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  • Writer's pictureDr. Tate Cockrell

The Importance of Setting Family Boundaries

One of my favorite movies of all time is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Toward the end of the movie Clark Griswold, one of the main characters declares to his wife – “How can things get any worse? Take a look around you Ellen. We’re at the threshold of hell.” A couple of minutes later in the movie, things have gotten worse, to the point of a SWAT team being called to Clark’s house to rescue his kidnapped boss – all in the name of a family member “helping out.”

This movie is a stark reminder to me of the importance of setting boundaries with family members, especially our parents and in-laws. Often, our parents and in-laws mean well and want to “help out,” but it only ends in disaster, sometimes leaving us feeling like we “are at the threshold of hell.” Failure to set appropriate boundaries when our parents or in-laws get too involved in our lives only makes matters worse and often results in entrenching a pattern of behavior that can ruin a healthy marriage.

Many people are afraid to set boundaries. They are afraid of hurting their parents or in-laws’ feelings. They are afraid of hurting their spouse. Or, they are afraid that setting boundaries might cost them the relationship with their extended family all together. Here are four simple steps to ensuring that healthy boundaries are present in with your parents and in-laws.

Step one of ensuring healthy boundaries with your parents or in-laws is to determine what boundaries need to be set. If you’re married, then consult with your spouse to determine what lines need to be drawn with your respective families. Sometimes boundaries need to be set because family members have already crossed a line. Sometimes they need to be set because you want to prevent them from crossing a line. At any rate, you and your spouse need to be in agreement on the ground rules of the relationships that you have with one another’s parents. If you don’t agree on the boundaries, you’ll never be able to reinforce them.

Step two of ensuring healthy boundaries is to communicate the boundaries with your parents and in-laws. I have seen instances where couples have had elaborate discussions about what boundaries to set with their families, but they never inform their families of the boundary lines. This is unfair to your parents and in-laws. If there are rules to govern the nature of your relationship, then they deserve to know those rules. They should not be left to figure them out. I always recommend the couple sit down together with each set of parents to discuss the boundaries to ensure that the parents know that both the husband and wife are in agreement.

Step three in ensuring healthy boundaries is to enforce the agreed upon boundaries. Good boundaries will always be tested. Even with well meaning, loving, and supportive parents and in-laws. Setting good boundaries is useless if you or your spouse is unwilling to enforce them. When boundaries are enforced, it takes the guesswork out of how you should respond to your parents or in-laws when they cross a boundary line. Good boundaries always have consequences, and these consequences are always clearly defined and communicated to everyone involved. If the consequence is always enacted, eventually your parents and in-laws will learn not to cross the boundary because they know you will respond accordingly.

The last step in ensuring healthy boundaries is to keep a proper attitude and perspective on the use of boundaries. They are never used to be punitive or to drive a wedge between family members. Sometimes people use them to avoid dealing with difficult situations or difficult people. Good boundaries communicate that a relationship is important provided the rules of the relationship are adhered to. Sometimes I encounter individuals who use boundary setting as an excuse to cut off members of their family. Sometimes a period of separation is necessary to enforce boundaries with parents and in-laws, but the goal should always be reconciliation and redemption in the relationship.

In the end, you and your extended family will be happier when boundaries are in place. It’s okay to feel a little leery of setting them initially, but trust me – taking the time, effort, and risk to set them, communicate them, and adhere to them will be well worth the investment.

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