Setting Boundaries

The ability to create healthy boundaries with those outside your marriage such as in-laws, family, and friends, can be an anxiety-inducing task for many.  Setting your own healthy relational boundaries is necessary, as they separate you from others and help you distinguish your unique identity. The boundaries you set can run the continuum from overly enmeshed on one extreme, all the way to the other extreme of being entirely cut off from others. In between those extremes, of course, lie the healthy boundaries. It is best for a married couple to develop together such healthy boundaries to keep interference out of their marriage.

What can complicate the process is how we were raised by our parents and family members. Some of us grew up in families that were quite enmeshed (in an unhealthy way!), with the parents frowning upon a child who insisted on having his/her own identity. Such families tend to be overly close and discuss every detail of their personal lives with each other, and are referred to as having loose, or “diffused” boundaries. If you were raised in such an environment, you might have difficulty making decisions on your  own or acting independently. Other families operate in what is known as a “disengaged” fashion, where the level of closeness among them is minimal. If you were raised in such a family, you might exhibit a great deal of independence, but you may isolate yourself, as well.

When joining in marriage with another person, the ideas around boundaries and closeness with external family members can vary quite a lot. This may create a conflict, of course if one person in the marriage sees the behavior from external family members as overly involved when perhaps this has always been the norm for the other spouse. It is important for the two people in the marriage to negotiate among themselves what they are comfortable with in terms of setting marital boundaries. However, when couples cannot agree, how can they change boundary concerns that are causing conflict? 

How were boundaries in your family? The family unit you grew up in was the “training ground” for what you were taught about boundaries. Were you raised in a healthy environment?  Reflect back on your experiences.  If your parents or other adults in your life had a good understanding of what healthy boundaries were and modeled this for you as well, then you probably have an appropriate internal model. As a youth, did you know you could depend on these adults, yet be independent at the same time? If so, you probably have found it easy during the course of your life to develop long-term intimate relationships in which you felt secure. If, on the other hand, your parents did not establish healthy boundaries in your home, chances are you have muddled your way through one disappointing relationship after another for some time.

What do appropriate relational boundaries look like between a married couple and their children?  A healthy relational boundary allows parents to have a separate private life. Over-sharing or inappropriate sharing is never healthy! Parents should share private conversations and their sexual intimacy with one another, but never with the children. It is not proper for one or both parents to use the children as confidants for their marital problems. Another poor choice is for the adult to seek emotional comfort from the child. These examples triangulate the child into the marital relationship in an unhealthy way.  Adults need to take responsibility for themselves in adult matters.  On the other hand, it is healthy and advisable for a married couple to communicate directly with their children about important issues. In times of upheaval, uncertainty or conflict, the parents should talk in an age appropriate way to the child, not leaving the child to discover necessary information “by accident.”

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