Boundaries within Families

Betty blue bordered (2)We are half-way through our Lent. Are you feeling discouraged by your attempts to change yet? Yes, me too. Unfortunately, every family of four will have four saboteurs, ourselves included. It seems to be human nature to resist change. But we “keep on keeping on” in hope and trust that we can improve.

This week let’s look at one building block of healthy families – boundaries.

According to Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin by Anne Katherine, a boundary is a limit or edge that defines you as separate from others, a limit that promotes integrity. Healthy boundaries build healthy families.

Here are some excerpts from this fascinating book:

Personal Boundaries:

We have different type of boundaries:

Physical – Our skin is our boundary but we also maintain around us an invisible circle or comfort zone. Its size is fluid depending on relationships and culture.

Emotional – We have a set of feelings and reactions that are distinctly ours. Feelings can be used to determine a course of action. They tell us when something seems dangerous or threatening or safe. A warm response brings your feelings back to you. You get to know yourself better. This combination—of effective feedback and knowing yourself better—creates an emotional boundary. It fills in the circle of who you are and creates a space outside of you of who you aren’t.

Spiritual – We are the only ones who can discern the right spiritual path for ourselves.

Sexual – We have a choice about who we interact with sexually and the extent of that interaction. Boundaries limit what is safe and appropriate sexual behavior from others.

Relational – The roles we assume define the limits of appropriate interaction with others.

Boundaries and Children

Boundaries begin to form in infancy. In a healthy family a child is helped to individuate, to develop a self-concept separate and unique from the other family members.

Parental attention develops boundaries.

• Interest in a child’s activities helps the child value what she can do.

• Interest in a child’s thoughts helps the child expand his sense of his own mental processes.

• Guidance helps the child realize that certain choices are superior to others—an essential aspect of boundary development.

• Expressed concern communicates a boundary—that the child is nearing a limit.

• Physical affection communicates that the child belongs, that he or she is part of a unit. It helps the child develop the boundary of “us” and “not-us.”

• Both too much distance and too much closeness between parents and children lead to problems. To a child, too much distance means abandonment and emotional neglect. Too much closeness—enmeshment—prevents the child from developing his own individuality and can foster in him a feeling of being responsible for the well-being of his parents.

• Meeting feelings  with disapproval or harshness teaches children to push them down, to separate themselves from their feelings, and to ignore the valuable information they contain.

• Feelings met warmly, with encouragement to talk about them and help to identify them—when a parent correctly interprets children’s facial expressions, body language, and the feelings connected with them—develops children’s understanding of their inner selves. Learning about and connecting with feelings is essential for complete boundary development.

What strengthens emotional boundaries?

• The right to say no.

• The freedom to say yes.

• Respect for feelings.

• Support for personal process.

• Acceptance of differences.

• Enhancement of uniqueness.

• Permission for expression.

What harms emotional boundaries?

• Ridicule. Contempt. Derision.

• Sarcasm. Mockery. Scorn.

• Belittling feelings.

• Stifling communication.

• Insistence on conformity.

• Arbitrariness.

• The need to overpower.

• Heavy judgments.

• Any kind of abuse.

• Abandonment.

• Threat.

• Insecurity.

Boundaries in Marriage:

If, as children, we had to deny our true thoughts or feelings to be safe, as adults we are likely to continue to deny what’s true for us. If boundary development was severely harmed when we were children, therapy may be the most efficient route, in order to not carry boundary damage into our relationships.

Ideally, the marriage contains enough togetherness to preserve the boundary of “us” and “not-us” and enough separation to preserve each person’s individuality. In a healthy marriage, each person is whole and intact. They choose to live together. Each could still survive if something happened to the other.

Acceptable degrees of intimacy and distance can vary. Communication is the life-blood that keeps the partnership fluid and vital and clarifies each person’s needs for intimacy and separateness.

Intimacy comes from knowing each other very well, accepting shortcomings and differences, and loving each other anyway. Enmeshment, on the other hand, is attempting to feel and think as if you were the same person. If only one partner is set up to do the thinking and make the decisions, that partner (let’s say the husband) will see himself as more powerful and important, even if his wife is the one who keeps the show going. This imbalance can cause the supportive partner to feel less important, less sure of her value and the worth of her ideas, more dependent on her husband, and more enmeshed.

