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4. Boundaries With Family

Article contributed by Probe Ministries
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Susie had a problem that I had seen countless times before. This thirty-year-old woman would return from a visit to her parents' home and suffer a deep depression.

When she described her problem to me, I asked her if she noticed that every time she went home to visit, she came back extremely depressed.

"Why that's ridiculous," she said. "I don't live there anymore. How could the trip affect me this way?"

When I asked her to describe the trip, Susie told of social gatherings with old friends and family times around the dinner table. These were fun, she said, especially when it was only family.

"What do you mean 'only family'?" I asked.

"Well, other times my parents would invite some of my friends over, and I didn't like those dinners as well."

"Why was that?"

Susie thought for a minute and then replied, "I guess I start to feel guilty." She began to recount the subtle remarks her parents would make comparing her friends' lives to hers. They would talk of how wonderful it is for grandparents to have a "hands on" role in raising the children. They would talk of the community activities her friends were doing and how wonderful she would be at those activities if she only lived there. The list went on and on.

Susie soon discovered that, when she returned home, she felt as if she were bad for living where she lived. She had a nagging sense that she really should do what her parents wanted her to do.

Susie had a common problem.
She had made choices on the OUTSIDE.
She had moved away from the family she grew up in to pursue a career on her own.
She had been paying her own bills.
She had even gotten married and had a child.

But on the INSIDE, things were different.
She did not have emotional permission to be a separate person,
make free choices about her life,
and not feel guilty when she did not do what her parents wanted.
She could still yield to pressure.

The real problem is on the inside.
Remember, boundaries define someone's property.
Susie, and others like her, do not really "own" themselves.
People who own their lives do not feel guilty when they make choices about where they are going.
They take other people into consideration, but when they make choices for the wishes of others, they are choosing out of love, not guilt; to advance a good, not to avoid being bad.

When you feel guilty for being different from what your parents or your family want you to be or do, that is a sign of boundary problems. It DOESN'T mean you're a bad daughter or sister or grandmother.

Examples: Jesus' boundary setting:

Mark 3:31-35
Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, "Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you."
"Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked.
Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother."

Luke 2:41-51
Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover.
When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom.
After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it.
Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers,
listening to them and asking them questions.
Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.
When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you."
"Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?"
But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.

John 2 Wedding in Cana
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus' mother was there,
and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.
When the wine was gone, Jesus' mother said to him, "They have no more wine."
"Dear woman, why do you involve me?" Jesus replied, "My time has not yet come."
His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."
Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
Jesus said to the servants, "Fill the jars with water"; so they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them, "Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet."
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside
and said, "Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now."
This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.

John 19
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son,"
and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

Signs of a Lack of Boundaries

Catching the Virus

When our family of origin has the power to affect our new family in a trickle-down effect. One sure sign of boundary problems is when your relationship with one person has the power to affect your relationships with others. You are giving one person way too much power in your life.

You can tell when a person has not left his/her father and mother by whether or not they are a different person around their parents than they are with their new family.

One young woman made steady gains in therapy until she talked to her mother, when she would withdraw for three weeks. She would say things like, "I'm not changing at all. I'm not getting any better." Fusing with many of her mother's ideas about her, she wasn't able to stay separate. This fusion with her mother affected her other relationships. She virtually shut everyone out of her life after an interaction with her mother. Her mother owned her life; she was not her own.

1 Cor 6:19-20 says, "You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body." The Father bought us with the price of the Son's blood. If we have boundary problems with our family, we are acting as if we are owned by people, when we are owned by God.

Second Fiddle

"You wouldn't believe how she is with him," Dan said. "She totally focuses on his every wish. When he criticizes her, she tries harder. And she practically ignores me. I'm tired of being the 'second man' in her life."

Dan wasn't talking about Jane's lover. He was talking about her father. Dan was tired of feeling like Jane cared more about her father's wishes than his.

