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?
1. Explore how your boundaries developed when you were a child.
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.”
2. Learn how healthy and balanced boundaries should look and enforce them to prevent others from interfering with your marriage.
Some family members or friends may try to pry or butt into your personal life because you have never set limits on them before. From now on, think of your marriage as a castle with a moat around it (your boundary) and a drawbridge. You get to decide whom you lower that bridge for, when and why. You have to assert yourself with those who try to invade your marriage. This may increase your anxiety because this is a new behavior for you. There is a significant possibility that those on the receiving end may not be happy about this change. You will get through it, and so will they. They might test your new way of doing things, but will back down when they see you are serious.
3. Don’t make the mistake of inviting others into your marital problems.
One of the biggest mistakes couples can make is sharing their personal problems with their respective families or friends. You and your spouse may get through the conflict or makeup, but these other people will still remember the hurt your spouse caused you and may not be as forgiving. You are also at risk for getting bad advice that pushes you in the wrong direction.
4. Speak directly to the person with whom you have a problem.
It may be hard to be open with your extended family. However, complaining to the wrong person may only cause more tension. Talking to someone who cannot do anything about the problem puts them in the middle and makes them feel helpless. It is best for you and/or your spouse to discuss your concerns directly with the offending party, and only with them.
5. Don’t make the children pawns.
This was touched upon in item 1 but is worth extra emphasis. Do not ever manipulate your children or in any way emotionally damage them by dragging them into your marital conflict. It can cause them significant psychological harm. All extended family members, particularly grandparents, must put the children’s interest above their own.
For example, if you are angry at your parents, and decide that you won’t let them see their grandchildren (with whom they have a loving relationship), then not only are you being vengeful and mean-spirited, you are harming your children. Find a way to compromise, work it out, and get things back on track. Put your children’s needs above and outside of your battles.
It is challenging to determine where the healthy boundary lines should be drawn, especially if you’ve never learned what is appropriate. Start the process by openly communicating with your spouse about how you’d like boundaries in your family to change. Use the guidelines in this article as a model, and seek help from a qualified marriage therapist if you cannot make headway yourselves. Putting these principals into practice can help you build a much healthier relationship with your spouse, one that is respectful, safe and meaningful.