There is a saying about how “good fences make good neighbors.” The fence defines what is mine to take care of and what is NOT mine. Fences help us feel secure because the limits are identified, understood, and respected. That same perspective could be applied to our family of origin and in-laws, “good boundaries make good family holidays.”
As a newlywed, this is the time to give my marriage a lot of space to grow. We are still defining the identity of “our new family” we created on our wedding day that makes a distinction between our family of origin. The holiday season brings up scheduling conflicts and decisions of where we will be investing our resources (travel time, money, and energy). A big struggle for married couples is with managing the in-laws, our spouse’s parents. We also have to look at our own family as a our spouse’s “in-laws.” What is acceptable to me may be a boundary violation for him. My husband and I may have different definitions of what “family time” is and how much is too much. Annual special occasions can trigger territory conflicts between his side, my side, and our side.
Boundaries protect our sanity. The holiday season is fast approaching. Expectations and family-time can lead to stress. My family, his family, step-family, out-of-town family… there are so many moving parts and too many people to try to please. Fulfilling obligations, appeasing drama-queens that start a ruckus, or soothing the sulking mother who is not happy about the every-other-year Christmas rotation schedule. There is a limit to what we can effectively handle.
Lack of boundaries with family can inhibit our growth. The holiday season comes with pressure. We put pressure on ourselves to make up for all the times we should’ve called, but didn’t. We have to look at old traditions and decide if we want to create new traditions now that we have our own family. Group dynamics change with new spouses, who have their own family traditions. New parents want to create new rituals.
Sometimes we don’t realize how much we need boundaries until all our family is in the same room. The book, Boundaries, identifies some specific areas in family dynamics that are in urgent need of healthy boundaries.
1. Preventing Independence: (aka “Failure to Launch”). The great benefit of discomfort is that it gets us to start making changes. Feeling the lack of resources inspires us to hustle and do some creative problem-solving. Parents “help” their adult-children by financing their road of failure because they want to protect them from discomfort. What really ends up happening is that critical choices about life-management decisions get postponed, delaying opportunities for growth and independence.
“An adult who does not stand on his own financially is still a child. To be an adult, you must live within your means and pay for your own failures.”
2. Second Fiddle: (aka “Daddy’s Princess”). When a wife gets married to a man, she is agreeing to leave her family of origin and “cleave” to her husband to create a new family. The problem occurs when every time the wife is around her dad, she wants to please him to the point of only having leftovers for her husband. When a spouse shows that her real allegiance is to her family of origin, the husband is reminded that he doesn’t have his wife’s loyalty.
3. Perpetual Child Syndrome: (aka “Mommy’s Little Man”). Keeping an adult child from emotionally leaving home can lead to dysfunctional relationships. Mothers are a boy’s first source of nurturing and care. Some men transfer that job over to their wives when they get married. Some, do not. When a mom still performs life management functions for her adult-son, a wife can see this as a threat. She is reminded that she doesn’t completely have her husband’s loyalty.
Just when we think we’ve matured and moved passed issues, our families remind us that we may still have some more work to do on ourselves. One of the most important bite-sized pieces of wisdom I learned: “People who own their lives do not feel guilty when they make choices about where they are going. They take other people into consideration, but when they make choices for the wishes of others, they are choosing out of love, not guilt, to advance a good not to avoid being bad.”
The holiday season provides us opportunities to renegotiate our boundaries in advance to have clear expectations for what we need. When we define a boundary, it is the other person’s choice to accept or not. Your new boundary may not work for others. This may mean that the tradition goes on without you or you may not be included in the new ritual. We can’t control other people. They make their own choices. We can only control ourselves within our own territory.
As I clear some space for my new marriage, I am reminded about the philosophy of how “good fences make good neighbors” applied to family. The great aspect of fences is that it allows for openings, gates that filter through what I want while protecting what I need. What I need now is to not do double holidays. I don’t want to have dinner here and then hurry out to have dessert there. I don’t want to be commuting on a holiday so that everyone is happy while I’m frustrated. It reminds me of being a child of divorce flipping back and forth between two sides. This is where I draw the line. I made my priorities clear early while still being fair to my husband’s needs. We created a plan that puts our marriage first and our family’s needs second.
Growth and change are continuous. We need to redefine our evolving boundaries and “Draw the Line” with family.
Reflect & Share: Where do you need stronger boundaries with your in-laws? What new rituals do you want to implement that are separate from your family of origin? What traditions do you want to continue that are changing? Out of the three Dysfunctional Dynamics, which ones do you see when all of your family is in the same room?
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Blogs on Boundaries:
“Am I “Helping” or “Enabling?”: Questions to Ask Yourself” (blog)
The Dreaded In-laws (blog)
Dr. Phil: Managing Your In-Laws (article)
Drawing Boundaries with Difficult In-laws (article)
Pregnant: Setting boundaries with pushy in-laws (article)
Get the book (buy)