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Setting Boundaries with Dysfunctional Family Members

by | May 1, 2020
4 min read

Family dynamics are complicated. This is an area many people find challenging, but it really is the root of who we are. These are the first people who populated your world and dealing with them as an adult can be tough.

Whether you had an extremely abusive childhood or one with just a couple of small hiccups along the way, interacting with the original players in your life can sometimes be tricky. As children, we get this chronic download of how to do relationships from these people and the outcome isn’t always pleasant.

Defining Dysfunctional and Setting Boundaries

The term ‘dysfunctional’ is different for each person, but the journey of setting boundaries with family members is just as crucial. For you, the trouble might be with a bossy older sister or an alcoholic, workaholic father. Someone else might have a mother who is alright on the surface but very emotionally unavailable.

You might have good boundaries outside your family of origin. But the moment you return home for the holidays or a family vacation, that all goes out the window and you fall into the same patterns you’ve experienced your entire life—like going back in a time machine.

According to Terri Cole, a friend who I’ve interviewed a few times on the podcast, people just don’t have the language with their family members to speak truthfully. Adult children sometimes don’t always voice their opinions and take care of themselves to put these boundaries in place which creates problems in the long haul.

Why Setting Boundaries is Important to the Relationship and Your Sanity

In order to set boundaries, you really have to question the status quo. Is what you are doing what you really want to do or are you doing it to please someone else? Do an inventory by asking yourself what has sucked for years? What is a toxic situation that you’ve dealt with for a long time and how can you make a change?

The key is to look at things from your grownup self and decide if you really need to do what you’re being asked to do—whether it is the whole family having Christmas morning at grandma’s house or going to a beach vacation at a house with black mold that can affect your health. It could be something even smaller like forgoing a family tradition to do something that your kids really want to do, but you haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy because of not setting boundaries with certain members of your family.

Of course, situational boundaries like who goes where for what holiday are easy. But how do you tell if you haven’t set any or enough boundaries with family members?

Resentment is usually a key indicator. You keep letting them control you and tell you what to do. This is where you have to take a step back and remember that you’re the adult here. You have the power and it might be pretty unconscious to just go along with what they are asking, but the truth is that you don’t have to betray yourself like this.

You have to look at your grown-up self and ask… Do I really need to do this? And what does it cost me? – Terri Cole

Walking Away from Conversations with Difficult Family Members

We’ve all been there. We see family members at holidays or on vacations for the first time in a few years and we get questions about when we are getting married. Or having babies. Or getting a new job. The list goes on, but you get the point. These are things we really don’t want to discuss with people we barely interact with in our adult lives.

Instead of punching Aunt Bertha in the face for asking a crazy rude or intrusive question, there are a few things you can do to avoid these conversations.

1.Question the Questioner’s Question. Don’t answer and instead use cues to keep from giving them the satisfaction of your answer. Mirror the question and you can use humor if you need to. When you flip the question around from a paradigmatic point of view, you are taking back the power and setting that boundary. Remember, you don’t need to justify squat to people. For example, “Are you really asking me this right now in front of our entire family?”

2. Use Humor to Deflect. This is a fun way to turn the power dynamics around, but it largely has to do with your personality and individual wit. If a family member asks you when you’re finally getting married, provide a humoristic response like, “Wait. You didn’t get your invitation?” Doing so gives you control back while letting the other person know that maybe their question wasn’t as appropriate as they initially thought it was.

3. You Have Permission to Exit Conversations. Remember, you are an adult. You have permission to avoid any conversation that is intrusive or rude or that you simply don’t want to have. There’s no standard to have to be the “good” person and be polite if it doesn’t make you comfortable.

Take a Break and Avoid Family Situations Altogether

Remember, you do have the choice to avoid these situations altogether. Skipping out one the holidays or events to save your sanity is definitely an option—it still communicates a message about boundaries, just not as clearly. With a family that is super toxic, this is one way to cut off ties and make it easier to thrive without their input. But if the family dysfunction you’re experiencing isn’t that drastic, it might be better to just establish your own dominance through better communication.

Wrapping It Up

So, what do you do when you have this dysfunctional relationship with individual family members or people in your life as a whole?

It is important to remember that you’re the grownup here and that your actions and words set the tone for how these interactions go. Setting boundaries and being clear about what you’re willing to do or discuss is important—not just for the time period you’re around family, but also your own peace of mind.

Get ready to learn more with online classes from The Relationship School.

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