When you are a child there is a natural order of things; adults set the rules while brothers and sisters vie for their place, creating a familial hierarchy and chain of command. But what happens when you grow up and become part of a couple? You now have a blend of different family members in your lives and it is not always obvious what roles, responsibilities, and relationships everyone will respond to or take on. To achieve healthy relationships it is essential as a couple to set effective boundaries that you are both comfortable with.
What if boundaries are not in place?
While you may favour a laissez faire approach to family life, when it comes to creating equilibrium and harmony there are definitely negative effects from not establishing clear boundaries. This can result in:
- Damage to relationships within your immediate and extended family.
- Adverse affects on your relationship with your partner.
- Arguments and feuds.
- Misunderstandings along with feelings of hurt, resentment, and anger.
- Feeling compromised, slighted and under-appreciated.
- Feeling trapped and controlled.
If you view boundaries as putting limitations on the relationships you and your partner have with your families, try changing your perspective. Instead, see these guidelines as a way of protecting and valuing yourselves and your families.
How can we, as a couple, set effective boundaries?
- Agree on what those boundaries are: Discuss what rules and boundaries you are both comfortable with and what you feel is appropriate. There are no set decisions with this and it really is about what your mutual wants and needs. Do you feel that a sister or brother is coming around too often? Do you want your or your partner’s mom to stop coming over without any warning? While you and your partner might not agree on every point, you can find a solution with which you are both happy.
- Clearly convey what boundaries have been crossed: There’s really no use complaining to your partner about how a family member is behaving. If it is their blood relative they may even jump to the defensive, which is going to irk you even more. Rather than getting annoyed but staying silent, don’t hold back from expressing what you want. Just because it might seem obvious to you that dropping by during a busy dinnertime without calling first is not ideal, your family might believe that they are helping you out. You don’t need to over-explain or labor the point, but do convey what boundaries exist and perhaps why.
- Be consistent in reinforcing boundaries: You don’t need to enforce boundaries with an iron will, but if you waver too much or don’t respect your own boundaries, then setting them could backfire. As a couple, that means reinforcing boundaries in the same way for your family and your partner’s family.
- Communicate with your family as individuals: It’s easy to put family members into their own separate category and treat them differently than you would everyone else you know. While this might be coming from a kind and loving place, familiarity can sometimes breed a lack of respect. It is vital that when you’re dealing with anyone in your or your partner’s family that you treat them as individuals, with their own thoughts, feelings, and viewpoints.
- Separate your relationship as a couple from other family relationships: One boundary you might want to set is a separation between your relationship as a couple and your relationship with family. This means dealing with issues you might have as a couple between yourselves and not dragging everybody else into the fray. On the same point, if relations with your partner’s family are strained then try to not let this color how you get along as a couple.
- Listen to how family members feel: You may at times, individually and as a couple, feel criticized, railroaded or even overwhelmed by an influential member of either of your families of origin. It’s understandable that people who have known you or your partner for a long time, if not all your lives, can exert an enormous amount of power and persuasion. Boundaries are not about challenging your families but creating a comfort zone for you to grow and prosper as a couple. Standing your ground is acceptable but not digging your heels in for the sake of it. It’s far better to listen to how other people feel; they may give you valuable feedback that changes your ideas as well.
- Be open to changing boundaries: If boundaries feel like they are drawn in shifting sands, then before too long they are simply going to disappear. However, be wary of setting ideas in stone. As couples grow their needs change, as too do family relationships. Situations evolve over time and can change dramatically too. Be firm but flexible and open to the idea of redefining boundaries from time to time.
Remember, it is in your interest to set boundaries to create healthy family relationships. Research suggests that getting along with your partner’s family means you’re much more likely to have a long-lasting relationship as a couple.