Boundaries are necessary, helpful, even reassuring. But they can be challenging to put in place. Between family members especially, clients may report feeling guilty or selfish when they set limits to protect themselves or establish healthier dynamics.
While there are innumerable reasons to set boundaries, people may feel that saying “no” to family members will damage the relationship or indicates a lack of loyalty. As therapists, we encourage clients to honor the bonds that are important to them, but not to blindly assume that a genetic link to another requires the client to sacrifice their time, energy, will or happiness for the sake of someone else. We don’t automatically owe family members our allegiance — certainly, many clients come to therapy with a history of abusive or unhealthy family relationships. As in relationships with friends, spouses and coworkers, the most fulfilling and effective family dynamics are laced with respect, communication and mutual investment. Pulling the “but we’re related! ” card is, at best, a weak argument for why we should agree/do for/support a family member, and, at worst, a toxic manipulation that uses guilt and obligation to get the desired reaction. Accepting less-than-respectful treatment from family members just because they are family doesn’t display loyalty or commitment to the family over self, but minimizes the inherent value of people on both sides. Respecting our needs as equal to others — even the “others” within our family tribe — can enhance the health of relationships, model self-respect, even provide a safety net to prevent unequal power distribution. Firm, clear, yet flexible boundaries can actually provide the structure for family members to deepen their connections and feel safe within relationships that may be the longest lasting in our lives.