Family Vacations and Boundaries
This Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, and with it comes the start of summer vacation season. For some, this means preparing for a trip either with extended family, or to visit them — and that brings up questions of how to maintain healthy boundaries during vacation so that everyone can enjoy themselves and relax! There’s nothing worse than interpersonal struggles during what is supposed to be a happy, carefree time.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” I think a similar truism applies to families: Good boundaries make happy families. Boundaries allow us to set and live up to expectations, preserve our sense of self and autonomy, and create security in our relationships. Boundaries with in-laws are especially important, because research shows us that when there is difficulty in the in-law relationship, a marriage is likely to suffer. If you and your partner are planning a vacation with one person’s family, it’s important to remember that the other person is agreeing to spend their vacation with their in-laws. Potentially a lot of fun, sure, but also potentially stressful. What feels like support or suggestion to one partner may be perceived by the other partner as criticism or butting in.
So, how do we maintain good boundaries in these relationships, both in general and during a shared vacation? Here are some tips:
- Troubleshoot up front. Spend some time together with your partner talking about things you know might present difficulties, so that you can both be on the lookout for ways to support each other during those times. Be clear about what you need from your partner when these situations arise. Do you want silent support in the form of a gentle touch on your back or hand squeeze? Or do you want more vocal support, like having your partner stand up for you if you end up going toe-to-toe with a member of his/her family?
- Be a united front. It is vitally important that you present yourselves to both of your families as a strong team. This means working together to make decisions, not getting involved in gossip or negative talk about your partner, and consistently sticking to decision you’ve made together.
- Be an ambassador. I tell my couples all the time that it is up to each partner to be an ambassador to their own family. This means working to keep a peaceful relationship between your family of origin and your family of choice. You know your family best, and you have the most power to be heard by them. When a problem occurs, have a conversation with your family that lets them know that youwant them to do something differently — not by telling them that your partner has a problem (e.g., “Mom, I’d really appreciate it if you would check with us before you give our child sweets,” rather than “Mom, Bob doesn’t want you giving our child candy every day”).
- Finally, celebrate successes. Although we can’t expect everything to go perfectly on a shared family vacation, there will be good times. Enjoy them! When you find yourself enjoying the company of extended family, take a minute to let them know. Be specific about what you’re enjoying — this reinforces the kind of interaction that works for you and makes it more likely to happen again.
So, what are your shared vacation plans this summer? Sound off in the comments!