Navigating close relationships can be tricky.
Especially close relationships with family members. Often, you come together for winter holidays, graduations, baby showers or other milestones. And all you want is to gather for some low-conflict, person-to-person bonding. One big happy family. But before long, you may find that your family experiences what many others do.
Your father inevitably crosses a line at the Labor Day barbecue, your sister betrays a confidence at Christmas dinner, or your mother-in-law becomes a critic at your daughter’s June wedding. And eventually, your family’s gatherings become an experiment in all the ways you can get on each other’s nerves.
What’s blocking the path to family harmony?
Honestly, lots of personalities exist in families. Everyone has a shared history but there are also many individual hang-ups, opinions, issues, and backstories at play.
Sometimes the lack of boundaries creates enmeshed family units that have a hard time dealing with each other, unless they are all thinking the same way and deeply connected to the status quo. Other families guilt and blame each other (or certain members) for the trials of the entire group. Still, others maintain a hostile or disrespectful environment despite attempts to come together.
You don’t really need to manage all of that. However, a strong grasp on healthy boundaries could help you manage your own expectations and enjoy your family as much as possible.
Healthy Boundaries: what they are and how they can make your relationships better
Healthy boundaries? No doubt you’ve heard of them. They sound really good to most people.
Limits and parameters seem just the thing to help keep the peace and to promote the harmony you long for, especially in some of your more trying relationships.
“So, great,” you think, let’s “set some boundaries.” Easy, right?
Maybe. But if you’re like so many people who’ve grown up in families that made do without them, then setting firm boundaries may be a foreign concept.
That’s okay. With some loving persistence and knowledgeable guidance, boundaries can help you and yours relate confidently with ongoing connection rather than conflict as the primary goal.
- What do healthy boundaries do exactly?
The beauty of setting boundaries is that they help you maintain personal values, respect, and emotional safety.
Sometimes families think the blood connection means anything goes. No punches are pulled. Too much is said. But that perspective can lead to families that become more and more toxic, damaged, or distant as time goes on.
Healthy boundaries can be relationship life preservers, keeping you safe in a flood of family upset, drama, or undue influence. Holding to your heathy boundaries will still allow you to reach out and maintain those relationships that are important to you.
- What healthy boundaries are not
Keep in mind, too, healthy boundaries are not about making demands, power struggles, punishment, or shaming each other into compliance or silence. Limits in relationships aren’t concrete walls meant to stop you from connecting. They are more like hedges or picket fences that invite conversation and interaction, with just enough separation between you to make you think about whether it’s wise to enter another person’s space and prevent trampling each other’s values.
If the boundaries are respected, the hedges can stay low. If not, boundaries afford you a safe point of negotiation. You can clearly decide the nature of your relationship and interaction going forward.
Many couples, siblings, blended families, and groups of in-laws discover that scheduling some time with an objective, experienced family therapist or counselor is advantageous as you work to become more aware of the parameters you want to set in your relationships. Learning to recognize and honor the limits of relationships makes the entire family feel safe with their histories honored and their needs respected.
Healthy boundaries work if you remain curious, compassionate, and cooperative
In addition to tuning into what respectful, comfortable boundaries look like, you’ll become more capable of recognizing boundary breeches addressing them, and handling relationship repair without creating a lot of drama in your family. This holds true in your other relationships, as well.
How? Healthy boundaries require promotion, protection, and encouragement of the individual, as well as the collective. Why have a family reunion if uniting feels emotionally exhausting or unsafe?
- Stay curious. Ask questions and listen to each other. Does everyone feel valued and accepted? Is there manipulation, aggression, or resentment among you? Who has a voice and who doesn’t?
- Setting healthy boundaries takes some courage and awareness. You’ll need to be brave enough to change the status quo and vulnerable enough to ask for cooperation.
- Setting boundaries is tough work sometimes. You may have to bite your tongue at times to honor each other’s choices. Boundaries may need to allow for less family tradition and more individuality. Negotiated guidelines may need to address how to best deal with unacceptable behavior in the most loving way possible.
Most of all, boundaries allow everyone to take care of themselves and to be themselves, without pressure to accept behaviors or situations that are personally intolerable or becoming part of a mind-meld that doesn’t meet your needs.
Are you ready to put healthy boundaries in place in your relationships? Are there other changes you would like to make in your relationships? Linda Ramsey, MA, is a licensed professional counselor intern and licensed marriage and family therapist associate with the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. She works with couples and families to help them building and maintain healthy connections. If you are seeking support and guidance as you establish healthy boundaries for yourself, contact Linda at 512-270-4883, ext. 106, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling Page.