The What, When and How of Family Boundaries

Statement of Faith

We believe that God created man and that He created them male and female. As such He created them different so as to complement and complete each other. God instituted monogamous marriage between male and female as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. Therefore, we perform and mentor marriages in accordance with Biblical guidelines. (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6; John 4:16-18; Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 5:11, 6:9-11. 6:18-20, 7:1-3 and 7:8-9; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:3-7; 1 Timothy 1:9-11)

 Whether your relationship with your in-laws and your own family is usually pretty great or has its ups and downs, there are situations that test your family boundaries. If your families already struggle with boundary issues, certain circumstances may exacerbate them even more, putting additional strain on the relationships. If your boundaries are usually pretty healthy, you might still experience some tension as you navigate the situation at hand.

What do we mean by “family boundaries”?

In the context of this post, think of them as protective barriers around time, mental/emotional energy and wellbeing, money, or physical space. You might have boundaries for yourself, for your relationship with your spouse, or around your entire immediate family. Boundaries can come in the form of explicitly agreed upon rules or clearly defined expectations, but they are just as often unspoken. We learn them from the family we grew up in, and we might not even realize it until later in life as we experience the quirks of our family dynamics in relation to our spouse’s.

Every family and relationship is unique, so there is no universal set of boundaries. The ones that are healthy and effective for one family, couple, or individual will not be the same for another. That being said, here are some examples:

  • We don’t talk about our relationship issues with our families.
  • When we visit, we’ll stay in a hotel.
  • We want to create and enjoy our own traditions with our kids, so we don’t travel on [holiday].
  • If you don’t voluntarily bring up [topic], I won’t ask.

  • We don’t ask each other for money.

So what are some situations when boundary issues tend to bubble to the surface? Let’s explore.

During a crisis

During highly stressful times, like a family emergency or unexpected crisis, we tend to shift to more extreme versions of ourselves. Why? When we’re thrown out of balance, the negative aspects of our personality traits can peek through. This applies to family dynamics as well. A family crisis brings to light the issues and conflicts that you can usually sweep under the rug. Boundaries might tighten up or diminish, and you might realize they were too rigid or loose to begin with. Think about how your families might handle a family emergency or have handled one in the past. Is there fighting and chaos? Everyone dealing with it separately? Depending on certain people to right the ship? Falling out of balance is a very normal reaction to an unexpected stressor; being able to return to a more stable state will help decrease the chances of long-term dysfunction.

Becoming parents

Obviously, the birth of your first child is a life-changing event, not just for you and your spouse but for your respective families as well. You’re used to relating to your parents and in-laws in one context, but there’s an entirely new dynamic that comes into play when you have a child. Even if it’s not the first grandchild in the family, it’s the first one with you as the parents. Suddenly, you’re the gatekeepers of your child’s relationship with your extended families, navigating and shaping new boundaries for both your new family and yourself. You might have disagreements with your spouse pop up that you didn’t anticipate. Maybe you think your in-laws drop by unannounced too often or your spouse feels your sister is too pushy with her parenting advice. On top of the overall challenge of being new parents, it can feel like a lot to manage.

Celebrating holidays

As a couple, you’ve likely had to figure out how you’re going to celebrate holidays. Which ones do you spend with your family or your partner’s? How do you create your own traditions for your own family? How do you meet everyone’s expectations while not ruining the holidays for yourself? In the process of finding solutions to these questions and many more, there might be some moments you catch yourself gritting your teeth in annoyance. Whether it’s gift-giving traditions that stress you out, too much togetherness with your extended family, or awkward conversations you’d rather not participate in, the complicated family dynamics really come out to play during holidays.

How can we establish healthy boundaries?

While these situations carry different nuances, there are some universal tips that can help you create healthy boundaries across all areas. Incorporate these suggestions to give you steady footing even in circumstances that have the potential for conflict.

1. Communicate directly and respectfully.
We might beat around the bush when we’re trying to communicate our boundaries. Maybe we don’t want to come across as harsh or hurt anyone’s feelings, and that’s totally understandable. However, by being clear and direct, we make it easier for others to respect our boundaries because they don’t have to try to interpret any vagueness.

2. Set realistic expectations from the start.
Often boundaries can come in the form of setting realistic expectations. If our expectations are not communicated or are very different from someone else’s it can seem like boundaries were crossed, when really it’s just a matter of adjusting expectations.

3. Enforce boundaries consistently.
The previous tips don’t mean much if you’re not actually following through on the boundaries you’ve set. You and your spouse will gain confidence in assertively enforcing boundaries, while also setting examples for your children or other family members.

4. Be on the same page as your spouse.
Consistently enforcing boundaries with each of your families will be difficult if you and your spouse are not aligned and on board. Supporting each other in times when it might be difficult to stick to them can make a world of difference.

Families are complex systems, especially when you consider both of your families intertwining around you as a couple. Interestingly, the situations that tend to test boundaries are also the ones that remind you why they’re so important in the first place. Understanding when it’s natural for issues arise and how to create healthy family boundaries can hopefully help you minimize strained relationships with your loved ones.