Do you experience uncomfortable tension around the family dinner table when gathering for events, holidays, or special occasions with your loved ones? It’s not uncommon for families to have blurred boundary lines. Often due to a level of familiarity and comfort, we may find what lines we do have in place are frequently crossed – especially when it comes to our parents and in-laws. Why is this?
Setting good boundaries can often feel uncomfortable when the relationship is as delicate as a parent/child relationship, and even though you may now be an adult (married with children, managing your own affairs, and pursuing paths in life relatively foreign to that of your parents), they may still see you as their “child” in the sense of adolescent, unknowing, and naive to matters of the world.
Boundaries, similar to limits, are incredibly important to set early in relationships. We set them with our employers when we sign our employment contract, we establish them with our friends to maintain a healthy social / work / life balance, and we create them within our romantic relationships to protect ourselves and our partner. However, when it comes to our parents, these boundaries are set later in life as we become adults and the transition can often feel uncomfortable and confusing to navigate.
We all have limitations, and it’s essential to know your limitations so that others cannot take advantage of them. When it comes to limits, we are only in control of ourselves. The first step in setting boundaries is to remember that we can change our actions and perspectives, but we can't change others. Secondly, we must understand that boundaries can be uncomfortable for both sides of the boundary.
As a relationship coach and individual therapist, I work with my clients around setting boundaries quite frequently. Many of my clients have already put in the work to excel personally and professionally with boundaries in their workplace, friendships, and romantic relationships. When it comes to parents though, it’s a whole other ballgame! If you’re feeling this way too, welcome to the club!
I want to stress that this is a common experience, and you’re not alone in this struggle. Today I want to share with you some useful ways that you can begin to acknowledge where boundaries are needed in your parental relationships and tips for getting started in creating (and keeping) them.
Why Do We Need Boundaries Anyway?
Boundaries are necessary in relationships for both your own protection and mental health. It is important not to enable inappropriate or destructive behaviors – especially ones that lead to toxic relationships. Unfortunately, establishing boundaries and enforcing them with family can be extremely difficult, and even harder as you become an adult and get married.
Do any of these parental examples sound familiar?
- One of your in-laws causes division between you and your spouse
- Your mother-in-law does not approve of the marriage
- Your parents are struggling to accept you or your spouse as adult-children
- Your father does not like your spouse and refuses to accept them as part of the family
With boundaries, you can protect yourself, your marriage, and your family (and make your relationship with your partner stronger). By doing so, you are still loving those on the other side of the boundaries, and you are opening the door for growth, forgiveness, reconciliation, and the start of a healthy relationship between your marriage and your parents or in-laws.
Creating And Enforcing Boundaries As A Team
When setting boundaries with parents and in-laws, you and your significant other must have a clear understanding and be in agreement about what those boundaries are and how you will enforce them.
Being on the same page is vital to the success of your boundaries as a unit. This means that you will both need to treat this part of the process with importance. Find a time that works well for both of you to sit down together and discuss your concerns without distraction. Then, come up with solutions to those concerns by drafting boundaries that will ultimately lead to a more productive, successful partnership with your parents (and leave you and your partner feeling good about the decision(s) you come to together).
Do you and your partner feel differently about the boundaries in question? That’s okay, we all have different values and comfort levels (even in marriage!). This may be an excellent time to work through a difficult conversation and build a new skill within your relationship! This process of creating healthy boundaries should ultimately give you and your partner a sense of freedom and empowerment in your marriage. [Looking for advice on working through conflict constructively? Check out Constructive Conflict: Arguments That Help Your Relationship Grow for more information.]
Once you have your boundaries in place and your method for supporting and enforcing these boundaries as a team, you can then discuss them with your parents.
Discussing Boundaries With Your Parent(s)
How you address the conversation with your parents is as equally important as the boundaries themselves. For your parents to feel comfortable and not attacked, you shouldn’t shame or point fingers but instead use this time to speak about the future and how these boundaries will ultimately build a better bond between you, your partner, and your parents as a unit. Encourage them to voice how they feel about what you are presenting and actively listen to develop a common understanding between both parties.
Here are a few conversation starter tips I like to share with my relationship coaching clients to use when addressing their parents about necessary boundaries, feel free to use them yourself:
- Be open and honest about how you feel, but recognize that this new information may be coming out of “no-where” in your parents’ eyes. Respect their feelings and offer the conversation as a safe place to discuss both sides of the boundary.
- Schedule your conversation or plan it around an appropriate time. Giving the other half a heads up about the conversation will lend to a fuller, more productive conversation and less confusion or defensiveness.
- Respect your relationship with your parents – sometimes your parents might not see eye to eye with you and/or your partner, and that’s okay. Remember that change takes time.
- Don’t let your parents take over your mission. If you have it in your heart to see change in the boundaries between your relationship with your partner and your parents – then don’t give up. Honor your relationship and keep showing up for it.
It’s likely that this conversation will feel uncomfortable for both sides. My advice is that the partner whose parents are causing the conflict or displaying unhealthy / inappropriate behaviors should take the lead in setting these new boundaries with their parent(s).
Be Prepared For These (Negative) Responses
Some parents may take this news extremely well, however, the response is often not rainbows and butterflies (that’s why this conversation can be so difficult!). So it’s important to prepare yourself for these common (negative) responses:
Spouse Division Attempts
You should discuss with your partner the plan for moving forward if these responses show up in the parent(s) feedback.
Boundaries CAN Be Flexible
The thing about boundaries is they can be flexible. Boundaries don’t have to be in place forever. The length and extent will vary from person-to-person / relationship-to-relationship. The goal of the boundary is to take ownership of actions, respect wishes, and have the willingness to put in the hard work to change. The level of acceptance and participation will establish the length and severity of the boundaries.
As people change and grow, boundaries change with them. Be willing to revisit your boundaries as you move forward in your relationships.
Tomauro Veasley M.A., MMFT, CLC