Will family members get used to boundaries?
November 20, 2012 6:52 AM   Subscribe

When you set boundaries and upset the other party-- does it ever get better? How do you tactfully set boundaries?

In the past with family members, I have mostly been passive and accepted what they asked me. Recently, I have tried to be more assertive (ex: rejecting their invitations). However, they sometimes get upset, and although being assertive should make me feel better and clearer, I feel guilty. Sometimes, it seems like I should've just went along with it. I wonder, Do we ever get more used to the boundary between us?

I don't like how when I say no, family members will insist that I have reasons for it. "I just don't want to" isn't enough. However, these issues are not big enough to call for a big harsh "NO" to the other persons.

In fact, the fact that they have good intentions make it more difficult. From their point of view, it could be that they're being nice and trying to help, but I'm rejecting it. I have observed this dynamic from both sides, and sometimes, I feel for the Offerers more, and it seems that the Rejecters are being unnecessarily cold/harsh.

How do you set boundaries and change the relationship from passive & active, to active & active? I'm concerned b/c with family members, there will be more serious issues down the line. How do you keep it from blowing up in your face when you reject someone close? Do they ever get less upset, and HOW??
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I believe that times like this require little white lies. "I'm so sorry I can't come to your 4 year olds Star Wars party, I've got a pre-existing commitment doing a work project/sock-drawer rearranging."

Nobody wants to hear that you're just not interested in seeing them. Most people accept that you're busy with work/church/friend in crisis.
posted by taff at 6:57 AM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Family is hard. Family is really really hard. I too set boundaries with my family, and it is hard. And no, it's not enough to say "I just don't feel like it." Rightly or wrongly, family feels like it has a claim over your time, particularly around the holidays. I know when my family gets together, and I always make plans for that night. My family tends to issue invitations rather last minute since they assume everyone will come and has been holding the night. That gives me plenty of time to make other plans (including a nice long soak in a hot bath) to be able to say "Oh, I wish I could come! But I already made plans that I can't get out of. Have a great time!" DO NOT TELL WHAT YOUR PLANS ARE. Even if they are air tight. It sets the precedent that you will explain yourself. Just stick to "I wish I could, but I have plans."

As far as making it smooth and less upsetting, you can always offer to make plans. "I really wish I could, but since I can't do you want to do this other thing with me next week?" Make it clear that you want to hang out, and that will help with setting boundaries about the things you don't want to do.
posted by stoneweaver at 6:59 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't like how when I say no, family members will insist that I have reasons for it. "I just don't want to" isn't enough.

That is the brilliance behind Miss Manners' "I'm afraid that won't be possible"-- it makes clear there's a reason, but leaves the specifics unsaid. And then, as taff said, there are always white lies.

From their point of view, it could be that they're being nice and trying to help, but I'm rejecting it. I have observed this dynamic from both sides, and sometimes, I feel for the Offerers more, and it seems that the Rejecters are being unnecessarily cold/harsh.

I find that it works when you "reject" with an aura of authority saying in effect, "Thank you for your offer of help, but I have everything taken care of."
posted by deanc at 7:00 AM on November 20, 2012 [8 favorites]

You have the right to choose what you will and won't do. Lots of families use guilt as a controlling mechanism.

I have a Jewish Mother, I'm pretty immune to garden variety guilt. I've also made myself immune to Jewish Guilt.

When you recognize it as a way of controlling you, you'll find that it looses it's power.

Practice the firm and unapologetic NO.

"No. I won't be able to make it."

"It won't be possible."

Don't get into long explanations, or open the door to a negotiation. Be sweet, firm and polite.

You have no control over how others accept your No. You only have control over you. Until you recognize and respect your right to do with your time what you want, you'll continue to feel guilty when you oughtn't.

"I'm sorry you feel that way." Then hang up.

After a while, they'll get used to the new dynamic and find another sucker to serve punch at the cotillion.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:04 AM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

I am terrible at this. The "it just won't be possible" really helps, as does reminding myself that I shouldn't need to justify myself to the people who are supposed to love me. In practice, it's really, really difficult, though.
posted by k8lin at 7:27 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ruthless Bunny and DeanC have great advice. "Never complain, never explain." It's taken me a long time to not feel like I have to justify myself (I had parents who would try to wear me down with "why?" and "why not?") but it's so sweet to say, "That won't be possible." It's like a weight off my back!

