I recently presented at a conference for adoptive and foster parents. My assigned topic; Building Healthy Relationships and Boundaries with Your Biological Relatives. I was excited when the topic was first assigned to me. There are many books on the subject of boundaries, so preparation should have been easy, except that I couldn’t find many on the subject on healthy boundaries with biological relatives for adoptive and foster families. And so I encountered a challenge immediately; I’d have to confront my own issues and experiences to do the topic justice.
Boundaries are interesting and most people are reluctant to establish them, but Brene Brown reminds us that “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” So much wisdom and beauty in her words, but to get to the place she suggests requires effort and intentionality.
Remember The Alamo
What images come to mind when you think of Texas? Most of us think of cowboy hats, horses, longhorn steer, the Dallas Cowboys, JR Ewing, oil fields, and of course The Alamo. So much of Texas is tied to the events that took place there in 1836. Colonel William Barett Travis was the commander at the mission during the Battle of The Alamo (February 23 – March 6, 1836). He wrote a letter on the second day of the battle (February 24) To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World asking for reinforcements during the siege which he famously signed “Victory or death”.
One the penultimate day of the battle (March 5) he drew a line in the sand between him and his men and said, “I now want every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across this line.” All but one of his men stepped across the line.
How many times have you drawn a line in the sand when something far less drastic would have been sufficient?
We all too often embrace our inner William B. Travis when it comes to boundaries in our relationships. We need to remember that a boundary and a line in the sand are not the same things. Victory or death is rarely a healthy posture in relationships. It’s important to remember that boundaries and ultimatums are not the same things. If we don’t, our recognition that most relationships don’t require ultimatums will manifest itself as an unwillingness to establish healthy boundaries. Once you draw a line in the sand you remove most of your ability to be flexible. That’s a problem because flexibility is more than a friend, it’s your ally.
Just another brick in the wall
Let’s face it, none of us had the unconditional support of our “people” when we decided to grow our families the way we did. I can’t remember many (if any) stories of extended family and friends rejoicing at the news that there were plans to adopt or foster. This was an issue for us for a long time until we realized that no one dreams of becoming a grandparent through adoption, and no one hoped to become a foster grandparent. So we have to give them the grace we want for ourselves.
But we also have to recognize that there are some hurts associated with our decision to adopt or foster, many which stem from the (real or perceived) lack of support we received from those close to us. And those hurts manifest themselves when it comes to establishing healthy boundaries. We need to make sure that we don’t build walls in the name of healthy boundaries. Yes, a wall is a boundary, but it is rarely the best relational boundary.
Healthy boundaries are necessary for healthy relationships
One of the hallmarks of a healthy relationship is the presence of healthy boundaries. They can be difficult but are necessary for relationships to grow and develop. We all agree that people should not be able to say what they want, do what they want, have unrestricted access, etc. in a healthy relationship. The problem is that most of us can easily see that for others and not for ourselves. Adoption and foster care requires us to see the need for healthy relationships not only for ourselves but for our kids too.
So, why am I so convinced that boundaries are healthy? Because God is the one who established boundaries. Creation is an ordered environment because of the boundaries that He established. I won’t get into details about the life of Job in this post (you can read a summary of the book of Job HERE) but God speaks to him starting in Chapter 38. And the first thing He addresses with Job is boundaries, specifically those in the physical world.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much. Who determined its dimensions and stretched out the surveying line? What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? Who kept the sea inside its boundaries as it burst from the womb, and as I clothed it with clouds and wrapped it in thick darkness? For I locked it behind barred gates, limiting its shores. I said, ‘This far and no farther will you come. Here your proud waves must stop!’ – Job 38:4-11
We learn from that text that boundaries are created to keep order and for our protection. Imagine a world where the ocean has no limit; a world where He didn’t say “Here your proud waves must stop!” I don’t think we want to imagine that world because I’m yet to hear of the person who looks forward to a flood.
So Why Can’t We Establish Healthy Boundaries?
The past affects the future but does not have to determine it is something I firmly believe. Stated another way, your history brought you to where you are but does not have to decide where you go. Coming to terms with why we do what we do is a crucial part of being a connected parent.
Most of us learn two lessons from our parents; how to do things and how to not do things. This reality will inform our ability and desire to set healthy boundaries…or not. If you had emotionally unavailable parents growing up (I won’t get into attachment styles here) one of two things happened, you set out on a quest to gain their approval, or you lost interest in trying to get their approval and stopped trying. Neither of those positions will allow you to set healthy boundaries. If you are still seeking approval you won’t risk upsetting your family so you won’t establish. If you gave up on gaining approval you’ll build a wall every time a boundary needs to be established.
Here’s an example, your kids don’t do well with unannounced guests, but you have family close by. You have three options. One, say nothing and let them come over unannounced whenever they please. That’s not good because you placed their feelings above your kids. Two, you can tell them that they may only come over when invited. That’s unnecessarily harsh. Or three, tell them that they need to let you know if they are coming over before they head over. For those who don’t respect boundaries, only option one will work for them, but that doesn’t mean that you need to take that option.
Do It for the Kids
So why should we work to establish healthy boundaries? Why should we do the hard work necessary to come to terms with who we are? Simple really, we have children. The day we welcomed our kids home we promised them that we would protect their story. Some of the most difficult boundaries we had to draw were related to our kid’s stories. There are details that we know but are their privilege to share. There are times when that simple truth wasn’t so simple to communicate because people feel like you are shutting them out if you don’t share everything. That is simply not true, our kids need us to stand our ground for them.
That does not mean that we can shut people out. We have to explain why the boundary needs to be established. Those we are in relationship with deserve to know why we have established a boundary. Explaining the need behind your decision will go a long way to building a healthy relationship even when boundaries are necessary.
One of the promises we made to our kids the day they came home is that we would serve as the guardians of their story until they were at a place where they could do it for themselves. That’s our responsibility
That Sounds Good, But What Now?
Establishing healthy boundaries gives you an opportunity to practice you connected parenting skills. This is an opportunity to practice outside of the moment if you need to. This is an opportunity to find your voice. This is an opportunity to give choices. This is an opportunity to compromise. This is an opportunity to grow.
Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.