This is a common sign of a lack of boundaries with the family of origin: the spouse feels like he gets leftovers. The feels as if his mate's real allegiance is to her parents. This spouse hasn't completed the "leaving before cleaving" process; she has a boundary problem.

The Hebrew word for "leave" comes from a root work that means to "loosen," or to relinquish or forsake. For marriage to work, the spouse needs to loosen her ties with her family of origin and forge new ones with the new family she is creating through marriage.

One woman is struggling in her marriage because her husband's first allegiance is to his mother. Mom makes decisions for her son and his wife—major life decisions—and son happily goes along with it. This man's teenage daughter got pregnant and decided to keep the baby even though she had no ability to do so. Grandma says, "I will help raise the baby" and carries the brunt of the responsibility. She tells son and his wife, "I'll raise the baby till I'm too old, then you will." Grandma experiences some unexpected physical problems that land her in the hospital, and informs the son and his wife that they will have to care for the baby. Then she calls about every 15 minutes asking about what she ate and if she napped, micromanaging the baby's caretaking. Can you see a boundary problem?

This doesn't mean that husbands and wives shouldn't have a relationship with their extended families. But they do need to set clear boundaries with their families of origin. Many marriages fail because one partner fails to set clear boundaries with the family of origin, and the spouse and children get leftovers.

May I Have My Allowance, Please?

Mom and Dad want their married children to have all the good stuff they enjoy, so they pump money into their lives. While it allows the couple to have things they couldn't have otherwise, it cost them dearly.

Bailouts from Mom and Dad cut into a husband's self-respect. The wife feels she can't spend any money without consulting her in-laws, since they contributed the funds.

Common boundary problem for young adults today, both married and single: they are not yet adults financially.

Being a grownup means you provide for yourself and do not depend on Mom and Dad to provide for you.

Kids want freedom and privileges: we can tell them, "When you're an adult, that means you are on your own, earning your own way and paying all your own bills, completely separated from us. Then you can make all your own life decisions."

Problem comes when kids want to have the privileges of making adult decisions without the responsibility of paying one's own way, which leads to the "I'm in trouble" side of financial boundary problems.

Many adult children perpetually get into financial messes because of irresponsibility, drug or alcohol use, out-of-control spending, or the modern "I haven't found my niche" syndrome. Their parents continue to finance this road of failure and irresponsibility, thinking "this time they'll do better." In reality, they are crippling their children for life, preventing them from achieving independence.

An adult who does not stand on his own financially is still a child. To be an adult, you must live within your means and pay for your own failures.

Mom, Where Are My Socks?

In the perpetual child syndrome, a person may be financially on his own, but allows his family of origin to perform certain life management functions.

Hangs out at Mom and Dad's house
Vacations with them
Drops off laundry
Eats many meals there
Mom or Dad's closest confidante
At thirtysomething, he hasn't found his career niche
   has no savings
   no retirement plan
   no health insurance.
On the surface, these things don't appear to be serious problems.
But often, Mom and Dad are symbolically keeping their adult child from emotionally leaving home.

This is essentially an adolescent financial life.
Adolescents make enough money to buy a surfboard, stereo, or outfit, but do not think past the immediate present to the future.
Did I make enough money for the pleasures of this weekend?
Adolescents—and adult children who have not separated from their parents—are still under parental protection, and it's a parent's job to think about the future.

What if you're the parent?
"Son/daughter, we've made a mistake in enabling you to not grow up. We're going to draw some boundaries to encourage you to be a grownup. We will no longer ________. I'm sure it will be uncomfortable for you, and it will be for us too, but we're doing this because we love you."

Three's a Crowd

Dysfunctional families are known for a certain type of boundary problem called triangulation.
Person A, B and C:
A is mad at B.
A doesn't tell B.
A calls C and gripes about B.
C enjoys A's confidence and listens whenever A wants to play the triangle game.

