Reality Check: Boundaries and Disputes

Boundaries can create cause for dispute. Sometimes, however, setting a boundary can be an effective way to diffuse a dispute.
Emma has endured criticism from her mother all her life. In her youthful rush to get married and away from the stream of disapproval, Emma made an unfortunate choice of husband. Emma’s mom missed no opportunity to point out that mistake, and the criticism continued even after Emma divorced.
For the most part, Emma accepts her mom’s critical behaviour as “just the way it is.” Emma chooses not to argue or defend herself; she knows that would not help their relationship. Her mother’s behaviour is as it’s always been, and as Emma wants peace in the family, she chooses acceptance.
Through the years, Emma has grown more confident. She has remarried and is creating a good, satisfying life together with John and her stepchildren.
Emma’s new life has not stopped the sniping from her mom; if anything, that’s now enhanced. Where mom’s criticism used to be directed only toward Emma, it’s now extended to include John! Despite the fact that John is a fine, hardworking, loving man, her mom still manages to find fault.
Although Emma wants to maintain a relationship with mom, it’s becoming more difficult. When Emma does a reality check, she’s observed that after a visit with mom, she has much less patience with John, responds to small disputes with frustration, and snaps at any tiny difficulty. Emma is “not herself,” or at least, not the “herself” that she wants to be.
That reality check is a form of self-evaluation. Emma looked at what she’s been doing and evaluated how it’s been working. Clearly, the visits are not working well.
The next and more difficult question for Emma is, “What will I do about it?”
One quick and easy answer is, “Don’t visit mom.”
However, removing herself from her mom’s life will not meet Emma’s needs. Emma wants to protect her relationship with her husband, but she also wants to maintain a need-satisfying relationship with her mom. Is there a way to have both?
Here’s where setting boundaries could be helpful.
Rather than attempting to ignore her mom’s criticism of John, Emma has chosen to act more honestly by setting a boundary—she will tell mom that she will not tolerate criticism of John. If mom criticizes John, Emma will leave. She will not express anger, argue, or defend, she will simply leave. That’s the boundary.
Emma’s mom may attempt to cross the boundary. For example, she may try accusations: “He’s making you do this; He’s trying to drive us apart.” Or she may try guilt: “I was just trying to help; I don’t know if my health can stand this…” And so on.
How might Emma respond? “Mom, I love you and I want to visit with you. But I’m not prepared to listen to your criticism of John. So if you don’t change the subject, I will leave now.”
What do you think of that response? Do you see it as cold and unfeeling? Or do you see it as being protective of both relationships?

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