I just want to add - there may be some people who will not accept the new boundary-enforcing you, and decide that They Don't Like You Anymore because they can't take advantage of you. Just because someone is your family doesn't mean that they can't be a selfish taker and user. This realization is painful when it is a family member - knowing that your own flesh and blood just wants you for what you can give them hurts. But it's no reflection on you or your lovability - users and takers are just that, they are very impersonal and only love people who are useful to them.

There is no free pass for family to exploit you just because you are family - that's one of the shittiest family myths we have going, that you have to accept bad behavior or outright dysfunctionality from someone "because they're family."

Nine times out of ten, your family members will grumble and sulk a bit and then come around to respecting your newly enforced boundaries. If the tenth person continues to be snitty or, worse, snubs you entirely, congratulations, you've just weeded out a user! You need a user like you need a hole in your head, and users tend to go on to easier prey once their marks stand up to them and say "no more."
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:31 AM on November 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

Do they ever get less upset, and HOW??

By setting your boundaries early on and repeatedly enforcing them. The few (or 3 dozen) times, they might be shocked or confused by a stance so different from their own. Eventually, if you keep enforcing these boundaries, they either just shrug their shoulders and say "Eh, that's just anonymous" or you simply stop caring as much. A combination of the two often occurs.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:45 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wonder, Do we ever get more used to the boundary between us?

The short answer is YES. This is a new dynamic you're establishing with your family after a long history of accepting their invitations, suggestions, and demands. (And congratulations! Setting boundaries, especially with family, is a valuable skill, but it can be intimidating at first. You're doing something that's hard but oh so worth it!)

They're used to you easily accepting, and it will take some time and repetition of your newly established boundaries before they learn that this is the way things are now. You continue to be clear, cordial when they're being cordial (and civil even if they aren't), and do not enter into negotiations with them.

That means you get to say "Golly, your [proposed 7-day fifteen-person family vacation in a one-room cottage for $8000 each] sounds like a blast! I won't be able to join you, but I know you'll have a great time!"

Family Member In Charge says "GASP! But you HAVE to come!"

You: "Oh, I'm afraid I can't make it. Have fun!"

Family Member: "We'll make it the next week. Or the week before. When are you free?"

You: "It's not just about the schedule*, I'm afraid I can't make it. But you'll have a great time. Will you go canoeing while you're there?"

The key elements for me: first I express enthusiasm for their interests, then politely (but clearly and definitely) refuse the invitation, then again acknowledge that the event itself has value (without mentioning that it has no value for me). Then exit by redirecting the conversation. It can be to something fun about that invitation itself which gently redirects to more general enthusiasm about their event, or something completely different ("I hear Granddaughter has a solo in the musical! Exciting!) which redirects the conversation to a completely new topic.

When Family Member pushes back with "but you HAVE to," do not get into whether you HAVE to or not (hint: you do not HAVE to), just stick to "I'm afraid I can't." Talking about the assumed obligation is an opening to negotiation; do not open up to negotiation. Talking about rescheduling the event to fit your schedule is opening up to negotiation; do not open up to negotiation. Talking about how awful it will be for you not to show up is opening up to negotiation; do not open up to negotiation. You cannot make it, you're sure they'll have a great time, and that's that.

They won't like it at first, partly because it is a new dynamic and introducing a new dynamic into a long-established family pattern shakes everything up. You said:

Recently, I have tried to be more assertive (ex: rejecting their invitations). However, they sometimes get upset, and although being assertive should make me feel better and clearer, I feel guilty. Sometimes, it seems like I should've just went along with it.

Your family members are trying to act out the old familiar pattern, and here's the tricky bit: part of you is trying to do that, too. The guilt you're feeling, the impulse to just go along? That's your own discomfort with this new dynamic, this new pattern you're working to establish. Familiarity --- even the unpleasant familiarity of letting people tell you what to do --- is comforting in the short term, and returning to that old dynamic is understandably tempting even though you know you're being clearer and stronger now.

But you are working to make a healthier pattern for the long term! Hurray! It takes work and repetition, but you can do it!

It might help to think about the word "boundaries" and how they work on land and on a map. Boundaries are clearly marked, and congratulations on taking that first step! But boundaries are also patrolled and fortified. You're establishing your boundaries with family right now, and every time you assert your boundaries, your family will (probably) be less surprised and more accepting.

