Recently my daughter got engaged. As the wedding plans started to proceed, confusion escalated over how to meet the expectations and accommodate the schedules of so many extended family members, each one seeming to have strong opinions.
Perhaps you can relate? Do you have extended family members who have strong opinions about what you do or should do? Are you and your spouse often tense with one another because of the interference of relatives? How often do you feel like a child around an extended family member even though you are a fully responsible adult with a household of your own?
When you marry, the personalities of extended family members come into play. When you are crazy in love, there is a temptation to think our marriage relationship is enough to endure pressures and interference from relatives. After all, we are marrying our spouse, not their family, right? Without healthy boundaries, we enter marriage wearing rose-coloured glasses and find ourselves applying dark sunglasses to hide the disappointment and tears.
How can we set healthy boundaries with family members?
Boundaries are vital for the health of your nuclear and extended family. Families who appear to get along well have established ground rules around what they will and will not do to bring life and growth. And yes, they will still have disagreements, misunderstandings and challenges. As long as we are breathing, we will offend and be offended. But healthy boundaries provide a foundation when such situations arise to provide a win-win solution.
- Physical boundaries: In addition to your need for good nutrition, adequate sleep, and sufficient rest, physical boundaries include your comfort with people touching you or sharing your personal space.
- Emotional boundaries: Emotionally healthy people feel and contain their emotions. Emotionally healthy relationships can say no, do not gossip about family members, are not fearful of how another person will respond, and value one another kindly.
- Time boundaries: Time is a limited commodity and requires that we prioritise around personal restraints, responsibilities and refreshment, while understanding the time constraints of others.
- Spiritual boundaries: Do family members give space for your spiritual beliefs?
- Intellectual boundaries: Are your curiosities, ideas and thoughts accepted without shaming or belittling?
- Material boundaries: Show mutual thoughtfulness for one another’s belongings and property.
Sometimes we are aware that dynamics in our family of origin were difficult. Sometimes the level of toxicity becomes noticeable when someone new joins the circle through marriage. A toxic mum, dad, brother, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents cannot be given license to harm your marriage.
Set boundaries to honour relatives
Healthy boundaries bring honour and respect to family relationships. For many years, I loved my mother with strong boundary lines so we could interact in ways that did not hurt me emotionally. I honoured a mother who at times was hard to love. I understand that fine line between wanting a normal loving mother and having a mother who cannot be present.
Taking responsibility for my own wholeness and healing, I found good mentors and counsellors who helped me rewrite family patterns, communicate better, love through the unlovable parts, and break generational dysfunction. My mum has since passed on to heaven, and today, I feel her presence as I continue to teach others how to develop and implement healthy boundaries.
Signs that I needed to learn about and implement boundaries included:
- feeling stuck in not living a fulfilled life
- feeling responsible for my mum’s happiness
- fearing I would not be a good spouse
- struggling with trust issues in relationships
- low self-esteem
- carrying shame around secrets of my past
If I learned anything from growing up in a highly dysfunctional family, it’s that without healthy boundaries, the situation becomes overwhelming and stressful. We each bring our own baggage into the marriage. Marriage experts Bill and Pam Farrel, authors of Men Are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti, recalled each of them brought enough baggage into their marriage to fill a Boeing 747. Husbands and wives have a unique history of how they grew up, disciplines (good or bad) taught to us, and beliefs that spill into our marriage relationship. Boundaries are integral to healthy change and a successful life.
Relatives are not exempt from treating you with respect. When possible, establish respectful parameters prior to the wedding. Even so, those we love will occasionally overstep and seek to control. No doubt, they have their own issues to work through in the same way we have to work through our own. Many parents struggle to recognize their children are grown and transition from parenting to treating their grown children as fellow adults. Thinking they know what’s best, relatives may demand the married couple listen to their advice and threaten to withhold emotional support if their advice is not done to their liking.
As a couple, decide on your boundary lines. How can you respect one another when issues arise and you don’t agree? How can you remain united as husband and wife when pressures come from extended family members? How can you respect one another and your relatives while interacting as adult to adult, peer to peer?
During my first marriage, I had a mother-in-law who often overstepped her place. My then husband agreed with everything she suggested. Imagine the stress of having to check in with his mother, sister and other relatives who lived on our block whenever a decision needed to be made.
Painful but necessary, God pruned my understanding and beliefs about family relationships, our roles within the immediate and extended family, and how to talk effectively even in the midst of conflict. Communication is key when family dynamics become tricky.
Can you be honest about your feelings when you talk with your spouse? While it’s not our job, but God’s, to change another person, it is our job to speak life and honesty into our relationship. It is far preferrable to have a 45-minute difficult conversation and even months of awkward working through a tough issue than to skirt a problem until we do not want to sit across a kitchen table from one another. Similar to talking with a physician when we have a medical concern, meet with a counsellor or mentor to navigate relational strategies.
A godly mentor can help clarify responsibilities, where one person ends and another begins. We are each in charge of our own emotions, feelings and actions. When those lines become blurred, we benefit from getting counsel to navigate when the way someone reacts or responds becomes manipulative.
Complicated family constellations are common. God puts us in families where we serve as iron sharpening iron, bumping up against one another and chipping off rough edges. Healthy boundaries are a tool that helps us grow and mature emotionally, spiritually and relationally. Healthy boundaries are a protective hedge around your marriage, before and after you say your vows.
If you need to talk with a counsellor about this issue, contact our pastoral care team.
© 2023 Phylis Mantelli. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.