Setting Limits: How Can Boundaries Help My Family?

Good fences make good neighbors. Boundaries drawn lovingly around our marriages and families set limits that can bless all of those involved. Should your brother have a key to your house? Should your parents come for dinner every week? Is it okay for grandma to feed the kids ice cream for breakfast?

Boundaries show love

We show our love for one another when we care enough to set limits to protect each other. When a wife sees that her husband is hurting over behaviors of her siblings, the compassionate response is to set a boundary. When a husband sees that his parent’s involvement in his life is hurting his marriage, a limit-setting conversation is in order. When a spouse's work or child's sport leaves little time for family, priorities need to shift. It is far better to address a difficult situation that frustrates you than to silently dwell in bitterness. Choose to speak the truth in love.

Boundaries create healthy relationships

Setting boundaries appropriately clarifies expectations of who is in charge of what. Sometimes relationships that are intended to change over time change too slowly. Sometimes relationships that should be top priorities become neglected. Keeping first things first both generates boundaries and helps keep relationships healthy. Each family faces their own unique set of boundary questions as they work to blend the cultures of their respective extended families. Choose to keep your priorities in order and be willing to draw a line.

Boundaries clarify your priorities

Families are intertwined webs of relationships, and each of us plays multiple roles--child, parent, cousin, sibling, spouse--often all at once. So it's hard to know which role to prioritize. Normally, your spouse gets your attention first so you're on the same page, your kids' needs come second as you parent together, and everyone else's opinion comes third.

Generally, your first relationship priority (besides God) is your spouse. In marriage, your spouse becomes your new center of gravity. The Bible reminds us that we leave our father and mother and cling to our spouse. Second only to God, your relationship with your spouse is most important--this is a relationship that is intended to last a lifetime. Your spouse's opinion outranks everyone else's. You might argue and negotiate in private, but to the rest of the world you should stand united.

And as you honor and respect your spouse, you also protect and honor your kids, raising them to launch eventually from your home and to become citizens of God's kingdom. Ideally you parent together, living by consistent house rules and discussing plans and punishments together. Your children need your guidance for now, but they are supposed to launch and likely cling to another someday. Be prepared to take second or third place in time.

You also seek to honor your parents and siblings, but they are not your key decision-making partners. They are also adults responsible for their own choices. This does not mean turning your back on your extended family--you are still called to love and care for them--but they are not your first concern. All of these relationships need boundaries to be healthy.

Boundaries may require change

Prioritizing your marriage also means listening very hard to your spouse's concerns. Having grown up in a particular family, we may have a comfort level with our family that our spouse does not share. What might seem normal and comfortable to you may seem uncomfortable to your spouse. You might be OK with your parents dropping by unannounced, but your spouse might value having prior notice. You may not care if your friends want to plan the only two weeks of vacation you get in a year, but that might not sit well with your spouse. Keep an open mind to hear how your spouse is experiencing those around you. Be willing to listen even if the words are difficult to hear.

Boundaries require honest communication

Also, be honest about limits you would like to see set. Maybe you are feeling the stress of not getting time to connect with your spouse and you need a change of routine--a break from extended family, or a vacation not centered on your favorite sport. Maybe you want to reserve some limited time to be with friends, or even time to be alone. Maybe your spouse is okay with your brother coming for dinner frequently but connect over how it is working to discern if it is still time to talk with your brother about how often is too often. Whatever the limit, talk about it together, listen to how your spouse is feeling, and set a boundary together.

Boundary setting works best in relationship

It is the job of each spouse to draw limits around their own people. Limits are more warmly received in the context of a loving and long-term relationship, so take the initiative with your family to have the difficult conversation necessary to establish healthy limits with your family and friends. It is easy to get defensive when it comes to our families, but that's a conversation you and your spouse should have in private. Appropriate boundaries are something you negotiate with your spouse and then inform others about. Choosing to defend a spouse can feel like betrayal of our parents, family, or friends, but sometimes the "rules" of the family need to be rewritten to reflect a new reality. Again, your spouse is your center of gravity and your key partner for decision making. Be unified with your spouse in front of others, and never blame or complain about your spouse to others regarding the boundaries you have set together. And don't allow others to complain about your spouse either--you are one flesh before God in marriage. Discuss, argue, and negotiate with your spouse in private, but always stand up for each other in public.

Grace is needed for boundary setting

Limits need to be set graciously; everyone deserves to be treated with love and respect. Be direct about your concern but gentle in tone. Describe behaviors that are not acceptable, but do not attack someone's character. Saying "please call before you come over to see if it's a good time for us" is much better than saying "you're too controlling!" Affirm your love and affection for your family, but state your limits clearly. If at all possible, seek some middle ground so everyone can feel respected. Other boundaries may need to be firmly held. “You may not visit if you have been drinking” or “you may not call my spouse names.” You might expect your family or friends will be upset with the limits you set, but that is okay. Eventually, your family system will adjust to your boundaries and everyone will be the healthier for it.

Setting limits is one of the ways that we care for our families. You marriage will be more secure when your spouse knows that you love enough to protect the relationship. Establishing boundaries demonstrates confidently where we stand in our relationships. We don’t have to wonder if we are overstepping, we know clearly where the lines are drawn. Boundaries will give everyone more security in the relationship.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Steven Koster

Steven Koster is a writer, speaker, and producer with Family Fire. Formerly the Director of ReFrame Media, Family Fire's parent organization, Steven currently serves at Grace Church and consults on ministry through The Joshua Lab. He also leads a hospitality ministry at The Parsonage Inn and enjoys family tree research as time allows. Steven and his wife Deb enjoy leading marriage retreats and family seminars to encourage people in their most intimate relationships. The Kosters are the parents of three awesome young adults and reside in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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