The weather is heating up, and summer vacations often mean more time with extended family. The last post examined boundaries as a way of defining where you end and another person begins. Healthy relationships allow you the emotional freedom to be a separate person with your own ideas, along with the ability to make choices without feeling guilty.
It is often most difficult to set boundaries with our family members. Each family is a system, and we are brought up in that system with its unspoken rules of engagement. Have you ever returned from the holidays or family vacation and felt stressed? Do you feel like you are constantly in “reactive mode” with a particular family member?
While it might seem a little scary at first, having good boundaries can actually improve your relationships and prevent resentment from building up. Let’s look at 2 potential boundary problems in families and how to strengthen them:
You’ve grown up, maybe you’ve gotten married, and left home geographically, but have you left home emotionally? There is a distinction between obeying one’s elders and respecting them. When you grew up under your parents’ roof, you obeyed them. As an adult living on your own, you can respect your parents’ opinions while choosing a different course of action.
It’s not uncommon for marriages to have some conflict around the inability of one/both partners to draw firmer lines of separation between parents and new family. I’ve worked with many couples who bring different ideas about how things should go, based on their cultural background and upbringing. One person might envision a visit from the in-laws as 3 days, while the other is thinking 3 weeks!
Are you able to shift your primary allegiance from your family of origin to your spouse? This does not mean that you won’t have a relationship with your parents; rather, you’re making it clear to your new family that they come first. Special circumstances such as aging parents, medical issues and other crises will place unique stress on families for periods of time, but if spouse and kids constantly feel like they’re getting “leftovers” of you, it might be time to take a closer look at strengthening your boundaries.
You’re angry at your brother, but instead of telling your brother, you call up your sister to vent. You feel comfort in knowing that your sister seems to take your side on the issue. Meanwhile, you continue your relationship with your brother and he has no idea how you feel. Your sister is now drawn into the conflict -her opinion of your brother is influenced – and he hasn’t had a chance to share his side of the story! While venting to a third party can provide momentary feelings of relief that someone “understands,” rarely is it ever useful in the long term. Conflict will persist, and the change you wish to see will never happen without first dealing directly with the person you have an issue with.
For tips on addressing ongoing problems, see my post, The Art of Healthy Confrontation: 8 Steps. The ability to confront well is part of having good boundaries.
What can you do differently, starting with one small step today?
This article is intended for general education purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional counseling or medical care. If you are interested in seeking professional counseling, please call The Stone Foundation at 410-296-2004.
Elicia McIntyre, a licensed clinical social worker, and graduate of Smith College School for Social Work, has 15 years’ experience providing counseling to adults, children and families in the Baltimore-Washington metro area. She has helped clients navigate life transitions, depression, anxiety and relationship difficulties. Elicia helps couples increase emotional intimacy, and foster healthy connections among family members. She has spent the past 3 years traveling nationally and overseas, providing education and intervention to military service members and their families on communication, stress management and building healthy relationships.