“You have to come visit us every weekend with the kids, because we took care of you when you were little.”
“Spend only $300 per year on clothes. You don’t need to impress anyone in your office.”
“Of course I called that manager at Google. I had to find out why they didn’t hire my son after the last interview.”
Every day, thousands of people sit on couches in their therapists’ offices , learning they lack boundaries in their interpersonal relationships. Whether it is a parent controlling the life of a self-sufficient adult child, a wife belittling her husband’s hobbies, or a boyfriend trying to “mold” his partner into an idealized aspirational being, examples abound of people close to us interfering with our emotional health, because we allow them to foist their desires, flaws and preferences upon us unfettered.
Boundaries, according to Raymond Richmond, a psychologist in San Francisco, are conscious and healthy ways to protect oneself from emotional harm. When people establish boundaries, the second parties in the relationships have a clear roadmap and guidelines for productive communication. Boundaries state “First and foremost, I will be respected as the adult I am.”
In the examples above, the speakers are using: 1) guilt and a false analogy to bypass the needs and preferences of their adult children 2) condescension and control to interfere with the values and preferences of an adult child and 3) helicopter parenting and refusal to relinquish control in a manner that could make the adult child feel ashamed and potentially do more harm than good by creating embarrassment in a professional context.
Mark Dombeck, Ph.D, points out boundaries are permeable. For example, parents might not tell their children about an embarrassing health issue in order to not make them uncomfortable, but may disclose their financial difficulties so the children have a realistic expectation of where they can attend college. But boundaries broken beyond this permeability have a familiar name — dysfunction, as in dysfunctional families.
Dr. Dombeck identifies this dysfunction in families where there is either not enough nurturing (neglect) or too much (smothering/helicopter parenting); parents who treat their kids like friends and go into details of their dates and sex lives, or conversely who treat their adult children like dependents or schoolchildren; parents who use their kids as pawns or weapons in divorce proceedings.
Boundaries are needed between every kind of relationship pairing; sibling-sibling, parent-child, spouse-spouse, even employer-employee.
Dombeck writes that one can identify boundary problems when one feels invaded or somehow trampled or disregarded by the actions of another person, and recommends assertiveness training. Enmeshed relationships or entrenched and detached relationships are overly rigid. Overly enmeshed people will talk about duty and honor as being above everything, or feel extremely anxious when they do not have constant contact with the other person.
Blocking out the opinion or influence of another person completely goes beyond boundary-setting. This would be “putting up a wall” instead of setting a boundary. An example would be a man who does not take any phone calls, emails, or texts from his wife who has had alcohol problems. Perhaps he says “You’ll never change; don’t remind me I married you.” The wall may even extend to other women. He may go on a lot of first dates, but not any second dates, because he does not want to let women in.
Similarly, too much boundary can lead to a lack of structure. The doctor and psychologist Leonard Sax has written about parents who treat their kids like friends and do not provide enough in the way of expectations and structure, leading (in his opinion) to increased fragility and decreased resilience in the face of adversity. In his view, demanding to see evidence of more effort on grades would be a healthy thing for a parent to do.
In contrast, a boundary might look like this: “My well-being requires that I know you are making positive changes by staying sober and attending AA meetings and therapy weekly, and that you do not yell, scream, or abuse me in any way. I will respond civilly to civil communication.” He is protecting his own emotional health, but responding in a positive way to positive efforts on the wife’s part. Of note, a wall or rigid boundary can be OK when the other person is relentlessly abusive or truly toxic, with damaging beliefs like racism or homophobia.
Asian and South Asian culture, with their argumentative tendencies and emphasis on obedience and making parents proud make identifying boundaries a bit trickier. Rest assured, however, that they can be implemented while simultaneously honoring the fundamental spirit of Asian cultural values.
Parents can state they expect the effort required to get As, instead of demanding the grades themselves (recent research shows this works better, anyway), and certainly instead of saying the child is “stupid” or “lazy” for not getting a particular grade. The child can say she will do the work as long as there are no attacks like this on her worth as a person.
Parents can also decline to take care of every little thing for a needy college student, setting a financial boundary for spending and requiring a part-time job, setting time limits on the hours-long homesick phone conversations, or dropping off home-cooked meals once every couple of weeks instead of every time the student is hungry.
A stay-at-home spouse could state the family will not spend the holidays with his wife’s family until they stop making snide comments about him getting laid off.
Two children can agree to share certain toys but not others. This is a great exercise in rule-following, decision-making, and maturity.
Family therapy and/or cognitive behavioral therapy can help to establish healthy boundaries after just a few sessions. The result can be a healthy, stable relationship for years to come.