How to Tell if Your Relational Boundaries Need Work

by Gary Gilles

Relational boundaries are the foundation for healthy relationships. Yet, if you’ve grown up in a family with addictive behaviors or currently live in a family system where there is substance abuse, chances are very good that your boundaries need some work. The good news is that relational boundaries can be changed with deliberate effort. But, before we go over ways to tweak those boundary lines, let’s take a quick look at why boundaries are so important.

Relational boundaries in families serve three important purposes.

  1. Boundaries help you determine what your role and responsibilities are

    Think of a relational boundary as a property line. That line separates you from every other member of your family. 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. Roles don’t get mixed up, no one shirks responsibility and family members don’t rescue others from poor decisions.

  2. 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 is needed to act like a wall of protection against harmful or destructive behavior.

  3. 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.

If you think that you may have some blurry boundaries, here are some ways to redraw those lines to make them clearer.

  • Be committed to the truth. Truth-telling is often in short supply in homes where there are substance-use issues. Denial, distortion, and minimizing are all ways of lying about the real nature of the problem. Be willing to acknowledge unhealthy behaviors in the family. An honest appraisal of the problem is the first step toward finding a real solution.
  • Encourage family members to talk about feelings. In families with poor boundaries, emotional expression tends toward one of two extremes: either it’s largely absent or it’s chaotic, loud and hurtful. 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).
  • Work to resolve conflict. Conflict is a normal part of family life. But when conflict is not resolved it creates negative feelings and breeds 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.

Blurry relational boundaries typically need consistent attention and possibly the help of a professional because they have such a long-standing history. But, with a clear intention, practice and hopefully some family support, you can definitely see measurable progress over time.


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