploding waistline?
Here’s my advice: Don’t. Say. Anything. Your wife is an adult and responsible for choosing her hairstyle, just as you’re responsible for your appearance. Even though y’all are married, you have no business dictating how she looks. Stop trying to change others.
Furthermore, modern life is chaotic, and the last thing your love needs is more criticism. Especially from you. Be the person she can depend on for support and affection.
Lastly, life is short. You’ll both die someday, and you don’t know when. Do you really want to spend your precious time nagging each other?
How do I persuade my wife to get a dog?
One reader asked:
How do I convince my wife to get a dog? I really want one, and I just don’t see what the problem is.
Well, gentle reader, I have some bad news: You don’t convince her.
Your wife doesn’t want a fluffy ball of joy. You probably need to accept this and move on.
This probably sounds incredibly unfair, and you probably think I’m a heartless booger (which I am!). I can’t offer you any killer negotiation tactics to help you strong-arm her and get your way.
Instead, I’ll share four perspectives to ease your disappointment.
1. Understanding yourself
Why do you want a dog? Like, deep down, what are your reasons?
Four common motivations:
1) You want to feel loved. No matter what happens during the day, a dog will be delighted to see you. They provide emotional support.
2) You want to love someone. Some folks have no idea how to properly love and take care of the emotional needs of others. But caring for a dog is straightforward.
3) You want a loyal friend with few demands. Dogs don’t argue and or handle disappointment with passive-aggression.
4) You want exercise. Having a dog will force you to walk it every day.
A poofy pooch is a fantastic way to meet these needs. But what other avenues can you pursue to meet these needs? Talk to your wife or a trusted friend about how they solved them. You might be surprised by what they reveal.
Maybe you had a dog as a kid (or were denied one!), and you feel like adulting is incomplete without a dog by your side. All of us are trying to relive aspects of our childhood.
This will be hard to hear, but you may need to let go of that perfect life you’ve imagined. Adulthood strolls in with the freedom to stay out all night and eat cheese puffs for breakfast, but it demands trade-offs. Part of growing up is letting go of that idealized version of life and embracing what life really is.
2. Understanding your wife
In a healthy marriage, each partner will go to great lengths to make the other person happy. If your wife says No to a dog, she must have an excellent reason.
Here are nine common reasons why she may not want a cute ball of fur in her life:
- She dislikes dogs. They smell, shed, and slobber. They make messes, chew shoes, and annoy neighbors.
- Dogs require a lot of work, e.g., feeding, walking, picking up poop, and cleaning up accidents. She worries this work will fall on her shoulders.
- She’s allergic and doesn’t want to spend her days hopped up on allergy meds.
- Dogs cost a lot of money, e.g., food, toys, and trips to the vet.
- She’s scared of dogs. Cynophobia is real.
- Dogs have short lives, and she doesn’t want to become attached.
- She worries about interactions with the pets you already have.
- Dogs need a lot of space.
- She has ethical concerns about dog breeding.
Which of the above applies to your wife? I guarantee at least one does. Most likely, more than one applies.
You should ask the love of your life about her reasons. Just know, she may resist telling you at first because it will feel like a ploy to persuade her or wear her down. Don’t do that. Just listen to her.
Hearing her reasoning will help quell your frustration.
3. Marriage as an infinite game
Finite games have winners, losers, and an end. Think sports, elections, and watermelon seed spitting contests. Contrast that with infinite games, which are the opposite. They have no end, and the whole point of the game is to keep it going.
Marriage is an infinite game. The goal is to keep it going, to keep it alive. This means compromising on a variety of issues, like getting a furry angel.
In fact, every significant decision you and your wife make needs to have a Yes from both of you, or it’s an automatic No. Put another way, either of you can veto any major decision. This ensures that every major decision is something you can both live with. This ensures the infinite game continues.
4. Your wife has courage
It’s easy, and even enjoyable, to say No to an enemy. But no one wants to tell the love of their life, “No, we can’t get that thing you really, really want.” It’s distressing.
Brené Brown’s mantra is “choose discomfort over resentment.” And your wife is doing this. She feels uneasy telling you she doesn’t want a dog because she wants to do things that bring you joy. But saying No is better than resenting you for years to come.
Your wife has courage.
Next time you want to tell your partner all the reasons why getting a dog would be so amazing, just pause. Ask yourself:
- What needs are you trying to meet? How else can you meet them?
- Why doesn’t she want a dog?
- Is getting a dog more important than maintaining a happy marriage?
Decide what game you want to play. Is it a finite one, where you win, and your lovey loses? Or is it an infinite one, where the hunger to get your way takes a step back and makes room for something bigger, better, and brighter?
How do I convince my Mom to stop indoctrinating my twin boys when she babysits?
One reader asked:
How do I convince my Mom to stop indoctrinating my twin boys when she babysits? I left the [Redacted] church long ago, and I don’t want my kids brainwashed by its teachings.
Being a parent is really hard. Kids need constant food, supervision, and when they’re young, diaper changes. And the only thing harder than having one kid is parenting twins. Double trouble all of the time.
There’s nothing better than having family members to babysit! Built-in babysitters are a lifesaver when you need to work, run errands, or have a simple reprieve.
With that said, this free labor comes with limitations. You see, babysitters are a package deal. You get someone to take care of your boys, but you also get their customs, traditions, and general approach to caregiving. And you get their religion, too, because it’s part of who they are. Part of the babysitting package.
There are exceptions to this. Your Mom must be mindful of anything that causes harm, e.g., food allergies.
But outside of that, you can’t require anything of your Mom. Even bedtimes—which I’m a huge fan of!—can’t be mandated. You might request that the boys be in bed by 8 PM, but she might let them stay up. She has autonomy and might feed them rocky road and Red Vines until the wee hours. And she might read them stories from her religious books.
This is doubly true when your kids stay at your Mom’s house. You can’t mandate what she says or does in her own home. Her house, her rules.
Now, if any of this sounds unreasonable or unfair, let’s consider the golden rule, which says: Treat people the way you want to be treated.
You don’t want people controlling what you say and do in your own home. Your house, your rules. Likewise, when you offer free babysitting, others can’t dictate your general approach to caregiving. They might request things, like a specific bedtime, but it’s really up to you as a caregiver to decide what to do.
When a parent asks you to babysit, they’re getting all of you. There’s no splitting the caregiving part of you off from the rest of your soul. No horcruxing allowed! You’re a whole person, and you bring all of yourself when you babysit. If someone doesn’t like that, they can find another babysitter.
So, to the reader who asked the original question, I would say you can’t require your Mom to not discuss her religion when she watches your kids. You can request that she not do this and then wait and see what she does. If she continues to share things you don’t like, perhaps it’s time to find a new babysitter.
In addition, this is a good time to share with your twins an age-appropriate version of what you believe. Express what’s in your heart, how you view morality, and how you decide what is ethical and fair. And just as importantly, show them what you believe with your actions, with how you treat them.
As your boys grow up, they’ll be exposed to a dozen different beliefs and worldviews. You can’t shield them from every ideology and philosophy. All you can do is show them what you believe and trust that they’ll figure things out for themselves.