Home Anxiety Establishing Boundaries with my Parents

Establishing Boundaries with my Parents

by Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

From the U.S.: I am a 22 year old about to graduate from college. My dad has been seriously ill for 6 years. Now, he is home and severely depressed all of the time, because he cannot support the family. My parents fight constantly. My mom uses his sickness to make people feel bad for her and to guilt trip him or my siblings and I. She blames him for all her problems and all my problems. They both confide in me with their marriage and their sex life. They cling to me when I am home from college, and make me feel guilty for leaving, even for just a few hours. I’ve been home for extended periods of time (like summer vacation) and only left the house a handful of times.

I love them, but it’s gotten to the point where I am letting them hold me back from becoming an adult and starting my own life. I am thinking about moving out after graduation, but the very thought of telling them and hurting them makes me stressed out. I love them and cherish every moment I have with them, since I have almost lost my dad so many times. We are extremely close, and I fear losing that. What can I do to have a healthy relationship with them and establish boundaries without ruining things between us?

This is a very, very difficult situation for a sensitive person like yourself. You are bound by love and concern, but you also know in your very bones that this isn’t a healthy situation. Unfortunately, you are now caught in a co-dependent web. It is unlikely that you will be able to establish boundaries without incurring anger, disappointment and blame from your folks. They have each gotten accustomed to turning to you instead of each other. It may well be that things will be rough as you do what you need to do to become an independent adult.

For your family to be healthy, appropriate boundaries need to be re-established. Your folks need to relearn how to be a couple. You need to get out of their marriage and into your own life. That means refusing to talk to them about their marriage and especially their sex life. There’s no reason to argue about it. Simply tell them you will leave the conversation as soon as it turns to anything about them as a couple. Then quietly just do it.

Becoming independent means increasing your time away from home without explanations or excuses. A your age, you don’t owe them a reason for your absence. Get out of the house, even if it is just to go for walks or to the mall. Even better, start calling up your friends an arranging for normal social get-togethers that take you out regularly. It means getting a job, a place of your own and an age-appropriate life style.

You don’t need to do any of this with anger or accusations or debates. Keep the conversations about it to an absolute minimum. If invited to defend your choices, remind them you are 22 and that you are working on becoming the independent adult you know they want you to be. Reassure them that you are not in trouble or involved in anything illegal. Lovingly steer conversations to more appropriate and neutral topics like what’s in the news, on TV or in an interesting article you’ve read.

It’s highly likely that you and your parents will have a very hard time with normal separation. Your parents each need help you can’t provide. You all need help freeing you to be your own person.

I strongly urge you to get in touch with a family therapist to help you in the project. If your folks won’t go, go yourself. Often other people in a family will eventually agree to treatment when one member starts to go regularly and starts reporting positive results.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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