How to Set Boundaries That Work in Your Family


The holiday season has just passed, and you’ve likely experienced ups and downs throughout the weeks leading up to Christmas.  Perhaps your Christmas celebration looks just like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.  But maybe (like most people) there’s at least a little family drama that always unfolds around the holidays.  As you reflect on your interactions with family, in-laws, or even friends this past holiday season, you may see some patterns of dysfunction in the ways in which you relate.

It might be time to start looking at some boundaries.

How do we define boundaries? Imagine sheep surrounded by a white picket fence on a spring afternoon.  (Makes you wish it were warmer outside, doesn’t it?)  This fence provides a physical boundary between the sheep and the outside world.  If there were a huge hole in the fence, or worse yet, no fence at all, the sheep would be vulnerable to attack from wolves or other animals that think a little mutton would make a tasty lunch.

At the same time, this fence has to let the sheep in and out of the pen.  If the sheep aren’t able to leave their pen, they will eventually eat all of the grass in their enclosure and starve.  They need to be able to leave the pen to get the nutrients they need.

Basically, boundaries keep the bad things out while still allowing good things in.  In relationships, boundaries allow us to take control over our own actions and feelings, and leave the responsibility for others’ actions and feelings to themselves.  Boundaries keep us safe, and rather than distancing us from others, they allow us to more freedom to connect with others.

How do you know you might need boundaries?

Check in with yourself and your emotions.  Common emotional responses to a lack of boundaries include feeling taken advantage of, resentment, discomfort, pressure, or trapped.  If you find yourself saying “yes” to everything even when it means taking on extra stress or tasks you don’t have time to do, you might need to look at your boundaries.  Feelings of being guilt-tripped by relatives that force you to comply even when you don’t want to can be another indicator of a need for boundaries.  Maybe you constantly find yourself bailing one of your relatives out of trouble they’ve gotten themselves in, and you feel annoyed with them as a result.

It is normal to realize you need better boundaries, especially if you come from a family where boundaries were not taught or enforced.  It could be that your family communicates with passive aggressive undertones, which influences your behavior without directly communicating a need.  You also might have felt a vague sense of unrest with your family, but you’ve so long accepted this style of relating as “normal” that you wouldn’t think to set boundaries unless someone else suggested it.

How do I start to implement these boundaries in my family?

Pay attention to your emotions.

As mentioned above, if you feel trapped, hopeless, and annoyed with others, that might be a sign that you’re in need of establishing some boundaries.   Notice the relatives who inspire a vague sense of guilt in you every time you speak with them.  To practice boundaries within yourself, take ownership of your own emotional response rather than blaming them with a “They made me feel this way.”  Instead, take responsibility for how you feel and make informed choices about what boundaries you need to set in order to control that response in yourself.

Begin to say “no.”

For every “yes” you say, you are also saying “no” to something else, even if you don’t realize it.  If you say “yes” to the extra project at work that leads to long hours, you’re saying “no” to time spent with your spouse and children.  If you say “yes” to helping your family with a last minute Christmas project, you say “no” to getting enough sleep to be functional during your work meetings the next day.  Incorporate the word “no” into your vocabulary.  Practice saying it aloud in front of a mirror.  Rehearse it with a trusted friend.

Ask yourself the question: “what do I want?”

Slow down and ask yourself what you would like to see change in your relationships.  Imagine that you could wave a magic wand and make everything the way you want it to be.  What would change?  Once you realize what you want, you can make changes in your boundaries to relate to others in a way that benefits both of you.

Set physical, mental, and emotional boundaries.

Let’s say you make an emotional boundary to remind yourself about your success and happiness in life when that pesky aunt always implies that you’ve not really achieved anything until you’re married with kids.  That may be helpful for a time, but if she makes those comments every time you are together, you may eventually need to start setting a physical boundary of spending less time with her.  Looking at the aspects of physical, mental, and emotional boundaries comprehensively helps you to address all fronts where those boundary violations can happen.

Identify consequences that will play out if the boundary is violated.

In order to make sure that you set boundaries that others will respect, the boundary needs to come with an appropriate consequence when it is violated.  For example, let’s say every time you get together with your sister over the holidays, she constantly compares how much she’s spending on gifts with you.  You may set a boundary with her that you don’t talk about money while you’re shopping, and the corresponding consequence could be that you won’t shop with her if it continues. 

Communicate your boundaries clearly and stick to them.

Once you have an idea of what you need to feel comfortable and safe in relationship, communicate your boundary.  Use “I statements” that describe how you feel, rather than accusing the family member of doing something wrong, which may cause them to become defensive.  Give the other person the benefit of the doubt.  Imagine that they do not know how you feel, and by directly communicating this boundary, you are giving them the opportunity to respond in love.  Once you set this boundary and communicate the consequence if it is violated, be sure to enforce the boundary and consequences.

If you don’t follow through on a boundary, examine why.

It is inevitable that we’ll find ourselves slipping on our boundaries every once in a while.  It may be that circumstances change and therefore the boundary has to change too, or that we didn’t realize we needed to establish a boundary in a certain area until after we’re triggered.  When this takes place, give yourself grace and use it as a learning opportunity.  Identify what went wrong this time around and put a plan in place to be able to enforce that boundary in the future.  See it as a practice – even starting to do some work on boundaries will increase our feelings of confidence over time.

Expect and prepare for a negative response.

When you first set a boundary, it is extremely common to get a negative response.  Humans are resistant to change, and especially if you’re attempting to shift a dysfunctional relational pattern, that can stir up extra backlash.  When this happens, practice a grounding exercise.  Choose not to engage in an argument or be convinced out of enforcing your boundary.  Instead, remind yourself of why you’re doing what you’re doing and follow through in the ways you need.


