Common Signs of a Lack of Boundaries with Family

BoundariesLet’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them by phone or in person, he becomes depressed, argumentative, self-critical, perfectionistic, angry, combative, or withdrawn.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.

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 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.

For more signs of a lack of Boundaries with family, read chapter 7, Boundaries and Your Family, in Boundaries.

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  1. Stephanie says

    What if that person, with whom we’ve longed for reconciliation, is also the one who neglected/abused us as children; must now live with us due to failing health…?

    • Sharon says

      I know this is an old post. I hope it got answered privately. I just want to answer it incase someone with a similar question reads this.

      If abuse hasn’t stopped, or is a possible concern now, do not take the parent into your house. It’s hard, but it is needed in order to set boundaries to protect your other family members. You may need to place this parent in a nursing home with less-than-desirable conditions. Sometimes the results of sin stay with a person for a lifetime. The choices of others are not your responsibility.

      If true repentance on the part of the abusing parent has happened, though, then you have no reason to refuse your home if you have the ability to care for the parent there.

      Either way, I hope the abused person is, by the grace of God, able to fully and completely forgive the parent. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you ignore current dangers. Forgiveness means that the past doesn’t control you.

  2. Eryn says

    How do I balance the 1 Timothy 5:8 with 1 Timothy 5:13?

    I am having the second sign because of a reversal of the third sign.

    MIL relies 100% on him for financial support and a roof over her head. And so I feel like I *have* to work to provide for our wellbeing, and to counter her lack of working, while she gets to be the “wife”. We can’t even talk about moving without factoring her into the equation, she has to stay with us because she has nowhere else to go.

    I end up feeling like the third wheel. I can’t even move my items into his house and set it up the way I would like because of her items.

    She is also textbook 1 Timothy 5:13, stays home all day, gossips on and off Facebook and does nothing in terms of charity work or community involvement.

    Just married and ready to be single again…

  3. anon says

    i’m sorry i do not agree that a person is a child until they can pay their way.
    so if i’m an adult legally and yet for financial reasons live with my parents or take their money i am now an infant? i think you have to look at why they are in this boat. not every situation screams irresponsibility or immaturity. perhaps they are sick or were laid off in a terrible market… basically making unilateral comments is allowing parents to act a certain way based on financial strings. not any different than a spouse who works and treating their partner with disrespect because they pay the bills.

    boundaries are for everyone regardless. not down to your definition of child or adult.

  4. Dan says

    I am aware that this post is quite old now but hopefully someone out there who maybe able to provide their view.

    I have been in a 2 year relationship. I have previously attempted to discuss issues regarding finances with my partner, as we would like to put our resources to purchase a home together. These conversations have ended up with me being told that I am asking inappropriate questions. Her and her sibling are paying their own immediate families mortgage which will take many years to clear; I feel that if I am about to embark on creating our own family together then I have a right to ask how this will affect us.

    I sold my own property in order for us to move forward together; although longer term the move is beneficial, in the shorter term I am now living with family and paying costly storage for my belongings. Yesterday she told me that she has recently decided to take on the full responsibility of her family’s mortgage in order to help release her sibling, who was struggling to be approved for her own mortgage. My surprise came when she told me that this happened 6 weeks ago. When I suggested that she was being selfish and withholding important information from our relationship, she disagreed. She is clearly an empathetic and caring soul who is wanting to support her entire immediate family, but sadly to the detriment of our own relationship.

    Opinions would be welcome but I am just licking my wounds as I do not think that I would have sold my property quite so soon if I knew she had done this (although I needed to move for work purposes anyway).
    Some perspective from others would be welcomed while I consider my future actions.

    • Stephen says

      Dan, It’s a tough situation that you’re in with your partner and that her priority is to her family of origin. She is enmeshed with them emotionally and financially. It’s very important to be able to be transparent in your finances with your partner or soon to be spouse. If she’s already hiding financial decisions that will impart both of your futures, then that is something that you really need to reconsider. I’d encourage you to share your concerns with your partner before you make a lifetime commitment; otherwise, you can likely expect the same behavior into the future. I pray you seek wisdom and direction for your relationship.

  5. Paula says

    In the first scenario you gave that mother a bad rap. The mother does not own that adult child’s life. That adult child I guarantee you has not forgiven her mother and places blame on her for things that she couldn’t possibly understand when she was a child. Adult children need to own up to their own judgments as much as parents do.

