Whether you come from a big or small family, you will occasionally disagree on how involved you should be in each other's lives. You are family, but you are also individuals. So as we reflect on our New Year’s resolutions, here’s how I’ve applied how to set some healthy boundaries with family based on what I’ve learned from my neighbors.
Talk About Boundaries
Years ago, my wife and I bought an old homestead up on a hill. We share this hill with five other houses. The other properties were each carved out of the original farmland once attached to our house. This has resulted in some really complicated property lines that wiggle and turn every which way across this old hill. Before I tried mowing my lawn, I had to talk to my neighbors to ensure we each understood our property lines. Before I planted a cherry tree along my driveway, I had to ensure it didn't stretch across my neighbor's line. Good communication has helped keep the peace.
The boundaries between family members can be even more complicated and require that much more communication. Frequent phone calls, unasked-for advice or last-minute visits can all feel like trespassing if not appropriately handled. Conflict can be reduced or even avoided if you communicate and talk through boundaries before they are violated. But the key to every relationship is communication. So if you are bothered by something, talk it out. Don't let resentment build.
My wife and I own the road leading up to our hill's six houses. But since our neighbors need the road to get to their homes, we each share the responsibility of maintaining the road. So as winter sets in, we all start thinking about managing the coming ice and snow. Recently a neighbor asked me if she could stage bags of salt along the side of the road to help with the icy spots that tend to emerge. She asked because it's my road. She offered help because she shares the responsibility of that road.
Family members should have that same level of shared responsibility. Your life is your own, but what you do affects everyone else in your family. Offer to help each other, but don't bang down the door insisting they accept the help. Ask about each other's lives, but respect that the other person doesn't have to divulge everything. Spend time together, but realize each person has other obligations.
Down Time Does NOT Mean Available Time
Even if your neighbor is not currently using their driveway, you still cannot park in it. You still need permission. The same goes for when your parents want to just "drop by." Or your sibling needs help with something. This sort of thing usually starts with, "Are you busy?" and then follows with some request requiring your time and energy. But a person can be busy resting or busy having alone time. You and everyone else in your family have a right to downtime. For example, I always aim for one open night each weekend. If Friday and Saturday are booked, then Sunday stays open. If someone texts and asks if I am busy on Sunday, the answer is "Yes." They don't even need to know that I will be busy watching television.
Don't Borrow to Give
If I give my neighbor my mower but then have nothing to mow my lawn, then we both suffer. The same goes for sharing your time and energy with your family. If you don't have time to answer a phone call from mom, then let her know when you can talk. You only have so much time and energy. Be generous with what you have. But don't give so much that you wear yourself out and grow resentful. In the end, that won't be good for you, for them or for your relationships with them. Give from what you have, not what you wish or thought you should have.
Boundaries are already complicated. And, as we know, families make those boundaries even more complicated. But talking through the boundaries, sharing as you go and respecting each other's limits can go a long way in building healthy family relationships.