Let’s look at some common signs of a lack of boundaries with the family we grew up in.
Catching the Virus
A common scenario is this: one spouse doesn’t have good emotional boundaries with the family he grew up in — his family of origin. Then when he has contact with them by phone or in person, he becomes depressed, argumentative, self-critical, perfectionistic, angry, combative, or withdrawn. It is as though he “catches” something from his family of origin and passes it on to his immediate family.
His family of origin has the power to affect his 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.
I remember one young woman who 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.
“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 family: the spouse feels like he gets leftovers. He 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. God has designed the process whereby a “man shall leave his father and his mother and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (see Genesis 2:24). The Hebrew word for “leave” comes from a root word 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.
This does not 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 family, and the spouse and children get leftovers.
May I Have My Allowance, Please?
Terry and Sherry were an attractive couple. They owned a big house and went on lavish vacations; their children took piano lessons and ballet, and they had their own skis, roller blades, ice skates, and wind surfers. Terry and Sherry had all the trappings of success. But, there was one problem. This lifestyle was not supported by Terry’s paycheck. Terry and Sherry received much financial help from his family.
Terry’s family had always wanted the best for him, and they had always helped him get it. They had contributed to the house, the vacations, and the children’s hobbies. While this allowed Terry and Sherry to have things they could not otherwise have, it cost them dearly as well.
The periodic bailouts from his parents cut into Terry’s self-respect. And Sherry felt as if she couldn’t spend any money without consulting her in-laws, since they contributed the funds.
Terry illustrates a common boundary problem for young adults today, both married and single: he was not yet an adult financially. He could not set boundaries on his parents’ desire for him and Sherry to “have everything we have.” He also found that he had so fused with their ideas of success that he had trouble saying no to these wishes in himself. He wasn’t sure he wanted to forsake the gifts and handouts for a greater sense of independence.
Terry’s story is the “up” side of the financial boundary problem. There is also the “I’m in trouble” side. 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 that “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.