Chris was shaking but he tried to hide it from his wife, Lisa. She knew his father could get to him but she didn’t know how much he affected Chris. Chris was embarrassed. He was 38 years old, had a family of his own, and hadn’t lived at home for 20 years, but his dad still seemed to have so much control over Chris’ emotions. Chris’ 10 year old son Riley had spent the weekend with his grandpa. Riley loved his grandpa and Chris was glad to see that his father did not treat Riley the way he had treated Chris when Chris was Riley’s age. Chris remember his dad saying, “Don’t be such a pussy” when he had cried over his dog being hit by a car. Chris vividly remembered the mockery he got when his dad found out he didn’t have a date for the school dance, “What are you, a pansy?” Chris knew his dad had been an alcoholic most of Chris’ life. Chris’ father was not a violent drunk, but he had driven drunk with Chris in the car several times. Chris remembers his dad swerving and swearing at other vehicles. Chris had thought that they were going to die, on more than one occasion. Today Riley had told Chris that he and grandpa had gone to see grandpa’s friend, and that, on the way home, grandpa was driving crazy. Riley got scared so grandpa had let him steer. Chris was furious and was ready to disown his father right then and there.
Family. The people who often have the most impact on our lives, how we think, how we feel. For many people, much of adulthood is spent rehashing our childhood, or blindly reenacting it, telling ourselves the same messages we heard as children. It can be difficult to shift the relationship to one of adult to adult instead of child to parent or to shift lifelong ways of relating between siblings. When family members continue to behave in ways that are unhealthy, abusive or unsafe, we don’t always know how to respond. Many of us respond with our childhood responses, fight or flight.
Here are some things to consider when setting boundaries with family:
Focus on the most important changes needed
While safety issues might seem clear cut, other issues are not always so black and white. For example, a family member making disparaging comments about a child’s weight or making homophobic comments, may not be seen as an urgent physical safety issues but does have serious consequences for the mental health of those around them. In these cases strong boundaries need to be put into place. (See The 3 Types of Non Physical Abuse) for more on this.
Focus on setting limits on words and actions
Boundaries are not about convincing anyone that what they are saying or doing is wrong or hurtful. You can try to do this but if you are unsuccessful you still have the means to set boundaries. In the example above, Chris may enforce limits on his father driving with Chris’ son, In the case of a situation involving emotional abuse, you might let the person know that if they do not change their behaviour, you might leave the room, or the building, or they may not be invited to various events, etc. (See Where Do I Draw the Line? for more on this.)
Boundaries are Not about Punishment
Boundaries are not boundaries if their main purpose is to cause suffering in another persons, however justified that may feel. It is to keep everyone safe. Boundaries may or may not result in a change of perspective by the person who is experiencing the boundary. You may hope for this, but boundaries are not there to do this. (SEE Too Many Sticks & Carrots for more on trying to change people).
Consider if there is a way to preserve the positive parts of the relationship
Most of the time relationships have both positive and negative aspects to them. A parent who drinks and drives with their grandchild in the car may be a very loving and inspiring grandparent in other contexts. Chris will need to determine if there is a way to preserve the positive parts of his son’s relationship with his grandfather while protecting him from the negative/dangerous parts. When others are involved in the relationship, in particular, children, it is important not to minimize their needs and what they will lose if relationship is terminated or drastically diminished. A big loss on the part of a child may not be avoidable but it should be considered and not be minimized or ignored. This can be tricky, especially if you have very strong negative feelings about the person. Divorce and separation are common examples of this type of scenario. (See How Everyone can make Divorces Better for Everyone for more on considering the needs of others who are in relationship with someone you are setting boundaries with or re-negotiating the terms of a relationship with).
Regarding Extreme measures
There are times when it is worth considering if there are any positive aspects to the relationship at all, and/or if the negative outweighs the positive. If you cannot find positive aspects to the relationship or if the negative outweighs the positive, extreme measures such as cutting off contact with certain family members may be advisable, at least for a period of time.
Set times to re-evaluate/ re-visit boundaries
It is important to set times to re-valuate/ revisit any boundaries you have set to see if anything has changed for you, since you set the boundary, or if anything has changed for anyone else. This will tell you if the boundary needs to be maintained or adjusted accordingly.
See also When Boundaries Aren’t Respected for ways to shore up boundaries that are being challenged.
Set clear parameters for re-adjusting boundaries
When you set a boundary, you will need to check with yourself about what you would need to see changed in order to re-consider or adjust the boundary. For example, a sister who has a meth addiction might need to be clean and sober for a year before you will agree to lend her more money.
In some cases, the changes might be in yourself. If you experience some type of personal change, perspective, or growth and are able to relate to this person in a different way, for example, responding to them without your adrenalin flowing, and/or if there is something that the relationship has to offer you at a different point in your life, you might consider adjusting the boundaries.
Boundaries versus Avoidance
Many people find it easier to ignore harmful behaviour in family members and just sit with the distress, instead of expressing it. Boundaries are a way of being pro-active and setting limits whose purpose is to allow the positive aspects of the relationship to flourish. Boundaries are about demonstrating respect for yourself. This is difficult to do in the face of people who may have contributed greatly to your lack of self respect. It is also about respecting others. When others are causing harm to you or those you are responsible for, it is not respectful to them or your relationship with them to let it go unaddressed.
Consider your definition of a loving and healthy relationship. What does it look like outside of your family? If your family was not your family, what kind of boundaries would you have with them? Boundaries are not about rejecting people, they are about rejecting negative, harmful, toxic or unsafe behaviour. This is important in any relationship and it is healthy thing to learn to implement. Families are not exempt from being held to a standard of health and respect, you can start by doing this in your family.
For more on this topic, you may want to check out The Parents You Wish You’d Had