5 Relational Boundaries Every Family Needs

by Gary Gilles

large family photo_Fotolia_59346159_XSThe term “boundaries” is familiar to most people. But what is not as familiar is how healthy relational boundaries are developed and maintained. Healthy boundaries can be especially confusing if you were raised in a home where abusive behaviors (verbal, physical, sexual, emotional neglect or substance use) were practiced.

The good news is that it’s possible to reset the boundary lines in your family and bring healing to relationships that may be in need of repair. To better understand how to do that, let’s first get clearer on how boundaries are supposed to work in families.

What purpose do boundaries serve?

Relational boundaries in families serve three important purposes.

Boundaries help you understand healthy responsibility. Think of a relational boundary as a property line. Everything that is on your side of that line belongs to you, such as your body, emotion, thoughts, intentions, etc. Everything on the other side of the line belongs to the other person. You are only responsible for what belongs to you. When there are clear and defined boundary lines between family members, everyone takes full responsibility for their own part in making the family healthy. No one shirks responsibility, enables a family member who wants an easy way out or rescues them from poor decisions.

Boundaries help you screen out the good from the bad. Healthy relational boundaries allow good things to pass through while keeping bad things out. When family members treat one another with respect, kindness and care, these gestures of love easily get passed back and forth across the relational line and strengthen the relationship. But, when there is disrespect, harshness or abuse, a firm boundary line that acts like a wall of protection is needed against this type of harmful or destructive behavior.

Boundaries help us communicate appropriately with family members. Each person in a family should have an equal opportunity to speak and be heard. It’s possible to value each member and their contributions even when there is disagreement. In contrast, when one member dominates or withdraws, as often happens in substance-using families, it throws the balance of healthy family communication off. A dominating member shuts down other voices; a reclusive member forces others to guess what they are thinking or feeling.

When relational boundaries are not respected and enforced, it leads to codependency, or the tendency to tolerate irresponsibility on the part of family members and relational boundary problems inevitably follow.

So what type of relational boundaries should families strive for? Here are 5 practical ways to reset the family boundary lines and keep co-dependent tendencies at bay.

5 practices that lead to healthy family boundaries

  1. Be truthful. Truth-telling is often in short supply in homes where boundary lines are hazy. While every family has its relational issues they need to work through, some families prefer live in a state of denial or at least pretend that certain behaviors are not problematic. For example, say parents of a teenage son discover that their son is using drugs. They might distort the problem by blaming it on circumstances (he is under a lot of stress from school) or minimize the impact of the behavior (it’s only marijuana and it’s becoming a recreational drug in many places). But you will not get to the underlying issue if you aren’t willing to make an honest appraisal of the problem. Being truthful with yourself and others is the first step toward finding a real solution.
  2. Tune in to each other. Families that are genuinely close make deliberate efforts to tune into each other and their needs on a regular basis. This includes spending quality time together, showing genuine interest in each person, listening deeply, and extending care. It’s easy to think you know everything about your family members because of your long history with them. But, each day every person in your family is learning, growing and challenged by different things. When you tap into their lives on a consistent basis, it creates safe and secure bonds that will naturally bring you together.
  3. Encourage emotional expression. In families with poor boundaries, emotional expression tends toward one of two extremes: either it’s absent or it’s chaotic. Neither is helpful or healthy. Healthy families encourage members to talk about their feelings and respond with empathy and concern. It is through the mutual sharing of emotion that we feel close to others. So, try to create an open forum for the free but respectful expression of emotion: the easy ones (happiness, excitement) and the more challenging ones (sadness, scare and anger).
  4. Repair relational damage. Conflict is a normal part of family life. But when conflict is not resolved it can linger and accrue in a way that creates negative feelings and relational distance. Commit that you will not go to bed angry with one of your family members. Be willing to take responsibility for your part in the conflict. Take the initiative to work it out. Defer your point of view for a time while you listen carefully to the concerns of the family member you are at odds with. When you resolve conflict quickly and in a sensitive way, it sends a message that you value your relationship with that person so much that you don’t want to be out of sorts with them. Repair makes a relationship stronger.
  5. Build each other up. What do you appreciate most about each of your family members? What qualities does each person have that add beauty, sensitivity, care, laughter, honesty and energy to family life? Make a list and tell them in person. Better yet, ask each family member to write out a list and arrange a time to tell each other what is most appreciated. You could even ask each family member to make a deliberate effort to compliment or show gratitude to each family member at least once a day. This action point alone could dramatically change the energy in a family from negative to positive and start a whole new way of relating.

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