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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Setting Boundaries With Family Members Who Want to Interfere With Your Relationship

In a prior article, Learn to Stop Interfering in Your Adult Child's Relationship, I focused on well-meaning parents who get overly involved in their adult child's relationship and the problems that this causes.  In this article, I'll be discussing this issue from the perspective of the adult child who needs to learn to set healthy boundaries with relatives who might be attempting to interfere with their relationship.

Setting Boundaries With Family Members Who Want to Interfere in Your Relationship

The earlier article about parents learning not to interfere in their adult child's relationship, is one of the most popular articles on my blog.  Not only have people emailed me (from both perspectives), but I've received phone calls from parents and adult children who feel frustrated.

Let's start out by saying that I'm not talking about relationships where something dangerous is going on, like domestic violence where children are involved.  In those cases, the safety of everyone involved is of paramount importance and parents, the children's school and others might have to contact the child welfare bureau.

I'm focusing on everyday problems that most couples have where one or both parents insert themselves in the situation between their child and the spouse.

Let's also start out, as I did in my earlier article, by assuming that, with some exceptions, most of the time, parents who interfere in their adult children's relationship are usually concerned and they mean well. They're usually not trying to create the havoc which often results when parents interfere in their children's adult relationships.

Setting Boundaries With Family Members Who Want to Interfere in Your Relationship

But, as the old saying goes, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," so good intentions aren't enough.

So, is there a way for an adult child to set boundaries with a parent without alienating that parent or causing resentment?

The answer is:  Most of the time, yes.  But there are situations where the parent might not "get it" and might feel hurt or angry.

A lot will depend upon your relationship with your parents and how you handle boundary setting.

As a psychotherapist, over the years I've heard many accounts from both the both parent's and adult child's perspective.

Let's take a look at a fictional vignette which is based on many different cases where no confidential information is revealed, but the essence of the problem is discussed.

Mary
Mary and her husband, Tom, were married for a year and, generally, things were going well between them.

One issue that they were trying to work out was how to handle their money jointly.  Tom felt that they should pool all their money, and Mary felt that they should each keep whatever money they had before they got married and just set up a joint account, where both of them contributed, for bills and long term saving.

Setting Boundaries With Family Members Who Want to Interfere With Your Relationship

As far as Mary was concerned, it was not a big problem.  She and Tom had married friends who were dealing with the same issue.  Her sense was that she and Tom would work it out.

But Mary happened to mention her frustration to her sister, Carla who, in turn, discussed it with their mother, Pam.  Soon after that, Pam, who tended be a worrier, called Mary and wanted to talk to her about this issue.

Mary's initial reaction was to be annoyed with Carla for getting their mother involved.  Then, when she calmed down, she told her mother that everything was fine and she didn't feel the need to talk about it with her.  Afterwards, she made a mental note not to confide in Carla about similar issues.

A couple of weeks later, Pam called Mary again sounding worried and tried to talk to her about this issue again, asking Mary if she and Tom were having financial problems.

Once again, Mary tried to calm her mother down, and assured her that she and Tom were doing fine financially and they would figure this out on their own.

Sounding somewhat hurt, Pam persisted by telling her daughter that if they needed financial help, Mary  could tell her and she would help her.  Exasperated, Mary told her mother that this issue had nothing to do with financial problems and she asked her not to ask about it again.

Mary heard nothing more about this until she and Tom went to visit her parents for the holidays.  She happened to walk into the room where Tom and her mother were talking and she overheard her mother offering to lend money if things were tight financially.

Tom had a bewildered look on his face as he looked over at Mary to try to figure out what was going on.  Mary changed the subject.  But on the drive home, Tom asked her about it again.

Knowing that her mother's behavior seemed odd to Tom, Mary explained that she happened to mention to her sister, Carla, that she and he were trying to work out a way to deal with their money and Carla told her mother.

She explained that she had already told her mother that they weren't having financial problems and it wasn't a big deal, but her mother is a worrier and it has all been blown out of proportion.

Hearing this, Tom got annoyed and asked Mary why she talked about this to Carla.

From there, it escalated into an argument where Mary said that she just happened to mention it without thinking and Tom feeling that Mary was talking about him behind his back and her mother had problems with boundaries.

By the time they got home, they weren't speaking to each other.  Mary was tempted to call her mother and Carla to confront them with what they started, but she thought better of it.

Instead, she decided to wait a couple of days until she went to her therapy session to discuss it with her therapist.

After she spoke to her therapist, she had a plan for what to do.  Things were still tense at home with Tom, but they were starting to talk again.

Based on her discussion with her therapist, who knew Mary for a few years, she explained to him that she should have stopped to think before she spoke to Carla, who had problems keeping confidences to herself.

Mary acknowledged that she didn't use good judgment and she apologized.  This helped to ease the tension between them.

She told Tom that she realized, in hindsight, that all of this could have been avoided if she spoke to her therapist, who is bound by confidentiality not to divulge anything that she says.

She also told him that she planned to have a talk with her mother face-to-face to address this issue and to try to set healthy boundaries with her.

Tom seemed satisfied, and he came up with a compromise about how to handle their money that both of them could live with.  This eased tension between them.

Setting Boundaries With Family Members Who Want to Interfere With Your Relationship

So, Mary invited her mother to lunch and talked to her tactfully.  Mary told her that she knew that she was concerned, but there was no need--she and Tom were doing well financially and they were only trying to work out an issue that many couples do.

She also told her mother that, no matter how well meaning she felt, she didn't want her to go behind her back to talk to Tom.  She explained how this caused an argument between her and Tom, and she didn't want to see this happen again.  She also told her that she and Tom worked everything out so there was no need to be concerned.

Pam apologized for causing problems between her daughter and Tom, and she agreed not to interfere again.

Conclusion
The situation that I described in the fictionalized vignette is not unusual.

Setting boundaries with family members might feel awkward and uncomfortable at first.

Rather than assuming that your family members just want to be busybodies, if you realize that, for most families, these situations come up due to their concern, you will probably approach the boundary setting with more tact and compassion.

Before you speak with a family member about a boundary issue involving your relationship, it's better to talk to your spouse first so that you're both on the same page.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you feel that the situation that you're dealing with is beyond what you can handle or your efforts to try to handle it haven't worked, you could benefit from consulting with a licensed mental health professional who works with these issues.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to deal with setting boundaries in all areas of their lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.