With many families, unfortunately, a lack of boundaries is the norm. In many cases, these types of families are idealized as “tight-knit” in television shows and movies. But an overbearing mother insinuating that it’s time to provide her with grandchildren, or a sibling who wants to spend all your free time together (and gets upset when you go out with friends), can be more than characters on-screen. For many people, it is their reality, and disrespected boundaries strain relationships.
All familial relationships can be challenging at times, but a lack of boundaries can make them even more so. Establishing healthy relationships with our family boils down to setting effective, firm, and loving boundaries so that everyone feels safe and respected.
Why Families Need Healthy Boundaries
During the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have noticed increased stress when spending all your time with your family. While stuck at home, your relationship with your spouse or partner may have felt strained, or as a parent, the challenges of full-time parenting might have felt overwhelming.
Time apart is essential for couples, and it is vital for family members, too. You may worry that setting boundaries will prevent you from having a close relationship, but there is such a thing as “too close for comfort.” When family members do not have space apart, it can cause unnecessary conflict and difficulties.
Healthy boundaries aren’t solid fortress walls designed to keep others out of your life indiscriminately. Instead, they are sliding doors that can be opened or closed as necessary to ensure your inner peace and self-care while still allowing for a happy, tight-knit family structure.
With healthy boundaries, all family members feel loved and appreciated without feeling ignored or smothered. In other words, you need to have enough time and space apart to appreciate each other and want to spend time together. With this healthy distance, everyone in the family can choose when spending time is right for them without guilt or pressure.
Related reading: "Create a Healthy and Happy Life with Effective Boundaries."
Tips for Setting Healthy Boundaries
Setting boundaries can feel uncomfortable, especially when you are not used to setting them. Thankfully, boundary-setting is a skill that strengthens with practice. Follow these strategies for implementing healthy boundaries with your family while still approaching your loved ones with empathy and kindness.
Practice Emotional Awareness and Regulation
Conversations heightened by strong emotions can end in conflict or hurt feelings, especially when there is disagreement. We can’t control others’ emotions, but we can be aware of and regulate our own emotional responses to produce the best possible outcome for both parties.
Emotional awareness begins with checking in with yourself and how you are feeling:
- Are you feeling stressed, fragile, or upset?
- Are you grounded enough to hold space for a family member’s feelings?
- Can you be present with a challenge your family member is having while also surfing the tide of your own emotions?
Sometimes, the answer to these questions will be “no”—and that’s okay.
Ideally, both parties in a conversation are calm and desirous of developing a more loving relationship. Still, you may not always be in the emotional space to approach a discussion in this way. When you are barely keeping up with your own challenges, it may not be a time to listen to others. It’d be better to regulate your own emotions before trying to be present to another person.
Avoid having a conversation about boundaries with a family member until confident that you can handle your emotional responses—and theirs!
Deep Dive: "Life Hacks to Replace Feeling Stuffers with Emotional Intelligence."
Clearly Define Your Boundaries
You can’t set boundaries with others if you don’t even know what you need. We all have emotional needs, but many of us are out-of-touch with our own needs and place the needs of others first.
It’s essential to take a moment to get in touch with your needs before beginning a conversation about healthy boundaries.
Ask yourself: How am I feeling right now, and what would it take to feel more comfortable and emotionally safe in my relationship with my family member(s)?
- Having your “no” respected when you decline an invitation from a sibling
- A need for privacy from unexpected visits from in-laws
- Shorter conversations with your mother
- Your spouse and children helping with chores more
- Time reserved for self-care
- Out-of-town visitors planned around your preferences
Set Loving Boundaries to Care for Yourself
Once you’ve identified your needs, you can approach boundary-setting from clarity. It’s helpful to write out what you will say when you set a boundary for a family member. Refine the limit until it feels authentic and respectful. When you feel ready to have the conversation, make sure the timing is good for the other person, and you have adequate time for completion.
State your boundaries to your family members clearly and concisely, in a neutral voice, at a time when everyone is calm. If you think that your request might be disregarded, it can be helpful to let them know what will happen if the boundary isn’t respected.
Examples of Setting Healthy Boundaries in Relationships
Scenario #1: Your siblings or parents plan out-of-state visits without checking with you first.
How to Say: “In the future, we’d really appreciate you checking with us before you make plans to visit. We want to be able to spend quality time with you. The last time you made plans, we had other commitments that competed with your visit.”
Scenario #2: Your sister or brother expects your help with their children when they need a babysitter and get upset when you’re unavailable.
How to Say: “We love spending time with your children so we’re happy to help out and watch them occasionally. However, we would like at least 48-hour notice to make sure that we are able to watch them without inconveniencing you. And please respect our answer if we’re unable to accommodate your request.”
Scenario #3: Your mother tells all your siblings your news before you’ve had a chance to share it with them.
How to Say: “Mom, I appreciate your desire to tell everyone our news after we tell you something special, like buying our first house or having a baby. You’re so gregarious—I’ve always loved that about you! Yet, those are special moments and ours to share so I would like to share what’s important to me with my siblings myself. Would you be willing to wait to talk to them until I’ve had a chance to share news?”
Scenario #4: You and your spouse are having a conversation, but they continually look at their phone whenever they get a text or notification. Sometimes, they even interrupt conversations by texting or taking unnecessary phone calls, which feels disrespectful and diminishes communication.
How to Say: “When we are having a conversation, I'd like you to mute your phone and put it away while we are talking. If you have timely things to handle, just let me know and we can conclude the conversation sooner." Or a softer approach would be: "Would you be willing to put your phone away while we're talking?"
Scenario #5: Whenever you get ready to go to the gym or for a run, your partner sighs and says sarcastically, "Must be nice getting exercise!"
How to Say: “When I prepare to go to the gym or a run, it seems like you resent it and make sarcastic comments. I'm happy to support you in getting exercise. Let's look at our schedule to coordinate it, but please don't make snide comments when I exercise; it takes the fun out of it for me."
Related reading: How to Set Healthy Boundaries for a Happy Life
Practice What You're Going to Say When Setting Boundaries
It’s impossible to anticipate how someone will react when we decide to set a boundary. There is always a chance that the other person will react defensively to the conversation surrounding boundaries. While we cannot predict every possible response, we can practice what we will say to them if they resist our boundary or the conversation becomes heated. By doing so, we build our confidence.
If the conversation becomes tense or the person is unsupportive of your boundaries, practice what you will say to express your empathy while remaining firm in your boundaries.
Sample statements you could use include:
- “It’s understandable that you are upset; yet it’s hard to listen to your concerns when you raise your voice.”
- “Sounds like this boundary surprised you and may be hard to hear. When you can talk about it without blaming, I’m here to listen.”
- “I'm unwilling to be yelled at. Although I want to understand your viewpoint, I need some space before we discuss this further.”
- "Sounds like you're really hurting to be this upset! Let’s talk when you're calmer."
All families need firm and loving boundaries in place to help them maintain healthy relationships with one another. Sometimes, family members may resist the conversation regarding boundaries, especially if boundary-setting is new to them.
However, when you approach boundary-setting through the lens of establishing a more loving and equitable relationship with your family, your empathy will naturally shine through to help the person feel heard and understood.
If you and your family could use extra support with establishing healthy, loving boundaries, it’s Heartmanity’s specialty. Explore available resources at Heartmanity.com.