Lori was running late on her way home from work. She was excited. Her date was picking her up in about 15 minutes and she couldn’t wait to see him. As she rounded the corner to her block she saw someone in Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt on her front lawn – trimming her hedges.
“Dad!” she yelled to herself.
She stopped in the middle of her driveway, slammed her door and marched up to her father. Her face was beet red.
“Hi honey,” her father said. “I was in the neighborhood and noticed your shrubs looking a little bushy. So I thought I’d help you out.”
“They’re bushes, Dad. They’re supposed to look bushy. Can’t you ask before you do things like this?” Lori huffed. “I have a date coming here any minute and look at this mess of branches everywhere.”
“I didn’t think you’d mind me helping,” he responded smiling
You may have heard it said” “good fences make good neighbors.” In the same vein when dealing with family sometimes good boundaries can make for better relationships.
Although Lori’s story is comical her situation is common. Parents often want to be more involved in their adult child’s lives than the child wants.
It seems Lori has a problem with her father getting a little too involved in her life without her permission. Especially today. To avoid this becoming a pattern — or to help break this pattern, she needs to set boundaries.
There are many kinds of boundaries: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and others. A boundary is kind of a line that Lori might draw in her relationship with her father so he can understand what she views as an invasion or intrusion.
In this case, it seems Dad doesn’t know when he’s overstepping his bounds in his daughter’s life. He wants to continue to nurture his daughter, although she is now an adult and she doesn’t want this. He doesn’t seem to want to let go of his “little girl” emotionally and so does things like trimming her hedges for her. And he doesn’t see stopping by unannounced as an intrusion. To help her, Lori needs to set some emotional and physical boundaries.
There are very few absolutes in setting healthy boundaries. They have to be established by each person individually with an understanding of the traditions and culture of the family. For instance, some ethnic groups, like the family in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, tend to have closer families and fewer boundaries. This only becomes a problem if an individual is experiencing anxiety over boundaries or if it affects other relationships like with your spouse.
Sometimes a need for boundaries happens when someone, in this case Lori, doesn’t know when to say “no.” This pattern starts to evolve slowly and tends to creep up without us noticing.
If I was counseling Lori, I might say: “The first step to setting boundaries is to decide you want to change. The second step is determining what changes you want to see. I suggest you write a letter to help you put your feelings into words. I don’t suggest actually mailing the letter but just use it as a tool. Once you’re ready, sit down with Dad and tell him what behavior is uncomfortable, how it makes you feel, and what you want different.”
Lori might tell her dad: “Dad, when you come over every day to make sure I’m O.K., that feels like smothering and I’d like for you to come over just once a week.”
It’s important that if you want someone to stop doing something you replace it with something else. And you need to be clear on your expectations. Change is hard enough. But not understanding what the other person wants can make things even harder.
Setting boundaries may mean restating what you need again and again. Be patient. And be careful not to make boundaries a brick wall. You don’t want to destroy your relationship — you want to build it by setting comfortable parameters that it can grow within.