A few years ago, my husband and I bought a home in the country. One of the first things we did was enclose our new yard with a split rail fence along our property line. Although our primary purpose was to keep our two dogs in our yard, our fence represents so much more. It tells the world what we own and what we know is our responsibility.
Emotional boundaries function much the same way in our interpersonal relationships. An individual with healthy emotional boundaries understands what they “own” - and do not “own” - in their interactions with others. Conversely, people with unhealthy boundaries find it difficult to say “no” to others. Their behavior is often described as “enabling” because it allows another to continue to behave in ways that are destructive to themselves or to the existing relationship.
Healthy boundaries allow us to convey our thoughts and feelings in a conflict, while allowing the other person to do the same. We are able to recognize what part of a conflict we “own”—and what part we do not. It’s all about accountability in our relationships, and understanding that repair work requires effort from both sides of a conflict.
If you often find yourself feeling hurt, misunderstood, disrespected, or taken advantage of by others, chances are your emotional property line has been crossed. A professional counselor can help with identifying boundary violations and working toward the development of healthier ways to express yourself and to hold others accountable in your relationships.
A child struggles with school and socializing with friends…
A parent struggles with keeping pressures at work from affecting their mood at home…
A teen struggles with social issues and may be experiencing anxiety or depression…
A family member struggles with substance abuse…
A family suffers the death of a loved one…
A family member suffers from a mental health diagnosis…
The ‘busy-ness’ of everyone’s schedules leaves family members feeling isolated and disconnected. And, the constant preoccupation with technology and social media has further eroded what was once time spent together and engaged in each other’s lives…
The list of challenges that today’s families face is endless, and the dysfunction and upset that they suffer as a result are real and often lasting.
You may wonder at some time in the history of your family—either the one you are raising, or the one you grew up in—if the challenges that you all struggle with could be helped with family counseling? But you also may not have any idea what that would look like, or if it would work?
For those of us in the counseling profession, family counseling is often the preferred approach to a multitude of presenting issues. Yet, the more typical circumstance is that the family will identify the ‘problem person,’ and then give everyone else in the family a ‘pass.’ The problem person is then brought into our office with a request for help.
However, the truth of the matter is that no challenge affecting an entire family is one person’s fault. Far from it, every member of the family system plays some role in the dynamic that perpetuates the problem(s).
The role of the family counselor can offer the family a remarkable opportunity to navigate their differences in an entirely new manner than they likely have experienced before. Some important features of the family counseling setting include:
A safe atmosphere for discussion
The opportunity for EVERY family member to express their feelings and opinions about the issue
Immediate feedback from an objective third party to mediate escalating tensions and emotions
Dedicated time for the entire family to truly ‘hear’ and engage with each other
Education about how the family system works… or is not working
Opportunity to recognize alliances within the family that may be perpetuating the problem
Encouragement for each family member to take responsibility for their role in the problem
Guidance for collective problem-solving
Ongoing accountability to ensure lasting change within the family
There is no doubt, it IS a tall order to bring an entire family into counseling! The sheer logistics of finding a day and a time when everyone is available can be the biggest challenge. However, a collective belief that the family is worththe investment to improve relationships and enhance daily interactions can be the first step to healing long-standing wounds and misunderstandings with the people you love the very most in the world. You might even discover that you can actually enjoy each other in ways you never imagined before!
We are born into a healthy, loving, committed marriage, or a chaotic, unstable, and dysfunctional relationship... or more likely, somewhere in between these extremes. The point is, we don’t get to choose.
Our family of origin experiences have an enormous impact on the trajectory of our lives.
Fathers teach sons how to love a woman and how to lead a family... or they don’t. Fathers teach daughters what they deserve from a man — love, respect, and partnership… or they don’t.
Mothers teach sons to recognize and honor the love of a woman; the importance of her voice of reason and her comfort... or they don’t. Mothers teach daughters how to love, respect and encourage a good and honorable man... or they don’t.
We take what we learn from these experiences into our future as we test the waters of our adult relationships. If we are able to recognize and admit that we are falling short, we often struggle to understand the role of those early influences.
The challenge is to recognize those early influences and to comprehend the impact they have had on our current choices; to be able to identify and choose a different course of action than might have been modeled by those whose behaviors initially influenced us.
The guidance of a caring mental health counselor can provide the safety and opportunity to explore the impact of the family we grew up with on our thoughts, values, and beliefs about ourselves as individuals and as partners.
Everyone is grieving when a family loses a loved one. However, not everyone is grieving in the same way. Once each person moves beyond the initial stage of shock in response to the death, there can be significant differences in each individual’s experience of the loss. These unanticipated differences often present an added layer of confusion and despair for the individual mourners, and can result in discord within the family unit as a whole.