  6. Johann says

    My wife and I have a 21 yr old son & a 17 year old daughter. Our son starting attending college almost 2 years ago. He quickly started hanging around the wrong crowd and we noticed a change in his temperment and attitude. Over time, his new “friend” became his girlfriend and there seemed to be no positive improvement in his demeanor. To my wife and I, we saw red flags. Things spiralled downwards after his first year finished, with him wanting to move out (which is fine if you can support yourself, but as a full-time student this did not seem feasible). He proceeded to move out and we believe his girlfriend lived with him for the summer. We asked our extended family to give him time and space for the summer so that he had an opportunity to experience some of life without interference (the extended family was rarely in contact with him and basically non-existent in our lives apart from the occasional get-together a few times a year at most). At the end of the summer, we got word that he wasn’t doing that well (emotionally or financially) and so we offered for him to move back home thinking that the time away from home would give him fresh perspective about what a stable home environment could bring. We had our son write-up a list of terms (that we all agreed upon) for him to move back in. We all agreed to these terms. The terms were basically honesty, good communication, building trust, etc.The non-negotiables were disrespecting the family, etc.

    After our son moved back in and started his second year of college we were made aware to some questionable things. His girlfriend was basically abusing him (emotionally and physically). My son was reaching out to my extended family without our knowledge (and my extended family ie my older brother was not being forthcoming about the interactions). Considering that our family has not been close with any of this extended family, we saw this as a blatant crossing of our boundaries. Also, hiding the facts has created trust issues moving forward. Currently, I am not speaking with my brother. It also feels like my brother takes no responsibility for his actions for how our relationship is.

    After some time being settled back into school, our son stopped contact with the girlfriend. With it being an abusive situation, we asked the college to put in place a no-contact order. My son agreed and ok’d the actions. Things got quiet for a while as life settled back down to what we thought was more normal. Without warning, my father-in-law passed away and life was stressful again. My father-in-law lived a distance away from us and my wife has been tied up flying back and forth between home and her parents hometown to help with things since his passing. While we were attending funeral (out of town) it came to light that my son was still in contact with the girl that had the no-contact order in place. We felt betrayed that our son would blatantly lie to us regarding such a serious matter. After the funeral services concluded and it was time to come back home, I flew back with both my kids, and my wife stayed behind to help her mother. After getting back home, I spoke with my son about his actions and the clear violation of our agreement. I let him know that if he wanted to continue seeing this girl, that it would be in everyone’s best interests that he move out to pursue this. He agreed and he was given 30 days to find a place to live. About half way into his 30 days, Christmas came. It was Xmas eve, and I was at work during the day. Xmas eve was going to be the only night we could have our Xmas dinner (and spend some time together since I was working all day and evening on Xmas Day). On Xmas eve while I was at work, our son walked downstairs with his coat on and says, I’m leaving, My wife tried to reason with him to spend the time at home seeing that our family time was short for Xmas. He left to go spend time with his girlfriend, and we did not receive any word from him until the next day when he was trying to suck up via texting to come home. We informed him that we did not appreciate the disrespect and that he would not be welcome back to the home. We advised him that we would pack his belongings and arrange a time/date for him to come pick his stuff up. A few days later he came with his girlfriend to pick up his stuff, and she proceeded to use swears etc. We asked her to leave the premises, but she refused. We then asked our son to take his belongings and sit with them at the end of the driveway. As he left, he mentioned something to me about Xmas money that he knew existed. This told me that he had spoken to my family. He was in arrears with a few of this bills and I advised him that the money he knew about would be put to clearing up a little bit of his debt. A few days later, I spoke with my other brother (a different one) to wish him a merry xmas, and I suggested that I knew my son was at my other brothers for Xmas. He told me that this was the case.

    Since then, my son had moved out, with the help of my oldest brother. My oldest brother allowed my son to live with him while he found accommodation (roughly 2 weeks) without our knowledge. No one has once even had the thoughfulness to share my son’s new address.

    Now, it sounds like my son is struggling to pay his bills, which we knew would be an issue. Turns out my son is staying with my oldest brother on the weekends so that he can work at a store close to their home.

    I’m trying to understand how this situation is so messed up. I see my family enabling my sons behavior, and don’t hold him to account. They just say “he’s a 21 yr old and he’s lost”. It is not my brother’s job to try and parent my kid or to get in the way of his parent’s trying to get their kid to smarten up. I would not step in as he is doing. If the roles were reversed I would say to his kid, “look, until you are married and have a spouse of your own, your relationship with your parent’s is the most important. Work on it. There is no plan B to stay at my house (unless you are being abused or neglected). They are your parent’s and I will not be the reason that there is a gap between you.”

    Am I being unreasonable thinking that my extended family is not trusting our parenting? Any other feedback would be most appreciated.

    • Chris says

      Yes, you’re being completely unreasonable. Let go. You can’t control others. If you made all these boundaries with your son and enforced them, the result being he moved out, then you can’t also control him after he’s out of you house and care. If someone else wants to take up helping him, that is not your choice. You even said you’re not close to the extended family. They owe you nothing. Seems like you want to control your son, his girlfriend (who “used swears” ) and your extended family. You focus on you and stop interfering in everyone else’s life. Sounds like you’re the problem.

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