Setting boundaries in marriage with a dishonest spouse

How to Set Boundaries with a Dishonest Spouse

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Has your spouse lied to you, left information out, or been dishonest in some other way? Dishonesty hurts relationships. Trust is broken. Feelings are hurt. The damage is done. As a wife or husband who has faced dishonesty in their relationship, you are probably wondering what you can do. In situations like these, especially if your spouse has lies chronically, boundaries are needed.

Boundaries in a relationship decrease the possibility of hurt and provide a level of structure on what will happen if a wife or husband violates those boundaries. When dishonesty occurs, a spouse can set boundaries by staying calm, being direct about their needs, stating what they won’t tolerate, and expressing the consequences of continued behavior. By doing this, an injured spouse feels more in control because they can do something about their situation when they feel trapped.

When you feel you have no other choices, you do! Setting firm and straightforward limits will provide you with more stability in your ability to manage the unwelcome behavior of lying. As a therapist, I want to empower you to be able to take control of your situation and create a healthy environment where both partners feel their voices are heard. Setting boundaries helps you both no the standards to move the relationship forward in a healthy way.

What are boundaries?

I like to give definitions to words that may sometimes seem overused or misunderstood. So with a word like boundary, especially in relationships, one may not fully understand what the word is referring to. So here are a few definitions. says that a boundary is:

a line that marks the limits of an area, a dividing line

a limit of a subject or sphere of activity says that a boundary is:

something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent

The Cambridge English Dictionary says that a boundary is:

a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something

the limit of a subject or principle

the limit of what someone considers to be acceptable behavior

Based on these definitions, I want to simply summarize a boundary when it comes to your marriage and dishonesty. A boundary is a limit you as a person sets that spells out what behavior is acceptable to you and what is not. It spells out where you will take action if unacceptable behavior is seen.

Examples of Boundaries

Think about a fenced-in property. The fence is a boundary that separates where your property ends, and someone else’s begins. If that person has a “no trespassing” sign, you probably shouldn’t cross that fence. I am not sure of the legality of it, but I would assume they have some right to act against you at the moment you trespass. Maybe they would call the police and have you arrested.

There are many forms of boundaries in our lives. There is a sermon serious by Andy Stanley called Guardrails that talks about the idea of needing “margin” in our lives. If we didn’t have rules or standards that kept up in line, we would constantly be metaphorically “driving off the edge of a cliff.” In relationships, we need boundaries and guardrails to keep our marriage safe and healthy.

When a spouse lies, it’s just as hurtful if not more sometimes than other forms of relational betrayal. Boundaries can help your relationship stay healthy and avoid this behavior. By setting limits on harmful behavior, trust and affection can be rebuilt. So, if you want to start setting limits on harmful behaviors, you can use the following steps for other behaviors.

4 Steps to Set Boundaries When a Spouse lies

When a husband or wife lies, trust is broken. It hurts. The pain can go deep. We don’t want it to reoccur. Neither spouse wants to have to go through the pain or the healing process over again, but it can happen. Why? Because of habits, fears, and reckless behavior that comes from selfishness. However, boundaries can help us avoid some of this heartache. Let’s take a look at how a spouse can go about setting healthy boundaries.

Stay calm, despite how hurt you are

The first step is to stay calm and regulate your own emotions. When someone lies to you, it hurts and that hurt can quickly turn into anger. Anger and intense emotions drive people to do things they don’t mean to do. We tend to be more irrational and make poor decisions when we are angry.

When you want to set a boundary, you can’t come in guns blazing and demanding. It will never work. Your spouse will get defensive, and argumentative and their fight or flight system will be activated. Now, you are both irrational and making poor decisions. We don’t want that.

Being calm and slow to add can help you make good decisions. Take some deep breaths. Find a calming activity. Go for a walk. Just don’t allow yourself to act impulsively. You want your partner to hear what you have to say, receive it, and respect it. If you come angry they will not be able to do any of those things.

Be direct about your needs and feelings during this time

The next step is to be direct about what you need and to relay your feelings appropriately. You need to tell your partner in a simple direct way the positive needs they can fulfill for you. You also need to help them understand your feelings without making them feel attacked.

Your needs are important. However, your partner may not understand your needs. By clearly stating what you need and how your spouse can provide what you need, they will start to understand how they can change. Use clear language. Stop believing they should just know what you need. They are different than you and would have provided for your needs if they knew.

You can state your needs like this: “I need you to be honest with me. It is important to me because I would like to trust you. I need to feel safe in this relationship. I need to feel loved and cared about. When you are dishonest with me those needs are not met. When you are dishonest with me I feel hurt, scared, and alone.”

State what you will not tolerate from your spouse, especially dishonesty

Being straightforward with your spouse about what you will and won’t tolerate is very important. They need to know your boundaries. This is where you define your boundaries. I would encourage you to state them as clearly and as simply as you can. There needs to be no grey area. The line needs to be drawn that leaves an understanding between both of you with no room for guessing what the other person meant.

Sometimes it is hard to draw boundaries in certain circumstances. An affair is one example where setting boundaries can be difficult. Another example would be verbal or physical abuse because of the fear factor. You may feel you don’t have many options, but speaking about what you need and what you will do if the lines are crossed is important. It is OK to be blunt. You weren’t the one who made bad choices. Their decisions are not your fault. You have a right to feel safe and secure. By setting limits for things you will not tolerate, you are creating an environment that allows you to feel safe and secure.

You can state your boundaries in this way: “I will not take any lying or dishonesty, whether verbal or nonverbal.  A lie is a lie whether it is hidden or not. If information is left out intentionally, this will be considered a lie. Lying is painful to me and I will not allow it to be a part of our relationship anymore.”

Provide simple, straightforward consequences or actions you will take if dishonesty continues

The final step is to let your spouse know what will happen when they cross the line. If they are dishonest again there must be an action that lets them know that their behavior is not acceptable. This action needs to be spelled out before your spouse has been dishonest. By letting them know what will happen, you will be helping them make a more informed decision. They will know beforehand how their actions will not only affect you but themselves.

Some consequences you can take are the following: taking 24 hours before having further connection or conversation, sleeping in a different room, staying the night away, having them go to counseling, or something else. All consequences should have the final result of finding a way to end with your partner apologizing and talking about how they will rectify things to the greatest extent possible.

To let it be known, I do not like spelling out possible consequences for behavior, just from personal feelings. But they are a necessary evil. We have them at work. We have them while driving. So, why not spell them out in relationships? Divorce should always be a last resort. I believe that sometimes a planned-out separation may be beneficial with chronic behavioral issues, but not ideal. This would need to be worked through with a trained counselor and with much intentionality.


Dishonesty is not loving behavior. It is hurtful and decreases trust and affection. If it continues it can easily destroy a relationship. Most spouses don’t desire their relationship to end but do desire safety, security, and trust. The only way to keep a healthy and safe relationship is to make sure the behaviors are healthy and safe.

When a spouse has lied it is important to set up boundaries and limits that provide controls within a relationship to ensure the health and safety of that relationship. As you and your partner work to heal and regrow trust, boundaries will help you to decrease the opportunity to reinjure each other while rebuilding your relationship.

Another resource that can help you understand boundaries is the book Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. You can find it on Amazon.

Brandon Coussens, LMFT

Brandon Coussens, LMFT


Brandon Coussens is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and owner of Legacy Marriage Resources, LLC located in Augusta, GA. Find out more about him.

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