Separating from children is a lifelong task for all parents, and the boundaries between them change at every stage of family life. How parents respond when their kids couple off and establish a boundary around their relationship can, to a large extent, determine its success or failure.[i] They are not only sons and daughters now; they are also part of someone else’s family, and someone else’s intimate partner – like an ever expanding Venn diagram. Inside their couple boundary is a private life; how private is reflected in what they choose to share or tell those outside the boundary, especially their parents.
Boundaries are mental structures that separate the self from the other – me from you, and vice versa – but they are no less real or permeable than a wall or a membrane. They are a central aspect of every relationship and reflect a lifelong struggle between the desire for intimacy and the need for autonomy. Every family has a characteristic boundary style – open or closed, expansive or restrictive, distant or detached – and much of the friction between parents and their grown kids comes from a misunderstanding about why they’re excluded from certain aspects of the new couple’s life together. “We were best friends until she got married – there was nothing we didn’t share,” is a frequent complaint from mothers of newlywed daughters. “Now everything is off limits except her job and their dog.”
Boundary intelligence, like emotional intelligence, is the ability to manage one’s own boundaries – psychological as well as physical and mental – in relationships with others. We may not know where our own boundaries are, but we know when someone’s invaded them by the feelings of anger, fear, resentment, or shame that sound a silent alarm. Similarly, we often don’t realize when we’ve invaded the boundaries of others until and unless they tell us, in one way or another, to butt out or mind our own business.
To be fair to parents, boundary violations are an unavoidable fact of family life; we’ve been invading their physical and emotional privacy since they were infants, and it’s a hard habit to break. But many parents ignore the changes in family boundaries that must occur in order for a new family to thrive. It’s a recurring theme from both sides of the generation gap – the failure to accept or recognize the couple bond, and how ignoring it not once but repeatedly is often a major factor in the breakdown of the relationship between parents and children, and can destabilize the couple itself. As many of the adult children in question complain, “They take every slight or misunderstanding, from not being invited to my in-laws Thanksgiving to not telling them we were pregnant until after the ultrasound , as about them, even when it’s not – it’s about us!”
As researchers have pointed out, boundary ambiguity is one of the biggest fault lines in a marriage. When there’s little clarity or lack of agreement between the partners about who’s inside the family, when they’re there, and what their roles are, the definition of couple or family is clouded by uncertainty. Emotional separation from the family of origin is a necessary developmental stage; it must occur in order for the next generation to build togetherness based on a shared intimacy and identity, while at the same time setting boundaries to protect each partner’s autonomy and their identity as a couple.