Setting Boundaries With Family: How to Draw the Line

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Set Boundaries, Find Peace" by Nedra Glover Tawwab. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is your family overstepping your boundaries? How can you effectively establish and appropriately communicate your boundaries to family members?

It’s normal to experience difficulty setting boundaries with family. Because they have probably known you for quite a while, they’ve likely become attached to routine ways of interacting with you.

Therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab gives a few tips on how to set healthy boundaries with family members.

How to Set Boundaries With Family

Setting boundaries with family can be tricky because they’ve likely known you all your life. So, when you try to introduce new boundaries, your family members will likely struggle to adjust, as they may fear that your new boundaries will create distance in the relationship. As a result of this uneasiness, it may take them some time to adjust to your new boundaries.

(Shortform note: It’s especially common to experience boundary issues with your loved ones after getting married. Parents often struggle with feeling relatively uninvolved in their children’s lives, as those children try to juggle the demands of both sets of in-laws. If you’re recently married and struggling to set boundaries with your parents, remember that they’re likely feeling insecure, and do your best to remind your parents that they’re important to you as you set your boundaries. And, if you’re the parent of a newly married person, remember that your child now has more responsibilities to balance than ever before, and do your best to give them the space they need to adjust.)

Communicate in Advance

To help give your loved ones the time they need to adjust their expectations, begin communicating your boundaries as far in advance as possible rather than waiting until a boundary violation happens, especially if you know an important occasion is coming up. 

(Shortform: The idea that it’s best to communicate potentially upsetting information as soon as possible isn’t unique to boundary-setting. In the world of public relations, firms often prepare to respond quickly to potential crises, because prompt, forthright communications help reassure consumers. By contrast, waiting to issue a statement allows time for the public to spread and dwell on negative rumors.)

In particular, this can be helpful when setting boundaries around holiday travel. If you decide not to attend a family gathering, let everyone know as soon as you can. By communicating this information early on, you give your family time and space to come to terms with things. On the other hand, the longer you wait to express your boundaries, the more time your family will have to get excited to see you, which will deepen their disappointment if you cancel at the last minute.

(Shortform note: When setting boundaries around holiday travel, be honest with your loved ones and attentive to their feelings, in addition to communicating in advance. It’s important to be honest with them about why you can’t make it home, because it helps them to respect your decision. If you make up an excuse, you risk being caught in a lie, which will hurt everyone’s feelings and damage your relationships. Similarly, it’s important to hear and acknowledge your loved ones’ feelings about holiday travel. Taking the time to listen will reassure them that you care for them, regardless of how you choose to spend your holidays.)

Communicate Explicitly

Additionally, Tawwab notes that it’s easy to assume that you don’t need to communicate your boundaries to your loved ones because they know you well enough to understand how you’d like to be treated without having to be told. However, friends, partners, and family members can’t read minds, which means that, as always, it’s best to explicitly state your boundaries with them, regardless of how close your relationships are. Clearly setting expectations in these relationships not only helps you avoid discomfort, it also helps your loved ones meet your expectations and make you happy, which is almost always what they want.

(Shortform note: Psychological research backs up Tawwab’s assertion that loved ones don’t always know how we feel. Recent research suggests that romantic partners are good at knowing when you’re happy, but struggle to recognize when you’re feeling upset. Unfortunately, knowing when we’re happy isn’t much use in boundary-setting situations, as you’ll most often need to set boundaries in response to situations that make you upset. As the research suggests, loved ones won’t know you’re uncomfortable until you tell them.)

Another hurdle for setting boundaries with loved ones is the temptation to let small infractions slide to avoid conflict with the people you love. While it’s natural to want to spare your loved ones’ feelings, you can damage relationships by refusing to speak up. If you don’t speak up about behaviors that make you uncomfortable, others will naturally believe you’re okay with those behaviors and will continue unknowingly upsetting you.

(Shortform note: When addressing infractions with loved ones, it’s important that you take time to understand your own feelings. If you’ve let things slide in a close relationship and resentment has started to build, you may find yourself getting upset about completely benign behaviors, due to your general frustration. Figure out what you’re really upset about before you bring your concerns to your loved ones. When you know your feelings, you’ll be able to clearly express them to the other person. Because of this, Tawwab argues that you should always speak up when your needs aren’t being met in your close relationships. Speaking up immediately when your loved ones make you uncomfortable allows them to learn from the mistake and prevents resentment from forming.

(Shortform note: As you attempt to bring up your concerns as soon as possible, be sure you pick an appropriate time to have boundary conversations. If the other person is busy with work, family, or friends, it’s probably not a good time to start a difficult conversation, as the other person won’t be able to give you their full attention. Instead, try and pick a comfortable time and location, in which both of you have time to share your feelings and decompress afterward.)

Setting Boundaries With Family: How to Draw the Line

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  • How to transform the relationships in your life with boundaries
  • Why people struggle to reinforce their boundaries
  • A step-by-step guide for identifying and communicating your boundaries

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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