When we anticipate a loss, we often assume that our closest family members will be the ones to support us through our grief. However, each family member’s experience will be unique to them; influenced by a wide range of features specific to the individual’s age and stage of life at the time of their loss and to their relationship to the deceased.
Other factors influencing our experience include:
the stability and intensity of our relationship with the deceased at the time of their death
the age of the deceased at the time of their death
whether the death was sudden or anticipated
whether the death occurred as a result of natural causes or from an accident or tragedy
The task for family members is to recognize these factors and not assume that their spouse, parent, sibling, or child is feeling as they are at any given moment in time. Support offered by others outside the family, or in a griefsupport group can provide the understanding we need to process our grief on our own terms.
I often hear these exact words from couples who have come to me for marriage counseling. Both parties contemplating divorce after months or years of marital strife, and the only reason they can give me to stay together is “…for the sake of the kids…”
Let’s really consider the kids…
Are they witnessing your marital hostilities and conflicts on a daily basis?
Are they suffering academically or socially due to the dysfunction at home?
Are they acting out or taking on the role of ‘problem child’ to distract you from fighting with each other?
Are either of you attempting to get your child(ren) to alignwith your view of the marital problems?
It is a myth that children always suffer from divorce. Many adolescents report relief when the daily conflict ends. Of course, the manner in which you navigate the divorce is fundamental to your children’s experience. However, with time, kids are able to gain perspective and often report that two happier homes is better than one fueled by emotional volatility, anger, and constant tests of their loyalty.
It is not my intention to minimize the impact of divorce on your children. Rather, I ask you to consider the example you are setting for what marriage looks like when they witness clear disdain and lack of respect between the two people they love most.
If your marital conflicts are truly irreconcilable, perhaps the maturity to prioritize your children’s needs and love them through your divorce is an option to be considered.
The decision to end your marriage — whether a long time coming or the result of an irreconcilable event — brings with it a range of emotions, frustrations, and logistics that few can fully anticipate. The emotional support provided by a caring counselor can make the difference between merely “surviving” and navigating through your divorce with the ability to heal and move forward into your new future.
First, counseling offers you the opportunity to tell your story again and again to a listener who is not involved. The need to tell your story is important to understand. Each time you tell your story, you create the opportunity for a different aspect of your experience to resonate for yourself. As you process with words the range of images, memories, and emotions you have endured, different features of these visceral experiences will become a bit more tolerable. Hearing your own words about what happened ‘hit the air’ can take some of the punch out of them.
One aspect of initiating a divorce that is often stressful is what and how to tell family and friends about what happened. Discussing it first with a counselor can provide insight into how best to inform those around you—who likely have their own opinions about your marriage and your decision to divorce!
Counseling also provides an outlet for expressing your darkest feelings. As a counselor, I often refer to our emotional worlds as consisting of our good feelings and thoughts, our bad feelings and thoughts, and our really ugly feelings and thoughts! We rarely reveal our ugly parts for fear that we will frighten those around us. Sometimes, they are even too scary for us to really acknowledge and express out loud. Sitting with a counselor provides the opportunity to speak your ugliest, darkest fears, express your intense rage, and your deepest despair. Unlike confiding in your family or close friends, you don’t need to worry that you are overwhelming your counselor. It is—quite simply—an emotionally safe place.
Counseling allows you to “sit” with your feelings for as long as you need. The divorce process is often times a slow one—both emotionally and legally. Family and friends may grow impatient with you because it is very difficult to see someone they care about suffering. Many around you will try to “cheer you up,” distract you, or—in very subtle ways—convey that your emotions are too intense for them.
The animosity and hostility that are often features of a divorce proceeding are unfortunately, often fueled by the attorneys involved and by the requirements of the court system itself. It can be very confusing, especially when you may have silently vowed to conduct yourself with integrity and humility, only to be encouraged to “get all you can get” by an overzealous attorney. Attending counseling during this time can provide accountability for staying true to yourself through this arduous process.
Divorce is essentially a grief journey. You are grieving the life you had and the future you had imagined. With grief comes the need for adapting to the changes ahead and allowing yourself to thoroughly feel all those emotions of loss. Managing on one income, moving into a different home, and—most significantly—enduring drastic changes in your time spent with your children are just a few examples of required restructuring of your life that can often seem impossible. Counseling can provide a space and the time to sort through it all outside of your own head.
After the grief… comes the learning. Following the emotional upheaval and recovery, comes the opportunity to consider your own mistakes, misunderstandings, and behaviors that contributed to the breakdown of your marriage. Recognizing and “owning” your part in it allows you to understand how you will do it differently moving forward into a future relationship. This awareness, insight, and heightened understanding of what you need from a partner is vital to making healthy choices for yourself in the future.
As you emerge from your divorce experience and begin to rebuild your life, the continuing support provided by counseling can offer opportunities to try out new ideas and consider new possibilities. This ongoing process allows you to acquire a new perspective unencumbered by the vested interest of family and friends.