There is also the possibility that some family members will not accept your decision to politely assert yourself. It's possible that one or two people will simply reject your right to make your own decisions. If that happens, you get to set a boundary about that issue. That might mean redirecting their conversation, it might mean stopping a conversation with that person if they won't be redirected, or it might mean simply not engaging with that person in the first place. You get to decide.

*If it is just about the schedule, then entering into negotiations about the schedule is fine. But that's some advanced boundary-setting, and right now you're trying to train your family in accepting introductory boundary-setting, so don't confuse them with that yet.
posted by Elsa at 7:53 AM on November 20, 2012 [20 favorites]

To revisit the idea of "boundaries" as a physical metaphor, imagine you've been taking a shortcut through a field next to your home everyday. In the abstract, you know that field belongs to someone, but in practice it seems harmless to cut through it, especially since that short cut saves you time and energy.

Then one day you head for your short cut and discover someone put a fence around that field. You'd be surprised! You might even be annoyed. That short cut through someone else's territory is so familiar now that you don't even think of it as a short cut, just as your route to and from home. Suddenly, you're inconvenienced both in the long term --- more time and energy to travel every day forever --- and even more in the short term --- because you counted on that route, you're going to be late right now.

That's how your family feels when you start setting clear boundaries around your activity with them: surprised, mildly inconvenienced in the short term and the long term, and suddenly needing to adjust to new expectations. You've always owned this territory, but you let others tromp through it unhampered; now you're marking it and staking claim to it.

But just like the person who will need to walk around that fenced field instead of through it, they'll get used to it and eventually that will be the comfortable new routine.
posted by Elsa at 8:02 AM on November 20, 2012 [11 favorites]

I had to start setting boundaries with my family after always being the one who went along with everything. It was challenging at first, but it didn't take long to make my new attitude the new norm.

Instead of saying "I just don't want to", I said "This is just what I need to do right now for me". And I kept repeating that every time they pressed for more info. I was framing it in a way of self-care rather than rejecting them or their plans and it seemed to make a big difference. The most common response I got to that was, "Well, I don't see why, but ok". They clearly wanted me to elaborate, but I would just say, "Thank you for understanding" and move on with the conversation.

You are totally allowed to not tell your family everything.

I also made the decision that I wasn't going to lie to them anymore. I felt that the point was to change the expectations my family had about me, and just having a handy excuse (invented plans that made me already busy) would only continue their same perceptions and the same patterns of interaction. This is what worked for me because I was out to change the overall dynamic.
Given that, I don't see anything at all wrong with lying gently to family members to make everyone's life easier. It's just that you have to be sure it isn't for their comfort at the expense of your own.
posted by Brody's chum at 8:06 AM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

(Elsa's pretty much covered it, but since I've spent the last half-hour composing this, I'll go ahead and post it. :) )

It really comes down to training. Training yourself to say "no" and training your family to hear it. You may or may not be able to train them to accept it; that part, unfortunately, is up to them.

I know that for me it took experimenting with how to word things -- "No, I can't" was harder than "I'm sorry, but I won't be able to do that" for some reason -- and deciding when I was willing to negotiate: "I'm not up for doing x, but I'll do y" or "I can't do x right now, but maybe I'll be able to next time".

It takes time, because you may well have to say the same thing over and over (and over) again, and you may be reduced in a conversation to just repeating "I'm sorry, but I won't be able to" or whatever. And you have to do it every time; once you're successful the first time, you can't cave the next time it's an issue or the training-the-family thing just gets reset to the beginning -- they know they can suck you in again, or guilt you, or whatever, so you have to start over re-establishing your boundaries.

In a lot of ways, dealing with family is like dealing with telemarketers, and I've found myself using exactly the same responses at times. The trick is to hold your line and never commit unless you're sure you want to, or at least won't mind. And yes, never, ever explain.
posted by worldswalker at 8:40 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

How much/in what ways do you want the relationship to change? When you say this:

How do you set boundaries and change the relationship from passive & active, to active & active?

