One way to solve your marriage problems is to draw the right boundaries around your relationship as a couple. Unfortunately, the hard part about drawing boundaries is that it could hurt people’s feelings, especially of the people that violate those boundaries in the first place.
Jenine is a 39-year-old woman whose been casting frustrated looks towards her husband, Tom, in our therapy session together. Tom is really close to his father. Tom is so close to his father that his father lives only five blocks away from their home. Sometimes, the two men carpool to work together. Tom’s father arrives unannounced to their home, multiple times a week to visit the grandchildren. He is constantly around. Recently, her father-in-law has been borrowing money from her husband. Tom initially didn’t tell her about it, and she was furious.
But the final straw was that Jenine and Tom have been having some conflicts and communication problems in their relationship. One night at dinner in their house, Tom’s father-in-law brought up the communication problems she and Tom were having. Jenine was both surprised and furious. Tom didn’t think it was a big deal and told Jenine that he always shares things with his father. He didn’t think it made any difference to their relationship. He saw it one way. Tom couldn’t understand why the conversations were a big deal or why talking to his dad had anything to do with their relationship problems in the first place.
What we have in this situation is a boundary challenge. Boundary challenges are common for most couples. Whether it’s the in-laws, children, brothers, sisters, or siblings; boundary issues come up and cause challenges in relationships. Jenine doesn’t feel safe in her relationship. She feels like she can’t confide in her husband and work through challenges with him. Tom, on the other hand, has grown up believing that it’s fine to get the family involved; to talk and solve through problems like the one he’s experiencing.
When boundaries are crossed, it’s essential to draw and correct the boundaries around the couple and the family. What’s not working in Jenine and Tom’s situation is the way that they handle the situation. Tom and his dad have enmeshed boundaries. An enmeshed boundary means that there is little to no separation of information between them. They share time, thoughts, and private information together. In fact, Tom has asked Jenine on multiple occasions to buy the same socks he has for his father. When you grow up in a family system that’s enmeshed, it can be very unhealthy. There’s certain information and thoughts that should be kept private. In Tom’s case, it has somehow worked for him and his dad. This is Tom’s blueprint for other parts of his life.
Jenine has a very rigid boundary system. Growing up, there was not much talking or sharing with her mom. There were clear lines drawn. In fact, she has a very tenuous relationship with her parents. She sees them approximately twice a year on special occasions. She likes to solve problems on her own. As you can see, we have a clash of two different styles of managing boundaries.
The goal for the couple is to create a healthy system and a set of boundaries between them so that they can work together. With that framework in place, the two can solve their relationship problems in a safe and respectful way. Fortunately in this case, Tom’s dad attended the therapy session. At first, he was very reluctant to hear the problems and challenges that they were facing. He was there while Tom was growing up. Tom and him have always had a very open form of communication and sharing. He felt threatened that somehow Jenine wanted him out of their family system and didn’t want him to have a close relationship with his son. That wasn’t the case at all. Jenine wanted Tom and his father to be close, but she also wanted him to respect their boundaries.
When trying to build new boundaries, feelings and emotions are always at the forefront. The changes that are proposed can actually hurt people in the long run. Tom sees his father as his best friend and finds a sense of security in having him around when things are going wrong in their relationship. His father sees the drawing of boundaries as a sign of rejection. Since they feel threatened, it’s difficult for them to create healthy boundaries. But in this situation, the biggest gift that the father can give to his son is to let go of his son.
In order for this relationship to work, the father needs to step away, to stop his current communication habits, and to find new, healthier ways of building the relationship. Letting go is the first stage of this process. Once he understood this, he was not happy about it. However, it was going to be necessary for his son to have a better relationship with his wife.
Tom’s father wasn’t alone in making changes. Jenine took her own step forward and started to think about the boundaries that she grew up with. She understood that she could be a little bit more open to accommodate Tom’s own boundary system in their relationship. If you draw the right boundaries, you’ll ultimately find a safe place, and form new and better connections with your significant other.