Too much distance in a relationship leads to a cooling of romantic interest. Surprisingly, enmeshment can do the same. Enmeshment means someone’s individuality is being squashed. An enmeshed person is not known. True intimacy, in which each person is well known, leads to emotional closeness and easily into physical closeness. If partners aren’t talking about problems, feelings, needs, and wants, they’ll feel less known, and distance will grow between them.

Intimacy takes work.

Boundary violations, whether too distant or too close, can be healed right away if the sufferer tells the intruder that a boundary has been violated and the intruder immediately apologizes or somehow expresses concern about the violation. Note the two parts to this. The one whose limits have been breached must make the offense known and the offender must respect the limit.

So, what’s the goal of a person who wants to be healthy? To form boundaries that have some flexibility and some definite limits, boundaries that move appropriately in response to situations—out for strangers, in for intimates. Boundaries should be distinct enough to preserve our individuality yet open enough to admit new ideas and perspectives. They should be firm enough to keep our values and priorities clear, open enough to communicate our priorities to the right people. With good boundaries, we can have the wonderful assurance that comes from knowing we can and will protect ourselves from the ignorance, meanness, or thoughtlessness of others.

Boundaries bring order to our lives. As we learn to strengthen our boundaries, we gain a clearer sense of ourselves and our relationship to others.

Intact, clear boundaries enhance the family and prepare children for healthy adulthood.

Blessings on your week!





Single Parent Families

bettyarrigotti photo blogWelcome back to our 4 minute focus on building strong families!

One chapter in Building Christian Families by Mitch and Kathy Finley deals particularly with single parent families. If you are, or have been, part of a single parent family you will recognize the truth in what they write. If you are blessed to be part of a two-parent family, please read this anyway in order to build empathy for the special challenges you have been spared and perhaps to consider helping struggling families.

The single parent family is a true family and a legitimate form of home-church. Let’s follow the example we see throughout the Bible as God shows a soft spot in his heart for “widows and orphans,” or any family who needs extra consideration.

We all have our limits, and it’s only realistic to accept them. However, single parent families have special challenges we should be sensitive to:

  • Both parent and children have gone through painful disruptions, whether because of abandonment, divorce, or death. Sources of income must be developed, a move to a new house or apartment may be necessary, and children might need to attend different schools. The grieving process may continue for many months, or even years.
  • Parent-child relationships must be redesigned. A non-custodial parent may struggle to pay child support, worry about religious upbringing, have more time to be depressed, or feel acute loneliness.
  • While couple parent families sometimes deal with the temptation to leave the main responsibility for parenting to the other spouse, the custodial single parent responds to the demands of children all day long and does it alone.
  • Where a widowed parent may be looked upon by the wider community as courageous, others often view the divorced parent with suspicion or judgment. In some worship communities, the single parent who is divorced often feels shunned, ignored, even subtly ostracized. Yet divorced single parents have a deep desire to belong, to be a part of their church community.
  • Single parents worry that their children will never have witnessed a normal man/woman, husband/wife loving relationship.
  • Single parents must often deal with two particular temptations: the temptation to self-pity and to resentment.
  • Many single parent families experience degrees of fear and anxiety that the typical couple-parent family does not usually know with such intensity. Financial anxieties may head the list, but a vague, undefined fear of what the future may bring is not far behind. The single parent is unable to share these fears and anxieties with another intimately known adult. She or he lives with these feelings constantly, so the fear tends to compound itself.
  • In the two parent family, it is crucial for spouses to spend time regularly on themselves and on their friendship as a couple. It is equally important for the single parent to carve out of the week a few hours for leisure and, now and then, for prayerful reflection.
  • The single parent often finds it necessary to struggle against the tendency to become isolated. Single parents have a need for sympathetic friends and for warm relationships with two-parent families. Single parents often need little more than a sympathetic listener, and they can frequently find this by forming friendships with other single parents and hopefully, by membership in church groups.


On the other hand, single parents may have some advantages over couple parents.

  • They build strength as survivors, even though both parent and children have known much anguish.
  • Children of single parent families are sometimes more mature than many of their peers from two-parent families. They have, of necessity, been trusted with significant responsibilities at home.
  • Single parents may be more free to lead their children in their chosen faith life. In two-parent families, value conflicts which relate to the spiritual life of the family sometimes develop between husband and wife.

