Setting Boundaries with the Sins of Your Family

BoundariesSusie had a problem that I (Dr. Townsend) 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.

Why Do We Act This Way?

The patterns you learn at home growing up are continued into adulthood with the same players: lack of consequences for irresponsible behavior, lack of confrontation, lack of limits, taking responsibility for others instead of yourself, giving out of compulsion and resentment, envy, passivity, and secrecy. These patterns are not new, they have just never been confronted and repented of.


Click to Tweet: Your family members are the ones you learned to organize your life around. Beware that they can send you back to unhealthy patterns by their very presence.


These patterns run deep. Your family members are the ones you learned to organize your life around. Beware that they can send you back to unhealthy patterns by their very presence. You begin to act automatically out of memory instead of growth.

To change, you must identify these “sins of the family” and turn from them. You must confess them as sins, repent of them, and change the way you handle them. The first step in establishing boundaries is becoming aware of old family patterns that you are still continuing in the present.

Look at the struggles you are having with boundaries in your family of origin, identify which of the boundaries laws are being broken, and then pinpoint the resulting negative fruit in your life.


If your family dynamics are driving you crazy, read “How to Resolve Boundaries Problems with Your Family” in Chapter 7 of The New York Times bestselling book, Boundaries.

Click here to read a sample chapter, watch a video, and purchase your copy today.


  1. Traci Johnson says

    Wow! Why weren’t you
    Around when I was coming of Age. I’ll do the reading and see if I can resolve these issues in my lifetime.

  2. Cecelia says

    I have major boundary issues with my inlaws wanting to play a part in raising my children. They have a completely different set of beliefs and values. Because I had no boundaries for the first 12 years of child rearing, my children stayed with them very regularly. I was trying to respect my husband because he demanded it. He was also addicted to many illegal behaviors, so it was all around unhealthy. Through much prayer and God answering them, he was able to do a year long, Christ based treatment program, which also allowed me time to reassess things. I realized that because the inlaws regularly undermined my rules that I didn’t want them staying there anymore. My husband didn’t understand so I explained all of the reasons in a letter to them. We never gave them the letter and for two years, I haven’t had many issues. But, once again they (my husband and his mother) are pressuring me and the kids (who are super excited about going to the camper) to go with them this weekend. They know I am busy with a bridal shower this weekend, so they are doing me “a favor” by taking them off my hands. I have plenty of other options, family who I trust.

    Now my kids think I’m the bad guy even though I’ve explained to them that I love Grandma and Grandpa, we just have different beliefs. God gave you children to us to raise, not them.

    How do I explain these things to boundary stepping inlaws and my husband who is still in bondage to them and other addictions. ( Thankfully not drugs and alcohol anymore).

    The inlaws just came over dropping off a birthday gift and were asking the kids if they could come with them this weekend. I didn’t go out and talk to them because they didn’t call and I was in the middle of things and caring for my youngest who was sick.

    Could I send a text saying thank you for the gift and telling them nicely that the children won’t be going? Should I offer an explanation? I will probably be seeing them tonight at my son’s basketball game, so not looking forward to the awkwardness, as I know what things will be said of me.

    Thanks so much for any input!

    • Cecelia says

      Victory!! I simply responded by saying, “I would like to keep the boys around this weekend, but thanks for the invite!” They haven’t responded yet, but I feel such a peace! I told my husband and he was totally good with it, not one bit angry!! I haven’t left them hanging AND I can hold my head high if I see them tonight, knowing I was courteous, even if they don’t agree with my decision. I honestly think he just needed someone to do the “dirty work” for him. I did spend some time in prayer over this too which in part, explains his awesome reaction!

      • Cecelia says

        Update: It didn’t go down without a battle, my husband ended up going over to his parents house that night and came back saying, “Why don’t we let the kids decide where they want to go.” Of course they would choose to go with the grandparents because they let them do all the things I don’t allow and treat them as if they are entitled to whatever they want. I tried gently explaining to my husband that what a child wants is not always best for them.

        His mother sent me text in return saying how much the cousins love playing with them and hopefully they could come over soon. We had just gone to several family functions the previous week and had seen their cousins. I have nothing against them playing with their cousins. I am seeing how this most likely was an attempt to make me feel guilty. In the past I would have given in. Now, I’ve grown up and see the truth.

        My battleplan for our marriage now is to pray for unity and start praying daily together. I really am not his enemy nor his parents.

        • Ian says

          Cecelia, have you read ‘Beyond Boundaries’? John & Henry help you work on difficult conversations as you stand up for your values.
          In laws won’t accept your reasons, so I’d suggest you get a circle of support around you. Gather some of your friends who believe as you do, and lean on them for support and accountability. Don’t go it alone, but choose safe people (another Townsend book) to be your inner circle.
          Your kids are lucky to have you! Blessings.

  3. Rebecca says

    Wow this is a perfect quote for my husband to read because he allows his brother to get into our marriage. I’m actually contimplating divorce because of it

  4. Susie Morris says

    It has been nearly 2 years since Cecelia posted and it grieved my heart to see that no one replied with wisdom. So many young Christian mothers are over-protective and allow their motherhood to be the defining characteristic of their identity while their marriage suffers. It was clear that her husband was caught in the middle. What harm was she afraid would come to the kids while in the care of grandparents who loved them? Of course, I don’t know the whole story, but since she didn’t describe her in-laws as evil people it seems a great loss all around.

  5. A says

    Exactly Susie, you do not know the whole story. And even from her post, it was clear she, as a parent, deemed that unsupervised visits were not in the best interest of her children. Did you read the post?

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