When you arrive at work, do you greet your boss with a kiss on the lips?
Do you invite the grocery store clerk to family dinner at your house? Do you complain about period pain to the FedEx guy delivering your Downton Abbey box set?
Well, hopefully you said no…
You don’t do these things because we have boundaries that guide much of our behavior. Sure, some people may have a very close relationship with their higher-ups at work, or have no filter when it comes to their “monthlies”, but generally speaking, we follow social and cultural norms and boundaries of behavior.
Just as these types of boundaries guide our behavior, we can create boundaries in our own lives to protect us from things that are dangerous, unwanted, or unhealthy, while allowing us to experience things that are positive, healthy, and desired.
Think of a boundary as a window: it can be closed completely to protect us from the elements, or open slightly for a bit of fresh air, or open wide for the sun, heat, and birdsong to flow in. A closed window is not necessarily closed forever; rather, it can be opened when the time is right.
Establishing boundaries allows us to teach others how we want to be treated.
An example: Imagine your sister calls one day and asks you to pick her kids up from school, and then bring them to your house until she gets off work. You agree because you want to help her out and you love your niece and nephew. The next week, she calls and asks you to do the pick up again. You do.
The next week, you are out for coffee with a friend when your sister calls yet again and asks you to help her out. You say that you’d like to, but you’re out with a friend and can’t do it. She gets upset and says, “Well what am I supposed to do?” to which you guiltily reply that you’ll do it. You leave your friend and your untouched cappuccino, and race to the school, fuming inside.
Now, of course there’s nothing wrong with helping out friends and family – that’s what we do. However, it’s another to take on someone else’s responsibilities.
Some people will keep asking if you keep agreeing, and you can’t really blame them. So, on a day when the kids aren’t in school, have a conversation with your sister about how much you love her and her kids. Perhaps in an emergency you might be able to help here and there, but otherwise you are often out or working, and won’t be able to do the pick-up.
She may have thought you genuinely enjoyed doing it, and so didn’t think you were inconvenienced, who knows? Either way, if you are clear and consistent with your boundaries, you and the people around you are less likely to be hurt or disappointed or taken advantage of.
You can create boundaries in every aspect of your life (time, work, finances, relationships, health, etc.), to help you when you feel vulnerable or pulled in too many directions. Sounds good, right? But remember that boundaries are not a quick fix, and are not guaranteed to have the desired impact.
However, as Newcomb Marine and Korf say, “When used conscientiously, boundaries can provide you with distance and protection from unwanted behavior, but you must continue to customize them for your unique situation until you find what works”. Therefore, we need to think of boundaries as evolving and fluid. Down the road you may wish to reevaluate and modify the situation, so do not treat it as something set in stone.
For stepmoms, boundaries are extremely important. Unfortunately, for many women who take on this role, it is difficult to negotiate and maintain boundaries that can support a happy and healthy life.
I cannot stress enough – boundaries are your friends!
Katz says: “[Boundary violations] are the emotional equivalent of having someone step on your toes. At the very least, boundary violations can be annoying; at worst, they can erode our self-esteem”. I would add that when boundaries continue to be violated over extended periods of time, relationships can crumble along with family stability.
So, how do we avoid this doom and gloom and establish boundaries?
I’m glad you asked!
You may find yourself experiencing unease, or a nagging feeling that just won’t go away; a feeling that suggests something in your life isn’t going well and needs to change. When you recognize that feeling as a violation of your boundaries:
- Identify your inner thoughts.
What are you telling yourself that is preventing you from changing a situation, behavior, or expectation? Are you catastrophizing the situation? Projecting your assumptions on to others? Do you think that if you make your feelings known you’ll be seen as a bad partner/wife/stepmom?
- Challenge your inner thoughts.
Is this inner monologue realistic? Does anyone validate those feelings? What would really happen if you spoke up? Would you be happier and healthier if things changed? Can you go on feeling like this forever?
This step is akin to someone with anxiety questioning their unrealistic beliefs (trust me, I know from experience!) by asking “What if?” after any catastrophic thinking. “I can’t speak to a crowd”. “What if you did?” “I would be shaking”. “What if you were?” “I might throw up”. “What if you did?” “I’d be embarrassed”. “What if you were embarrassed?”… This shows someone they are making a small thing into a huge, unmanageable situation.
- Establish and implement the boundary.
Think about what you honestly need to feel happy, safe, and supported (at least most of the time… we are only human!), and talk about this with the person/people involved. This will look differently depending on who is concerned.
You shouldn’t have a problem getting your partner to sit down for a heart-to-heart, but may not be able to talk to the stepkids’ biomom in the same way. If you can… wow. With your partner you may come to the boundary together after discussing the situation. Either way, try to be as clear as possible at this stage, and don’t back down from what it is you need.
- Revisit and reevaluate.
Boundaries need to be strong, but also fluid. Revisit any boundaries you set to see if it is working for you and meeting your needs, and if it needs to be modified or updated.
Don’t fall into the trap of seeing change and dropping the boundary altogether… it’s working because of the boundary! Make changes slowly and conscientiously. The most important aspect of setting boundaries is sticking to them. It can be hard work, especially in the beginning, but change only comes with consistency. (Isn’t that written in a parenting book somewhere…?)
Think of your approach as setting boundaries with yourself.
You may have feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, loss, and uncertainty. Understand that this is normal for stepmoms to feel at times, and that you ultimately have control over your own choices in life.
You are amazing, strong, brave, and compassionate to enter into this situation in the first place. Hopefully the reason you are reading this at all is because you have a partner that you love, and who loves you in return. With that support, I hope you feel empowered to create relationships, boundaries, and a life that is best for you.
So, now that we’ve covered the step-by-step guide to boundaries, over the next few days we will look at a few examples from a stepmom’s point of view starting with “Boundaries with the Man.”
Erin is a PhD Candidate in Adult Education at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
A certified Stepfamily Coach, Erin has started her own business, Steplife – Stepmom Coaching and Support.
Erin and her husband Matt share their home part-time with his two kids, Oliver and Waverleigh.