The holiday season is nearly upon us. And with it, gathering. In my last post, I shared about how important it is to set expectations (LMFT Kati Morton has a great video on how to do just that, by the way).
In tandem with setting expectations, it’s important to also communicate boundaries with your loved ones and, if necessary, develop an exit strategy if things start to go sideways during your time together.
Boundaries are a gift — to you and to those you care about. Think of them as the rules of engagement. They protect you and set others up to treat you the way you want to be treated, in the hopes that you both can develop a healthier, more loving, more respectful relationship.
If possible, communicate your boundaries in advance of getting together with family and friends. A simple phone call or text message is sufficient. This doesn’t have to be a big family sit-down (whew, right!?).
It’s also important to understand that a boundary is fundamentally different from a request.
You have the agency to set your own boundaries and enforce them. A boundary indicates what the other party can expect from you if/when something they say or do violates that boundary. You don’t need anyone’s approval, and you don’t even have to offer an explanation for why you’re setting that boundary. It just IS.
The Gottman Institute explains this wonderfully: “When we set a boundary, we are making clear what our actions will be. For this reason, our boundaries are fundamentally enforceable and the outcome is entirely within our control.”
When our kids were little, we took a trip to Montana to visit some family. At one point, Eric’s dad was quite harsh with one of our sons (who was three years old at the time). Now, when I hear someone speaking harsh words against my children, I get very protective. So there was no way I was going to let that one roll off my shoulders.
Eric and I had a big talk about what we were going to ask of the grandparents and how they’d be expected to treat our kids. We wrote a letter and had a couple conversations and even sent Eric’s dad a book to help him understand.
Afterward, Eric still had to stand up to his dad when he was harsh with his words again. Eric enforced that boundary, and that set the tone. It didn’t really happen again. Our children felt protected, and I felt like Eric had my back because he was willing to have a hard conversation in a loving way. It was a great feeling.
Commit to having your partner’s back, and ask them to have yours. And if you have children, find ways to share your boundaries with them and help them understand what’s going on.
In the end, boundaries might mean limiting how much time you spend with a toxic person. Or it could mean staying in a hotel versus in their home. And if things get really rough, you might need to have an exit strategy.
Talk about this with your partner ahead of your time spent gathering with others. Have a backup plan. Agree together on when you’ll both know it’s time to leave.
It’s not always possible to get away from a situation you’d really rather not be a part of. But even if you can’t get away altogether, you can take a break. Give yourself permission to “check out.” You and your partner can agree in advance on a sort of signal like, “hey, honey, my stomach is feeling upset.” Or, “I feel like I need a breath of fresh air.” They’ll know that’s the cue to help you find some time and space away from whatever is feeling toxic.
Afterwards, do what you can to soothe yourself and complete the stress cycle. As they get older, help your kids process this, too (because we all know how aware and intuitive even the littlest of kids can be). Be a gentle parent to yourself, and help your children understand what they’ve just witnessed.
Then, when you’re back home in a safe and comfortable space, it may be worth revisiting your boundaries. If they weren’t enough to deter and course-correct the difficult people in your life, consider setting tougher boundaries. Do what makes you and your family feel safe. You don’t owe anyone anything.