By this time, B, feeling lonely, calls C, and in passing, mentions the conflict with A.
C becomes the confidante of B as well as A.
A and B have not resolved their conflict, and C has two "friends."

Triangulation is the failure to resolve a conflict between two persons and the pulling in of a third to take sides. This is a boundary problem because the third person has no business in the conflict, but is used for comfort and validation by the ones who are afraid to confront each other. The third person functions as a stabilizer in the relationship between the other two.

This is how
   conflicts persist,
   people don't change,
   and enemies are made unnecessarily.

What happens in the triangle is that people speak falsely, covering up their negative emotions with nice words and flattery. A is usually very cordial, nice and even complimentary to B in person, but when A talks to C, the anger comes out.

This is a clear lack of boundaries because Person A is not "owning" his anger. The person with whom A is angry deserves to hear it straight from her. How many times have you been hurt by a "Do you know what John said about you?" And the last time you talked to John things were fine.

In addition, Person C is being drawn into the conflict, and her knowledge of the conflict gets in the way of her relationship with Person B. Gossip gets between people. It affects our opinions of the people being gossiped about without them having a chance to defend themselves. Many times what we hear from a third person is inaccurate. That's why the Bible commands us to listen to at least two or three witnesses, not just one.

You can triangulate in a group: sharing prayer requests or burdens. If you are giving enough information that they will align with you against the other person, you are triangulating, and it's gossip.

The scripture is very serious about dealing with conflict DIRECTLY with the one you are angry with:

  • He who rebukes a man will in the end gain more favor than he who has a flattering tongue. (Prov. 28:23)
  • Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. (Lev. 19:17)
  • Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:23-24)
  • If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. (Matt. 18:15)

These scriptures show that a simple way to avoid triangulation is to always talk to the person with whom you have a conflict first. Never say to a 3rd party something about someone that you do not plan to say to the person herself.

Some of the wisest counsel I ever received was about my behavior as Curt turned 18. Someone with “eyes to see” pointed out that I was still trying to control my son, even though that didn’t work anymore. And when I couldn’t control him directly, I tried to control him indirectly, by getting other people to give him messages he wouldn’t receive from me.

This person said, "I refuse to be triangulated into your relationship with Curt. Indirect communication is both manipulative and deceptive, as well as ineffective. The problem is that you are feeling powerless, and you truly are, because your son is now an adult and he is not only capable of but supposed to make, and bear, the consequences of his own choices.

"Powerlessness is one of the most difficult experiences to embrace in our relationships and in our spiritual journey. Paradoxically, it is the key to unlocking both relational and spiritual effectiveness. That’s hard to hear, since we usually resort to being controlling when we’re feeling the most out of control. Your responsibility is to control yourself, and when it comes to other people, love them and leave them in God’s hands, acknowledging your powerlessness and yielding to His power and sovereignty."

But I'm Your Brother

Grown sibling relationship: An irresponsible adult child depends on a responsible adult sibling to avoid growing up and leaving the family.

The tough issue here is the guilt and pressure you feel because it is your brother or sister. Sometimes people do totally crazy and unhelpful things for a brother or sister that they would never do for their closest friend. Our families can tear down our best-built fences because they are "family."

Ask yourself, "If she/he weren't family, how would I handle this?"
"What is in his/her best interest?" (to grow up, to take responsibility for self)

But Why Do We Do That?

If we don’t learn about boundary-setting in our family of origin, our adult boundary problems are just continuations of old boundary problems that have been there since childhood.

"If you only do the things you've always done, all you'll ever have is what you've got."

The first step is identifying these rules of the family and turn from them. You have to become aware of old family patterns that continue into today. It helps to go through the laws of boundaries and see what's being broken, in order to fix things.


Boundaries are an essential aspect of growing up. One step in growing up is coming out from under parental authority and putting yourself under God's authority.