It is possible to not only survive your divorce, but to come out the other side with a stronger sense of who you are, what you need, and a wisdom born of enduring one of life’s most difficult challenges. The emotional support and unconditional counsel of a caring professional can assist you every step of the way.
Receiving disappointing or unexpected news about our own lives happens all the time: we didn’t get the promotion, we didn’t pass the exam, the rent is going up, our company is downsizing, our best friend is moving away…
Intellectually, we understand that our lives will be filled with inevitable ups and downs; seasons of prosperity and seasons of ‘tightening the belt.’ Yet when it happens—we often feel like we had been waiting all along for the other shoe to drop. We become bogged down with fear, worry, and sleepless nights as we catastrophize through all of our worst case scenarios.
These types of unexpected pushes toward change that we hadn’t planned on call for us to figure out—very quickly—how to cope with our new circumstances. First we cry, get angry, or deny what is happening. Once the initial shock has passed, we are forced to consider our options for moving forward and accommodating this challenging news. Overwhelmed and fearful, it can be difficult to gain an objective perspective of our own predicament, or even know where to begin.
The assistance of a caring counselor can ease the shock, offer perspective, and illuminate options for ‘next steps.’ A friend once told me that finally going to see a counselor was the best “gift” she had ever given herself. In the face of unforeseen change in our lives, a few visits with a supportive counselor can make all the difference in how you navigate new plans for your future.
Let’s imagine that you have healed from divorce, spent considerable time adjusting to life as a single co-parent with your ex, and have finally begun to consider your own future with someone new. As you begin dating again, you realize that most of the people you meet are also parents themselves.
Now let’s imagine that after a considerable amount of time dating, and discussing all that you each want to do differently the second time around, you conclude that you have found “the one,” and you begin to seriously consider a long-term future together.
You’ve likely introduced the children, had some fun experiences, and shared a few memorable beginnings together as a new “family.” Seems like it’s all going to work out, right?
Well, this is where it gets messy, because those exciting feelings of new love often cloud each parent’s ability to recognize the very real challenges their future will hold for their children.
As a family counselor working with blended families, I often witness parents respond with shock when they begin to address the challenges of loving someone else’s child(ren), managing the logistics of multiple custody and visitation schedules, and facing the harsh reality that their kids haven’t all “fallen in love” too!
This situation requires adults who are patient, realistic, and able to selflessly prioritize the needs and feelings of each of their children--together. The consideration and effort exerted on behalf of the kids will assure each of them of their value in their new blended family.
Those of us who came of age watching “The Brady Bunch” had no idea that this example of a blended family was all a ruse. The struggles, animosities, emotional scars, and inconsistencies of a life together — from two different worlds — are impossible to anticipate alongside our “idealized” version reflected in my title.
But, the struggle is real — even when the children in the family are adults themselves. My counseling practice is filled with remarried couples who admit they hadn’t realized how difficult it would be. Adult children often have strong opinions about their parent’s choice in a new partner, and are usually not afraid to voice it. Reports of adult children who disengage from their parent when they remarry, questions about how the parents balance their time, and the impact on relationships with grandchildren are just a few of the unforeseen challenges.
By the time they arrive in my office the dysfunctional dynamics are overwhelming. Working backwards to educate them on adjusting expectations, setting healthy boundaries, and letting go of that idealized version of how they imagined it all, are just a few of the tasks we take on.
However, if I had been able to offer advice PRIOR TO their union, it would be this:
Do not ignore or disregard the certainty of these inevitable challenges.
Talk A LOT about your kids; the good, the bad, and the ugly!! Commit as a team to support one another, and to respect the emotional limitations of others in your new family.
As I have watched the Hurricane Harvey coverage this week, I am inspired by the countless acts of selflessness by those reaching out to help. I got to thinking…
Our lives are so busy. Our days are defined by tasks: do this, do that, go there, call, email, meet, schedule, follow-up, finish, make time…. The list is endless and overwhelming. However, if you’re like me, there is GREAT satisfaction in crossing items off that list! We get so caught up in getting things done that we can slip into a mindset of allowing our accomplishments to define who we are. How often have you fallen into bed feeling quiet satisfaction as you review tasks you completed that day? Or, you find yourself lying awake disappointed, and berating yourself for the ones that will now roll into tomorrow…
We need to take a closer look at how we define our value. How about we consider who we are inside; what it is that we offer others that exemplify our character, our integrity. Ask yourself:
Whose life did I touch today?
Whose problem did I listen to?
How did I help?
Did I attend to another’s needs?
Did I give without expectation?
Was I kind?
Was I patient?
Did I smile at a stranger?
Please don’t misunderstand; tasks do need to get done. However, defining ourselves by who we are, rather than by what we do, can empower us to be the best version of ourselves — regardless of the task at hand.