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When Family is Too Close for Comfort

Dr. David Hawkins
The Relationship Doctor

CBN.comAh, the joys of having a close, connected family. Having come from a large family—three sisters and one brother—I know the pleasures and struggles of living in one another’s hip pocket.

One of the many positive aspects of living close to family, as a grown adult, is the support they give during the inevitable ups and downs of life. Parents and siblings know us intimately, and can offer guidance on difficult decisions, share our faith walk, as well as provide love and laughs at gatherings. We have history with family that we don’t often share with others. God ordained families as a place of refuge, love, support and instruction.

But, what do you do when there is a little too much togetherness? What if parents continue to act like, well, parents, long after their role as guiding and instructing parent should have come to a close? (Remember that God tells us to leave our parents and cleave to our mate.) Such was the issue of a recent Message Board writer.

My husband and I are both Christians and so is my mother. But my mother struggles in many areas of her life, and has been a sore spot in our relationship since day one. She is critical of our parenting, undermines our authority, has bad-mouthed my husband in front of the children and has even accused us of abuse. The story is long but the point is that our children are loved, cared for, and certainly not abused in any way (my mom considers saying "no" to a child abusive). She continues to overstep even though we have talked with her and asked her to look at what she's saying and how she treats us in front of the kids. She sees no fault in her actions. The other day she came over uninvited, tried to take our children without my permission, and then threatened to hit me in front of my son if I would not give in to her. We have refused to allow her to visit, but like each time before, she has threatened suicide. She suffers from depression. How should we handle this? It hurts everyone.

I appreciate the efforts this woman made to set healthy boundaries on her over-stepping mother. Here’s some additional advice for her, and perhaps helpful in your life situation as well.

Your mother is way out of bounds. You’ve not invited her into the role of critical parent. You’ve not asked her to step in and offer perceptions or observations, yet she seems to feel the need to offer them freely. Her long list of boundary violations is very concerning, and suggests very poor judgment on her part.

You’ve appropriately talked to her, and yet she still feels the need to intrude upon your life, and then sees no fault in her actions. When we set a boundary and it is violated, we must strengthen, heighten, or reinforce our boundaries. This is not a time to give up or become angrier with your mother. It’s a time to inspect your boundaries to make sure you’re being consistent in the setting of your boundaries. It’s a time to clearly, and firmly, share your feel about your mother’s actions, guarding against any temptation to send mixed messages.

When you increase the severity of your boundaries, she blackmails you with threats of suicide. Your mother pulls out the stops when using suicide to manipulate you. This is coercive and controlling and cannot be tolerated. This must be very frightening for you, and should it continue, you need to respond appropriately—by calling authorities. Suicide, whether intended as a manipulative threat or real issue, is very concerning. Whether used as a means of regaining control, or a frightened effort on her part to express her pain, is incredibly inappropriate and suggests significant character problems.

You must lovingly hold the line with your mother. Consistently holding the line with your mother is key—as a couple. If you and your husband are firm and consistent, with no wavering, she’ll get the message. If you give in to her when she threatens suicide, or become lax in your boundaries, you only enable her character problems. Additionally, you’ll add to your resentment from her continually violating your boundaries.

As you’ve undoubtedly suspected, your mother has issues. She needs professional counseling, and you can lovingly suggest that for her. Will she go, and if so, will she change? I don’t know, but all you can do is your part to create and maintain a healthy relationship within your abilities. Please see my best-selling book, When Pleasing Others is Hurting You for even more strategies in dealing with friends and families who over-step your boundaries. The only way to have a healthy, loving relationship is to teach others the value and importance of boundaries that are respected.

Dr. David HawkinsAbout the author: He is known as The Relationship Doctor. With more than 30 years of counseling experience, David Hawkins, Ph.D., has a special interest in helping individuals and couples strengthen their relationships. Dr. Hawkins’ books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You and When Trying to Change Him Is Hurting You, have more than 300,000 copies in print.

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