It sounds like you want to preserve the relationship and take a more active role. That can be done by suggesting things you DO want to do with them, or in other ways trying to maintain the relationship more on your terms. But then you go on to talk about rejecting them. If you are really trying to scale it down, and have them be in your life less, they're likely to feel hurt; there's no real way around that. I think you have to be clear about what your objectives are.
posted by BibiRose at 8:48 AM on November 20, 2012

And also, what is it about the invitations that make you want to reject them in the first place? The example of the Star Wars birthday party above is a great instance where it's not your cup of tea and you honestly probably wouldn't be much missed. With me, it's trips to expensive destinations with a large group. For a lot of people, it's big loud events with a lot of drinking. I think it is really reasonable to say explicitly you don't care for that kind of activity. (If you use use the "won't be possible line" they may feel unnecessarily rejected. They don't know you don't like the ski weekend because you get frostbite, and they think you just don't like them.) But if that is the only way you generally see those people, you will have to suggest something else or accept that gradually you won't have much of a relationship with them. Which may indeed be what you want.
posted by BibiRose at 8:57 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

BibiRose makes an excellent point: think about whether you want to reduce your overall contact with the people in question, or keep spending time with them while altering the nature of that contact, or [insert other objective here].

If the pre-established family dynamic consisted mostly of Family Member[s] In Charge proposing events and you acquiescing to those proposals, your first forays into setting boundaries probably consisted mostly of you saying "no, thanks" to their offers.

But you say you want to be more assertive with your family. Being assertive sometimes means saying "no, thanks," but --- if you want it to --- it can also mean proposing events you would like to share with them. You can plan events collaboratively with family ("Hey, I was thinking we should all go on a day-trip to Local Attraction. Would you be interested in that? Yeah, then let's figure out a day that works for us. Do you think Aunt would like to join us?") or plan independently and then invite Family Member[s] to join you ("I'm going to the ___ exhibit at Local Museum on Friday. Would you like to go with me?").

That's by no means a requirement, but it's something to think about: if your family members have been setting the agenda and issuing invitations to you, it might not be immediately obvious to you that you can issue invitations and make plans, and that doing so can help speed up your desired change in family dynamics.

Of course, if your objective is not to alter the nature of the events or their assumption that you'll be available for their plans, but rather to reduce your contact with them, that is okay, too. You get to decide.
posted by Elsa at 9:10 AM on November 20, 2012

I recommend (as always) Harriet Lerner's "Dance of" series. You might start with the Dance of Intimacy.

She writes about how hard it it is to change patterns in family behavior, and about how the first boundary setting will actually consistently provoke the kind of pushback you are talking about, and even harder pushback subsequently, utnil a new pattern can be achieved. She writes about how to do that in a way that minimizes conflict and intensity in the relationship and that makes the most room for positive growth in the future.

Basically, everybody up-thread is totally right and you need to stick to your boundaries in a loving and firm way, and if you want some help/encouragement/practical analysis, the Harriet Lerner books are a great resource.
posted by Salamandrous at 1:23 PM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I define "I'm busy" as everything from a pre-existing commitment to feeling like a night spent watching TV or doing absolutely nothing. I don't feel guilty about saying "I'm busy" or "I have plans" or "I'm sorry, I can't make it."

In the rare situation where they ask 'oh, so when are you free, then,' I usually have a busy enough lifestyle and most friends and family will accept 'exams' or 'overtime at work' as excuses, and I don't feel the need to mention that if I really wanted to, I could make time.
posted by Ashlyth at 8:06 PM on November 20, 2012

Oh, and: don't be surprised if your family's pushing in reaction against your newly established boundaries gets more robust for a bit. This is often explained as an extinction burst, but the explanation isn't as important as your response to it: you maintain your boundaries, you stay cordial when they're cordial and civil even when they're not (in part because your bland civility gives them no excuse to wrangle with you, while being curt or rude gives them a whole tangent to go off on), and you stick to your resolve.

As in any kind of behavioral training, your consistency is important. You're teaching them how to treat you. For now, you want to make that "how" as stable and consistent as you can.

If people keep pushing, remember that "No, thanks" is a complete sentence: you can say it and stop talking if you want. So is "I'm busy" or "I can't make it" or "I'm afraid that doesn't work for me." They may push for explanation, but that's often a way of opening up the topic so they can negotiate with you about your boundaries. You don't have to do that, and during this early training phase, I suggest you avoid it as much as possible.
posted by Elsa at 5:46 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is something I have had to work on as well and it has gotten easier over time. However, I don't take the 'white-lies' road. I just don't like lying or making things up and prefer to be brief and say that I have other plans and if the person persists I will say that I am spending time with my family. I also remind myself that if I am saying yes to this person, I am saying no to myself. It has become a whole part of an increase in self-esteem to treat me and my time as just as important as anyone elses. When I look at it this way it helps lessen that guilt.
posted by heatherly at 9:50 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

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