The Bible says that children are under the authority of their parents until they become adults. But when adulthood comes, that person comes out from under guardians and managers and becomes responsible for him or herself.

Christians move into another parental relationship with God as Father. God adopts us into His family.

Numerous NT passages teach that we need to forsake our allegiance to our original family and become adopted by God. God commands us to look to Him as Father and have no parental intermediaries. Adults who are still holding an allegiance to early parents have not realized their new adoptive status.

Many times we don't obey the Word of God because we have not spiritually left home. We feel we still need to please our parents and their traditional ways of doing things rather than obey our new Father.

When we become part of God's family, obeying His ways will sometimes cause conflict in our families and sometimes separate us.

Matt. 10:34-37
"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--
a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'
"Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;

Ray and I were the first Christ-followers in our families, and it caused conflict. Ray married me instead of becoming a priest. When we joined Probe, we became missionaries. (Catholics didn't do that.) We went to a Bible church. We didn't baptize our children. Our parents didn't understand these choices, and it caused conflict. But because our first allegiance was to God and to each other, the boundary lines were clearly drawn in our heads and hearts. "I'm sorry you don't understand what we're doing, but it's a matter of listening to and obeying God." We heard what our parents said, we acknowledged what they were saying, we affirmed them and loved them, and then we did what we knew God was telling us to do.

Jesus says that our spiritual ties are the closest and most important. Our true family is the family of God:

Matt. 12:46-49
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him.
Someone told him, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you."
He replied to him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?"
Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers.
For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."

This doesn't mean we are to cut other ties. We are to have friends outside of God's family and strong ties with our family of origin. But we need to ask two questions:

  1. Do these ties keep us from doing the right thing in any situation?
  2. Have we really become an adult in relation to our family of origin?

When setting boundaries with family:

1. Love and honor your parents.
All communication needs to be done in love so the other person can hear the truth and take it in without feeling bad or defensive.
When we honor our parents, we acknowledge their previous role in our lives.
We express gratitude for what they did for us.
We live in grace, so we can extend it to our family.

If you find you can't love and honor your parents, get into God's healing process: Find a trusted friend, a support group, or a counselor to help you deal with the wounds your parents caused. This will help you come to love and honor them.

God's healing process: 1) grieve the pain and the loss, 2) forgive the person who hurt you.

2. Do not obey your parents.
Loving and honoring do not equal obeying.
God placed you with your parents for a season of time to help you grow into a mature adult.
At some point this season ends, and your relationship with your mom and dad changes from child-to-parent to adult-to-adult.
The roles change from dependency and authority to mutuality.
While you are to respect and care for your parents, you are not longer under their protection and tutelage.
Children are to obey their parents; adult children are to love and honor them.

Therefore, sometimes you will need to confront parents, disobeying their desire for you to agree with them or go along with a bad situation.

3. When dealing with a sibling, remember it's adult-to-adult, and distance yourself from your childhood ways of relating.
Reprogram the jukebox, so when they hit your button, it no longer plays B-17. Respond, don't react. CHOOSE the way you will deal with what they say and do. You are not in bondage to childhood ways of relating.

Sometimes when you insist on maintaining your boundaries (for example, “I’m sorry, I can’t be your child’s afterschool babysitter”), people will try to trample those boundaries through guilt (“I can’t believe you call yourself a friend and you would deny me this simple need”) or manipulation (“If you don’t do this for me, I’ll lose my job and we’ll go hungry and it’ll be your fault”) or other less-than-honorable motives. When you continue to stand your ground, other people may get their feelings hurt because they couldn’t make you do what they wanted you to do. In that case, remember that some people choose to get their feelings hurt, and that’s OK. It’s not wise to honor others’ self-centeredness, which is what’s happening when they get their feelings hurt because they wanted their agenda instead of honoring yours.

Next Lesson: Setting Boundaries

Related Topics: Boundaries, Christian Life, Messages, Spiritual Life, Wisdom, Women

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