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!





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