Not that B-word, rather the B-word that is: Boundaries. Ugh, yes, something everyone wants, claims to have, but in reality, only knows they are lacking until it becomes a problem. Well, this past year made me realize I also have that problem.
2020, and continuing, offered its own unique set of challenges for everyone. Unlike most people, I am an EXTREME introvert, almost to the point of being called a recluse. I am a home-body as well… a terrible combination. That being said, 2020 was not difficult for me because of the isolation. Instead, I will remember that year, not because of the virus, but because of the destruction it brought to my family.
To say that my parents separating and leading to divorce was unexpected would be a lie. Their relationship had its flaws like any other, and like most, they never worked, really worked, to fix or adapt to their shortcomings. My parents simply acknowledged there was a problem, mentioned it in a passive-aggressive style perfected in my family dynamic, and did not speak of it after that. I always knew there were problems. I was not blind or deaf to their lack of chemistry and array of issues. However, I never fully realized how extremely dysfunctional my family is until it all fell apart.
When the comfort and stability of my little nuclear family blew up, pun intended, I found myself inviting one of my parents seeking refuge to move in with me and my husband for however long they needed. Their stay unexpectedly turned into a little over 5 months. This was not a significant shift for me because it was weird to be living with a parent again or because the move-in was inconvenient. We were actually quite happy that we had a place to offer them. The real struggle came when I realized that the boundaries I believed that I had between my parents and me were really more of an invisible wall. (‘Invisible wall’ sounds better than saying non-existent.)
Now that you have the backstory, I would like to acknowledge that I am not about to offer my sage advice on how you can navigate your family problems, set boundaries, and emerge healthier than ever. I wish I had that advice for you and for me as well. This is more or less a guide of what NOT to do; the account of an epic fail… My epic fail. Throughout this past year, I kept searching for something to help me navigate my parent’s separation, dysfunction, and divorce as an adult and I kept struggling to find quality content. There are an overwhelming amount of blogs, studies, and books to help younger humans (ages 1-18) cope with their feelings and frustrations, but not much when you start adulting. I guess everyone figures when you’re an adult, your parents splitting is easier because you don’t have to go through all the mess, but sadly, they are very wrong. It’s a painful process, full of grief, uncertainty, and extreme sadness, even when you are all grown up. The lack of support and guidance lead me to fail in so many huge areas. However, all of these failures boiled down to faults of my own in one specific area: Boundaries.
So, the following words are my biggest takeaways and things I would change if I had it all to do over:
DO NOT SETTLE INTO THE ROLE OF THERAPIST
There is a clear difference between comforting those who are hurting and becoming the person they come to with all their problems- especially in a family dynamic where you have skin in every game. The Bible is clear about helping those who are hurting, struggling, and in need, and you can do all of that without being THE person they share their deepest darkest sins and secrets with. The role of therapists can be less convoluted when dealing with close friends or a trusted confidant simply because they are not related by marriage or blood. Inhabiting the role of therapist often leads to choosing sides and picking a favorite, which is typically not very fair to the side you are hearing much less from. Not to say there is not a difference between right and wrong, but you know how the saying goes, “There are always two sides to every story.” A therapist with only one client and that one client is one of your parents only ever wanting to discuss what is wrong with the other parent will always prove problematic.
DO NOT TRY AND PLAY DETECTIVE
If you have not already heard, “Insert juicy gossip here,” then you probably do not need to know. It is like going over to the house of a friend, and they have THAT closet they shoved all their junk into before you got there. You know that closet is somewhere in the house. You know they are not really that tidy of a person and yet you ignore that closet. You do not go investigating to find that closet because what good would that really do? You would find that closet and open it only to have an avalanche of toys, coats, shoes, book bags, pillows, and that Christmas tree all fall on your face and suffocate you until you pass out of anxiety and exhaustion. It is just not worth it. That means you do not have any further questions, you don’t need all the details, and what happened between them should almost always stay between them. This all seems very specific to a parent-child dynamic, but really applies to any relationship. If the truth doesn’t involve you and isn’t something you need to know to help yourself, then it’s just excessive information that will most likely weigh you down. From personal experience, I wish I knew a lot less than I did now. The truth is painful and hurtful to hear, even when it doesn’t involve you.
DO NOT TRY TO MAKE YOUR ADVICE THEIR DECISIONS
We all have different ways of coping when trials, tragedy, or heartbreak hit. Just because you would do one thing one way does not mean anyone else would react in that same way. There is not anything wrong with giving advice when you think there is a better option. In fact, I think it is necessary to ask in every situation, “How would God want me to respond to this?” You can ponder that question, come to a conclusion, and present your advice to the other in an attempt to help them, but you cannot become emotionally investing in that advice or their choice to do what they want or what they feel is best. Just because you offered a solution does not mean they will take it, and it is easy to blame yourself for not trying hard enough and ask, “What could I have done better?” However, at the end of the day, people make their own decisions, and we cannot be responsible for or bear the guilt of those decisions for them. We can only do the best we can do to help them and then control what we do and how we react. The rest is simply out of our hands.
I say all this to help you spot the warning signs before they cause severe damage. Setting up boundaries, especially in a family dynamic – messy or not, divorced or not – is difficult, but highly necessary, to protect your emotional well-being. Take it from someone who painfully realized their perception of their own boundaries looks more like a Pinterest fail meme in reality. The healthier we are in our own relationships and the more intentional we are about defining boundaries, the better we can serve and help those around us in the process.
BOOK – Boundaries: When to Say YES, When to Say NO, To Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sarah Stoher, our Creative Director at KNOWN, does her best thinking after midnight and cannot survive without at least one cup of coffee a day and a book within reach. She is an aspiring author of several unfinished novels (likely to stay that way), but she can’t spell a word if not for spell check and autocorrect. She is the definition of a cat lady, and oh yeah… Sarah is an unwavering believer in Bigfoot.