Family reunions and neighborhood barbecues are meant to be fun gatherings. The combination of crowds, heat and frenetic planning, however, can also be stressful. Tensions can erupt into conflict. As we often point out in our articles, nobody really loves conflict. That being said, those of us in the conflict management field will tell you avoidance isn’t usually the best approach. People dodge conflict when they don’t have the skills to effectively engage. Boundary-setting is one of those skills. In fact, setting boundaries can actually improve relationships.
Most people’s difficulty with boundary-setting is rooted in family dynamics.
Let me start by saying I deeply love my family, shaped by Iowa and Catholicism. We have a huge reunion every two years. Like so many family traditions, ours is recognizably a mixture of niceness and guilt. On the one hand, this combination provides a sense of harmony. It also breeds a little conflict avoidance.
We can hope conflicts disappear, but without boundaries, they will resurface.
Conflicts in our family tend to hover below the surface. Most of us don’t acknowledge these undercurrents, we’ve just learned to circumnavigate them. Fortunately, I have close relationships with extended family members who deeply understand the roots of passive-aggressiveness, secrecy and taboos. They rarely get discussed openly.
This isn’t uncommon.
Every family has its shadow side and, thankfully, ours has far more bright spots.
To be perfectly honest, I am grateful for the countless ways my loving family has provided a sense of peace and security. They have illuminated pathways that shape my mediation practice.
Boundary-setting is a valuable conflict management skill.
BOUNDARIES ARE LIBERATING
During my divorce I realized how much familial conflict avoidance shaped me. When my first husband ran off with a younger woman, I longed for the courage of rebellious women in Teri McMillan novels. Instead, I wallowed in self-blame, isolation and shame. To friends and family, I made excuses for his affair as a temporary phase, due to the pressures he was under at work. Being a new doctor was too overwhelming to come home to small children, I’d say.
I lacked the courage to say, “This is unacceptable.”
During mediation, he presented a proposal which ignored sacrifices I had made. I supported him through medical school and left my career, at his request, to raise our three children. I was both hurt and speechless.
I felt powerless, until the mediator invited me to set boundaries.
She asked how much pain I was willing to let him inflict on me. I felt as though she pulled me up for air, after I’d been drowning under the weight of our imminent divorce. Instead of responding rationally, however, I folded his proposal into a paper airplane and flew it straight at his forehead. As the mediator gasped in disbelief at my moment of rage, I realized I needed to work on setting boundaries. She did a great job of eliciting my concerns and helping us both move forward.
A mediator listens to each party’s interests, reframing boundaries as needed.
Our final divorce agreement included a list of negotiated boundaries upon which we could both rely as we navigated co-parenting for the next few years across state lines. We also decided what we’d do when lines were crossed.
While setting boundaries takes courage, it is also liberating.
Once boundaries are set, we are better prepared for potential conflicts. Other people in our lives also have a clearer idea of our expectations. Boundaries help clear a pathway forward, including consequences, for all parties.
YOU CAN BE NICE WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND
What if you’re just a nice person, but not getting the same in return?
(You must be from Iowa!)
It’s easy to blame others when our expectations aren’t being met, however the problem isn’t always caused by others. Frequently, this pattern exists because “nice” people aren’t always the best at setting clear boundaries.
Being nice is a good thing, but “niceaholics” can unwittingly create conflict.
They also can make themselves crazy by setting unrealistic expectations for themselves and others. The first thing to do is to give serious consideration to what you want and don’t want. You can then delineate boundaries around your expectations. To be effective, you also have to realistically consider what others may be willing to accept.
Frame your expectations as negotiables, not demands.
For example, if you expect the house to be tidy, there are likely only two options available:
Either negotiate roles with housemates to ensure everyone pitches in, or
Do the work alone, and without complaining or expecting praise.
What often happens instead is a recipe for poor boundary-setting.
When one person’s expectations of a clean house isn’t communicated and they are resentful about doing all the work themselves, a conflict based on passive-aggressiveness ensues. No matter how “nice” the house cleaning member thinks he or she is, housemates will be repelled by the undercurrent of guilt, martyrdom and avoidance. Instead of building harmony in the home, the nice person plants conflict ripples by projecting expectations not communicated with or shared by the others.
Don’t assume others share your expectations.
If everyone agrees to pitch in but they don’t hold the same standards of cleanliness as you, negotiate something you can live with. For example, maybe everyone spends time on Saturdays doing chores and you do daily cleanup to keep things from getting out of hand.
The best way to be a nice person is by engaging active listening skills. Ask for clear boundaries and be willing to negotiate creative terms, so everyone is on the same page.
BOUNDARIES OFFER OPTIONS
This may sound counterintuitive, but as I outlined in the clean home example earlier, effective conflict engagement involves choices and consequences.
A consequence doesn’t have to be an ultimatum.
Professional negotiators focus on active listening for optimal options, rather than persuading the other person of a unilateral, “my way or the highway” solution.
YOU CAN WALK AWAY
As I mentioned in a previous article, you don’t always have to participate in conflict. Sometimes, doing so only makes it worse, particularly in the heat of the moment.
Taking a break can be an effective and welcomed boundary.
As long as it doesn’t build into a pattern of conflict avoidance, pausing or walking away from a conflict can actually be a way of resolving it.
You can always revisit the conversation, if needed.
Here are some considerations for taking a break, whether temporarily or for good, from a conflict:
An emotional or mental break would provide relief to at least one of you.
You don’t feel equipped to respond effectively.
This isn’t the right place.
You need more information.
There are broader interests at stake.
You won’t see them again.
You aren’t invested in the conflict.
You have nothing to lose from walking away.
No one is harmed by you leaving the conflict.
A third party, such as a mediator, would be helpful.
Consider what is to be gained or lost by continuing to engage.
Conflicts can drain your time, energy, emotion, reputation and other resources. Carefully weigh the value of your investment in the conflict.
If the other person is a fixture in your life, you will probably need to work toward a resolution eventually. Finding a solution does not always have to happen immediately, so asking for a break may be an effective boundary for a better solution later.
BOUNDARY-SETTING FOSTERS RESPECT
YOU DESERVE RESPECT
Learn how to disagree, without losing it, in our free workbook!
Have you ever called someone, only to have them tell you they can’t talk? It’s frustrating, because you feel as though you did something wrong by unknowingly interrupting them. In the age of voicemail and texting, I find myself asking, why did they answer in the first place? If you’re guilty of doing this, you may need to work on setting boundaries.
You don’t need to answer every call and email, at all times.
If you’re away from the office, use an auto-responder. Most people would prefer to know exactly when you’re going to be away, when you think you can get back to them and who to contact if it’s urgent.
Setting boundaries is a valuable self-care practice.
In fact, Cloud and Townsend, authors of the bestselling book, Boundaries, argue that boundary-setting can be a loving gesture, not only toward yourself, but also for others in your life. If done in a respectful tone, it also helps others know how to give you the respect you deserve.
Whenever setting boundaries, make sure you communicate them clearly, in terms of time, location, agenda and who else will be present. Chances are, the other person will find comfort in and agree to those boundaries.
Boundary-setting is best executed in a firm and problem-solving tone.
It is not the same as exercising power over the other person or putting them down. It is more about empowering yourself and protecting broader interests of everyone involved.
With healthy boundaries you will likely have more peaceful barbecues and reunions!