When to Say Yes, and How to Say No, to a Troubled Family Member

Be Ready For Family Discussions

Shelly* and her counselor continued to work through the Ten Laws of Boundaries in an effort to break Shelly out of the destructive patterns that came from living with troubled family members:

Law five: Law of motivation. This particular law was really hard for Shelly to work through. She had to take a long look at what was motivating her actions in the first place with her passive responses to her family members.

“Why,” her counselor asked, “would you put up with what you’ve put up with for so very long?” He then went on to tell Shelly that different things motivate different people to “accept” bad behavior from those closest to them — a fear of anger, being rejected, guilt, loneliness, needing approval….

Shelly discovered that she put up with everything for three main reasons:

1. She longed to be needed. She hated her family’s behavior, but she was by nature a caretaker, and she was afraid that if she made her family take responsibility for themselves, they would no longer need her. This caretaking role started back in her family of origin when Shelly was a young child, as she took on the role of caring for a severely depressed mother.

2. She was afraid of being alone. Abandoned by her father and virtually abandoned by her mother due to the depression, Shelly felt that being surrounded by cruel family members was better than living by herself. The irony was that, as much as she feared living alone, in a way, she already was, since no one really cared for her emotionally in her house.

3. Shelly was afraid what people would think of her. What would people say if they heard she kicked her daughter out of the house, called the cops on her son, and her husband complained at work that his wife was in another bedroom? Image meant everything to Shelly and she was exhausting herself trying to keep it up. Not only was she exhausting herself, she was not helping her family members any, because she was helping them live a lie that all was well within the home.

Shelly had to work through the unhealthy reasons that caused her to tolerate such bad treatment from her family. This particular step took a long time, stalling out her process on the ten laws for awhile. These were old habits, thought patterns, and feelings that needed to be broken.

Ultimately she learned, however, that in addition to keeping herself healthy, she needed just one other motivation for her responses to her family members. She needed the motivation of responding in such a way that the other person found freedom from their own unhealthy patterns. And this helped her step into the sixth law.

Law six: Law of evaluation. Will my boundaries hurt or harm the person? Up until counseling, Shelly had always felt she would hurt her husband’s, son’s, and daughter’s feelings if she stood up to them. She finally realized she was only harming them in the long run by not standing up to them. It all came back to that key point. As long as she enabled their behaviors, they would never take responsibility for themselves.

Her husband would never find freedom from deep-seated anger and his own severe depression. Her son would never learn to respect a woman and would thus be forever cheated out of a healthy and fulfilling marriage relationship. Her daughter would never find freedom from her addictions, never know the satisfaction of the fulfillment of taking care of herself, and would miss out on her children’s lives.

Law seven: Law of pro-activity. Shelly used to react with age-old patterns to her family’s behaviors and then react with internal emotions that destroyed her. She began to take a pro-active stance instead.

As hard as it was, she told her daughter that she wanted her grandkids to be safe until Shelly got help. She informed her that though the kids should have been her daughter’s responsibility, she was taking it over until she got help. And that meant filing for custody of them and calling the police the next time her daughter came home drunk and started screaming at everyone.

Shelly told her husband that supper would be at 6:00 every night and if he could get home, great. If not, it would be kept warm until he arrived home. But she would no longer prepare a second meal if he got in too late to enjoy the first one while it was fresh. She also told him that he could either begin helping with the grandkids in the morning or help her get breakfast going. She told him that she loved him and truly wanted to be his helpmeet, but at the same time, she was one person and couldn’t do it all anymore. And the fact that she couldn’t do it all did not mean she was a bad wife and worthy of being cussed at.

Shelly told her son that disobeying rules like curfew had consequences, and it was his choice whether or not he would get those consequences. It wasn’t her fault if he was grounded. It was his own disobedience that got him grounded. And any physical abuse from him would get him more than grounded — it would get him a trip to the police station.

Law eight: Law of envy. This is wanting what someone else has, but not doing what you need to get it. Shelly had been doing this most of her life. She wanted a home of peace and love, but had been to fearful of doing the difficult things that would help bring that about. That led her and her counselor into exploring the 9th law, which went hand-in-hand with this.

Law nine: Law of activity. Growing and achieving things in life doesn’t come easy. It takes hard work. As the book Boundaries used as an illustration, if a baby bird doesn’t hatch its own way out of the shell, it dies soon after being released. Pecking away at the egg and struggling with its little feet and wings is what gets the blood pumping, resulting in a healthy and thriving baby bird. Shelly had been working hard and she had more work yet to do — but it was that hard work that was going to bring about life-changing results.

Law ten: Law of exposure. By the time Shelly and her counselor had reached this part of the process, Shelly had pretty much already completed it in the above steps. This was the law of telling others what her boundaries were. She had been slowly telling them all along and they had been slowly getting it.

Shelly’s life didn’t change overnight. In fact, it took two long years for her to work through the ten laws and make personal changes. Her family’s changes took even longer — a total of five years in all — and not everyone changed for the better.

Initially, her husband seemed to grow angrier and more verbal with Shelly when she began standing firm. With time, however, he saw that she meant what she said, and when she had fled to a safe place with the grandkids for a third time, he was ready for his own counseling. Underneath his anger and abuse, he truly did love Shelly.

He entered individual counseling and they periodically did couple’s counseling together. Until he pulled his stuff together like Shelly had to do, it was hard for them to pull together as a couple. With time, though, they did it. Seven years later, Shelly and her husband are seen walking hand in hand down the street after supper most nights, and on warm summer nights, quiet laughter can be heard through the windows as they work on a jigsaw puzzle together.

Shelly’s son was actually the first to respond to Shelly’s boundaries. As a teen, he pushed against boundaries but desperately wanted them. The breaking point came when he went to slap Shelly one night and she surprised both him and herself when she grabbed his arm and said with a strength she didn’t know she had, “Don’t go there. You do, and I’m at the phone calling the cops.” Shelly was even more shocked when her son broke down, began crying, and told her he hated it because he was “becoming his old man and he hated his old man.”  They talked long into the night, and he was agreeable to see an adolescent therapist for awhile.

The more Shelly’s husband came around, the more their son came around. As much as Shelly needed to stand firm, what her son needed most was a father who modeled healthy male behavior. The healthier his dad got, the healthier he got. Now-a-days, it’s not unusual to see him and his fiancé randomly popping in for a snack and a few tries at the jig-saw puzzle themselves.

Shelly’s daughter still has not made healthy choices. True to her word, Shelly called the police on her daughter the night she showed up drunk and began breaking windows in an effort to get in. In the following weeks Shelly and her husband gained full custody of their granddaughters. The girls’ mother flip-flops in and out of jail and rehabs, and the family is still hoping she finds freedom from her addictions. Until she does, they continue to pray for her and agree to visits with her only if she is sober — which is rare. Her children now consider Shelly and her husband their “Mama” and “Papa”.

*All characters are fictional as are specific circumstances. However, the story has been created based on the countless scenarios I was presented with while running my private counseling practice.

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