Do you always leave the holidays feeling overstressed and depressed?  Are you sick of getting guilt-tripped by your family members for all the things you seem to do wrong?  Have you tried to set boundaries with family before, just to see them fail miserably?  At Restored Hope, I’d love to help you learn how to effectively set and communicate boundaries that will be respected.  I offer counseling services at my Ann Arbor therapy office to offer support and help to break your problematic relationship patterns.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out my form to schedule an appointment today.

Surviving the Holidays With Your Spouse


Christmas trees are going up, holiday lights are twinkling, and peace and love are filling the air everywhere…well, everywhere except in your home.  The holidays are notorious for being fraught with conflict and stress, which can wreak havoc on our relationships.  Marriages are particularly under fire.  You’ve likely experienced arguments about which family traditions to uphold, where the holidays will be spent, and stress that comes with in-laws and shopping.  Research shows that divorces are shown to increase in the months following the holidays. I believe that relates to the conflict and strife that arises out of this season of the year.

How can you actively work to combat the potential devastation the holidays can bring to your marriage?

Discuss and plan traditions in your family.

As John Gottman likes to say, regardless of where we were born, we each bring our own cultures into the marriage: the culture of our family growing up.  We raised with traditions around the holidays, and you have likely tried to implement some of these within your current marriage.  However, some of these rituals can clash.

Talk with your spouse and ask about their favorite holiday traditions.  Pay attention to traditions they love now, favorite traditions of childhood, and what they wish you’d do together.  Talk about your best and worst experiences of the holidays growing up as a way of identifying common factors to implement and avoid.  Talk about your favorite holiday memories together as a couple and seek to put into practice similar moments.

If you come from families that didn’t have a lot of traditions, it might be helpful to implement some new practices, or rituals of connection, with your family.  Rituals of connection are practices infused with meaning that family members do in order to create connection, intimacy, and security in who you are as a family unit.  These rituals are an important factor in creating a new sense of family within your marriage.

Identify your own triggers and those of your spouse during the holidays.

While the holidays often carry special and joyful memories, they can also be overshadowed by trauma or pain.  If a loved one who has recently passed away played a major role in holiday festivities, the signs of the season may bring on fresh waves of grief.  Sit down with your spouse and children and talk about ways to honor the memory of those who won’t be celebrating with you this year.

Holidays also often involve time with family, which can sometimes be distressing.  Family dynamics can be their worst at the holidays, as stress makes our negative qualities more prominent.  Have a plan ahead of time for how to navigate those triggers together as a couple.

Sometimes even just lowering your expectations for the holidays can help.  It’s often the moments when you’re most trying to make the holiday perfect for someone else that you end up steamrolling over your spouse’s emotions.

Practice damage control when (not if) you fight.

If you know you and your spouse have the same argument every holiday season, take some time to plan ahead and talk through the potential fight earlier.  Use Gottman’s Aftermath of a Fight discussion as a tool to process past fights, identify sensitivities or triggers you may have, and plan for how to approach those arguments in the future.

And when you inevitably find yourself in the argument, try to understand your spouse’s perspective and practice empathy.  Look for an opportunity to come to a place of compromise so that you can have a win-win situation, rather than trying to come out on top.

Inject some fun into your holiday celebrations.

Holidays are stressful.  (Have I said that enough?)  There are a multitude of events and schedules to juggle, between children’s schooling, work parties, and travel to visit family.  Take some time aside with your spouse to slow down and just have fun together.

Go see the Christmas lights at Greenfield Village.  Spend a day cuddled up under the blankets with hot cocoa having a Christmas movie marathon.  Drive around your neighborhood to see the lights and choose a favorite house.  If you have a hard time thinking of something, or you worry about having fun on a budget, Google some ideas and pick one or two that sound fun or inexpensive!

Budget together for Christmas shopping.

Finances are one of the top areas that couples tend to fight over, and the holidays are the season when it's easiest to overspend.  Buying gifts for friends and family, shopping the hot Black Friday deals, or going out for celebratory holiday meals can lead to greater spending than anticipated.

As a couple, set some limits on spending for the holidays.  Talk through how much you’d like to spend on your children, family members, and friends.  If this means you have to have hard conversations with your children or your extended family about your financial limits, seek to do so united as a couple.

Volunteer together.

The old adage about Christmas says that we ought to be more cheerful about giving than receiving.  However, that sentiment can easily get lost in all of the hustle and bustle.  Slowing down to notice opportunities to give back this time of year can help your family to connect to gratitude for the blessings you have and a larger purpose for the season.

Find an activity you can do with just your spouse, or bring your children into it as well.  Donate your time at a food kitchen.  Hand out blankets, food, and hygiene kits to the homeless.  Help out at a children’s Christmas party in an impoverished part of the city.  Ring a bell for the Salvation Army.


I believe taking one of the items above and putting in into practice could radically transform your marriage this holiday season.  Give it a try – you never know how one little shift could change your Christmas.


Are you looking forward to the holiday season with a sense of dread rather than joy?  Do you promise to scale back during next year’s holidays every year, just to forget that promise?  Are you tired of always fighting about money during the Christmas season?  At Restored Hope, I know this time of year can take a major toll on marriages, family, and stress levels.  I’d love to support you through one-on-one or marriage counseling services at my Ann Arbor location.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 today or fill out my form here to find out more about how I can help you thrive during the holidays.