Single parents are like all parents:

  • No parent or set of parents can give children everything they should ideally have.
  • Most parents today often feel guilty about not spending enough quality time with their kids.
  • All families know insecurity.
  • All parents are called to conversion of heart and life, to trust God above all, to turn away from fear and anxiety as motives for action, to love God and others as the source of life’s meaning and purpose. Parents are called to do this even in the midst of meaninglessness and the temptation to despair. This is true faith, in the real world.
  • All parents need other parents to simply commiserate with, to talk to and share their burdens and joys. We should never underestimate the value of honest talking and listening among peers, for it is a terrifically valuable service that all church communities should offer to parents.


Finleys remind us that a basic principle for all parents’ spirituality is to “keep on keeping on.” May God help all of us, married and single to persevere in our effort to parent well.




The Family as Church

Betty blue bordered (2)Blessed Pope John Paul II declared, “The family in fact is the basic unit of society and of the church. It is the ‘domestic church.’”

Mitch and Kathy Finley, in Building Christian Families, write:

“Within the family, the foundational experiences of the Christian life happen best, for both children and adults. For most people, it is within the fabric of family life that faith becomes real. In family life, we experience the deepest joys and our deepest anguish, which means that in family life we most often discover the Cross and Resurrection of Christ in our own experience. […]”

“Within the family and around the family table, children experience the meaning of the Eucharist long before they receive their First Communion. Within the fabric of life in the domestic church, child and adult experience the meaning of forgiveness and reconciliation, apart from any official sacramental celebration of the experience. In the family, both adults and children experience the Christian life at its most immediate, where the seeds of faith are planted and cultivated daily.”


The family is the fundamental building block of the Church. Family spirituality is defined by the Finleys as, “A family’s ongoing attempts to live every dimension of its life in communion with the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus the Christ.” We first learn our spirituality primarily from our family. As Christians, our purpose in life is to serve God and his people, to work for the good of others, that we may all grow closer to God as we build his kingdom here on earth and spread the Good News of his love through our actions.

Do your children know what it is to be Christian? And what it means to be Catholic (or your denomination)? Or, more broadly, what are your children (even grown children) learning about spirituality as they observe their parents’ everyday life?

If your children are little, think back to your own childhoods. What did you look forward to about how your family expressed its faith? What were your family spiritual traditions on Sunday mornings? On holidays? On vacations? I remember whirling around the living room with my grandpa on Sunday mornings after Mass, my feet placed carefully on top of his dress shoes. Does that memory make me more Christian? Actually, yes, I think so. I knew in those moments that Sundays were special days of joy. Days to spend with family. Not simply because they were days off, but because they were God’s day.

If your children are teenagers, do you speak openly with them about your faith? Do you ask them what they think about social justice, or priests they have known, or some of the ethical questions we struggle with today? Do you visit other parishes so they begin to understand the universality of our Church? Do you reach out to the less fortunate as a family?

Last weekend, my husband and I watched a documentary, Into the Arms of Strangers, about the 10,000 children who were sent away in the 1940s from German occupied lands to strangers in England, in their parents’ desperate hope of saving their lives. The separation traumatized both parents and children, but their children lived, when 1.5 million children who stayed behind did not survive. The story touched us deeply as we listened to these children, now grown into elderly men and women, talk about how their parents struggled, in the few days between learning their children were accepted to the freedom trains and sending them off, (in most cases, never to see them again) to impart to them all the wisdom and faith that they would have spoken and modeled over their lifetimes.

Whatever the age of your children, even if they are greying themselves, don’t leave for later what you want them to know about your very personal faith. If you are uncomfortable at the thought of talking about such a personal issue, (Why are the most important things to say the hardest?) consider writing it down today. Here’s a start:

I know there is a God because once…

I know He loves me because…

I believe He wants me to treat his children with love and respect. I learned this when….

I know God answers prayers. He answered mine once when… (Maybe he said no, and you only came to understand what a good thing that was later.)

I believe in heaven. I’m not looking forward to dying, but I’m looking forward to asking God a few questions when I get there. And I’m looking forward to seeing my loved ones: _____.

I know God forgives. I learned this when I was forgiven once by ____. If they could forgive me and I know God loves me even more than they, He must forgive us even better.

I chose the church I attend because______ (our family always has been, or I converted because, or whatever your story is)


Our faith should be so important to us that we take care to pass it on to our children as a family treasure. May we recognize our treasure this week!





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