Preparing for the Holidays II: Enforcing Boundaries with Extended Family

You’ve learned to set boundaries with others but what do you do when they don’t respect them? In fact, I’d be shocked if the person on the receiving end of your ‘no’ statement says “I can understand: you are taking care of yourselves by carefully choosing what’s important to you and your family” or “You’re right, honey. Thanks for the feedback. I won’t do that anymore.” Instead, you can expect them to be disappointed and/or angry. They may try to talk you out of your decision, to put you down, to try to make you feel guilty, to give the silent treatment, or say “that’s fine” but clearly you can see on their face and in their tone that it’s not fine. What do you do when the person is obviously displeased and pushes against your boundary? Plan ahead of time with your partner to restate your boundary then EXIT the situation.

If the person persists with their preference, you’ll need a pre-planned exit strategy – a way to get out of the conversation, end the call or leave the room. Discuss this in advance with your partner because together you can come up with a few ideas you may not have thought of alone. Some options for exiting are: a) enlist the help of your partner;  b) change the topic; or, c) gently say you’ve got to go and will talk to them next time. But if the person pushes against your decision, you’ll need to be more firm by saying the same boundary again then getting out of there.

Let’s go back to the example of a family member insisting on discussing their topic during the holidays: your elderly father with the preference for where you live. If after you’ve set a boundary then tried to change the subject, he says “I’m only trying to be helpful. Besides, I’m a lot older than you and have more life experience. You see, owning a single-family home has a lot of benefits...”. You’ve previously told him you’re not going to talk about this, and he is pushing against your boundary by continuing to talk about it.

Enlist the Help of Your Partner

If your partner isn’t present, you can inform the person that you and your partner have made this decision together. Sometimes, knowing the other spouse is onboard is enough to stop the persistent person. You can also ask (or text) your partner if they’re close by to join you in the conversation. The two of you can decide in advance who will do the talking based on either whose side it is or who is more likely to have their boundary respected.

Change the Topic

Brainstorm with each other ahead of time which topics you can use with the persistent person to get them distracted. Often, bringing up something that they’re interested in can shift them away from their agenda.

End the call

Choose wording you’ll use to end the call by discussing with your partner first and writing it down. The words need to be kind and respectful and stated with an even tone of voice.

Get firm by setting a consequence

A consequence is saying what you’ll do if the person continues to pressure you, insist on their request, try to shame or demean you, or continue talking on the topic. It’s essentially making yourself unavailable to be on the receiving end any longer. You and your partner will talk beforehand about an appropriate ‘consequence’ because it’ll depend on where you are (on the phone, text or in-person). Examples are “If you ask me again/continue to discuss it, I'll leave the room or end the call” or “If you ask us again/continue to discuss it, we’ll have to leave.” BTW: if you have a highly insistent person in your life, always have your own transportation in case your firm exit means leaving the location (I.e. a restaurant).

All this MUST be stated calmly, with an even tone of voice and a neutral face. In fact, that neutral exit with no more discussion on your part AND no visible anger will communicate a powerful ‘no’. In effect, you’ll be saying “This is my line. You’ve crossed it and now I’m making myself unavailable for you to continue to cross it.” When delivered with caring, neutrality and respect, you're in effect saying “We care about you AND we’re going to teach you how to treat us differently.”

A firm exit strategy in the example of the persistent father would be “We told you we don’t want to talk about where we live. If you bring it up again, we’re going to leave the room”. Now you’ve set a consequence should your decision continue to be disregarded. A persistent person WILL bring it up again and you will need to implement the consequence. In this case, it’s getting up from your seats and walking out of the room. Not in a huff. Simply stand up and walk out. Again: all this must be discussed in advance with your partner and statements pre-planned because you’ll likely be emotional or nervous in the moment. When emotional, our logical pre-frontal cortex’s ability to think and communicate calmly is hindered. In fact, it’s likely you’ll feel scared setting a boundary with loved ones because you’re bucking against decades-long interpersonal dynamics.

In summary, boundaries are: a) knowing ourselves and our preferences/needs by discussing them with one another; b) communicating them with neutrality and respect; and, c) as a team, planning a firm exit strategy if (more like, when) the person on the receiving end is not respecting your decision.

Imagine creating a more peaceful, enjoyable holiday season for you both and for your kids. You and your partner will be feeling calmer and more contented throughout the season. Your children will see and feel the difference because you are working together, more contented and supporting one another.

If you and your partner have been dreading holiday events and need help, contact us at 908-246-3074 or emailing to schedule an individual or couples appointment.

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