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Setting Boundaries and Encouraging Healthy Relationships

I’m sure everybody out there has a friend or family member with whom they just can’t see eye-to-eye with, and that relationship seems more like a battle than one of support.  Co-existing with a person like this means that you are (likely) going to have to be around them.  Boundaries are key when dealing with a family member with an intense personality.  Boundaries provide YOU with the tools to help control how the relationship affects you, while preserving the relationship as much as possible. Here are some tips for managing a relationship where you feel your personal boundaries are being crossed.

Become mindfully aware of the situation at hand

Try to notice the behaviour of your loved one, without judgement.  The same concepts of mindfulness can be applied to relationship challenges.  Rather than focusing on your thoughts about the situation, describe (in your head) what you are observing.  Try and refrain from reacting right away.  This will take effort and patience, but noticing the behaviour first – without reacting immediately – can be the first step to improving the relationship. 

Understand that your family member may be unaware that they are crossing your personal boundaries.

People who have a tendency to cross personal boundaries are often unaware they are doing so. They also might rationalize or feel entitled to cross your boundaries (old habits die hard). 

Remember just because somebody is your mother, sister, brother, husband, or in law – this does not give them the right to be verbally, emotionally, physically, financially, or sexually abusive.

Understand what your personal boundaries are.

If you are experiencing name calling, verbal attacks, excessive blaming or criticisms, emotional manipulation, physical or sexual abuse – your boundaries are likely being crossed.  

Everybody has the right to not be physically, sexually, emotionally, or verbally abused.  Healthy boundaries include the right to not be yelled at, called names, blamed excessively, intimidated, or discounted.  Identify what personal boundaries are important to you – so then you can begin to reinforce them. 

Notice if you are rationalizing or minimizing their behaviour.

Some people might have a tendency think “my husband only cheated on me because I was pregnant and he needed to have sex.” Or “my mother-in-law only told my husband to divorce me because she was having a bad day.” 

The truth is that you deserve to be loved and respected, and if somebody crosses your personal boundaries, it is not okay.

Try to avoid the tendency to rationalize or minimize their behaviour.  Rather, notice what you are experiencing, and become mindful of how it is effecting you.

Politely tell your family member what your personal boundaries are, and when they are being crossed.  

Politely let your loved one know that they have crossed your personal boundary. In some cases, your loved one might have been unaware of their behaviour and how it was impacting you. You might even see them apologize, and try their very best to refrain from this behaviour in the future (this doesn’t always happen though, so please read on just to be prepared).

For example: “when you called me fat, this offended me and I was hurt.”

Swearing, blaming, or accusing them will often serve to make your family member feel attacked and become defensive.  Although you may be (rightfully so) very angry, try and keep your cool, be polite, and be the bigger person.

Come up with what your consequence will be to the behaviour.

What motivates your family member to have a relationship with you?  Most often, this is quality time.  Reducing contact for a determined period of time can be an effective starting consequence. 

Is your father criticizing you on the phone? Is your mother-in-law blaming you for “ruining” her life? Is your sister calling you fat?

Politely remind them that this behaviour is not okay, and you will be hanging up the phone now. 

You might want to refrain from contact for a distinct period of time (ie: 2 weeks) after a boundary is crossed.  This will serve to not (unintentionally) reinforce your loved ones behaviour, and perhaps give them some time to reflect, and cool down. 

Notice if you are feeling guilty about pulling back or making changes in the relationship.

Whenever you are challenging the status quo, you are likely to stir up a little (or a lot) of emotions.  You might feel guilty, but at the end of the day – you have the right to be treated with respect.  If you are struggling, try these steps to manage anxiety.  Sometimes therapy can help you understand the intense feelings that may arise. 

Recognize and prepare for the fact that your loved one might not respect your boundaries – even after you ask them to.

Often people with poor boundary control do not stop a their behaviour after you ask them to.  They might even cross your boundaries more often (by acting out or trying to regain control over the relationship). They may also blatantly ignore your request and contine on the way things are. 

WHEN they do this, keep your cool (if you can). Be prepared for this, and have your response planned!  When they cross the boundary, politely let them know and swiftly follow through with your consequence.  

For example: did you request that your mother-in-law no longer criticize your appearance. Did she she just told on the phone that you need to “lose 20 pounds” because your “too fat.” Politely let her know that you experienced this comment as critical, and you would like her to please stop.

If the criticism does not stop, follow through with your consequence by ending the conversation.   

When there is a consequence for behaviour (ie: ending the conversation) she will likely be more motivated to stop.

It may get worse before it gets better.  

When you are setting boundaries, their behaviour might temporarily get worse.  This can be a form of acting out, as the person is trying to regain their control over the relationship.  

Boundaries work best when there is a consequence that is followed through with 99%-100% of the time. 

If you stick to your guns, over time the behaviour will likely reduce.  If you slip up on your consequence and do not follow through (with some people this can be just once), it can be like letting the floodgates open and the behaviour can get much worse (usually temporarily).

So it’s important to stick to your guns and follow through with your consequence as much as possible.  

Relationships with difficult family members can be hard, and it can take a lot of patience and persistence to navigate. When in doubt, seek therapy!

This post was co-authored by Suzanne Black, MD, BSc and Stephanie Liu, MD, MSc, CCFP, BHSc.

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