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Family Reunions, Family Boundaries

Anticipate the minefields—and the meadows—in your upcoming family reunion.

As I plan the first ever family reunion of my extended clan at a big beach house we've rented for a long weekend, I’m mostly excited but also a little nervous. A summer tradition, reunions like the one that 15 of my cousins, nieces and nephews, grown kids, partners and young adult grandchildren are showing up for can be a landmine. Like holiday dinners, even the strongest ties between and among family members can be stretched and stressed, given the pressure of playing all our roles at once—as spouses, siblings, parents, and children. It' s one big, overlapping Venn diagram, which makes boundary management difficult.

The usual pressures of married life are magnified when there are others looking on and listening. The ties between and among siblings come up for reexamination, especially if they haven't resolved past problems, gotten over sibling rivalry, or been allowed to discard family roles and identifications that don't fit the adults they've become.

But it's the boundary between parents and grown kids—any or all of them—that sets the tone for most family gatherings, and when both generations respect each other’s right to make their own choices, live their own lives, and keep their own secrets, harmony usually reigns. There are preemptive strategies you can employ to make sure it does. And even if tempers flare, you can behave in ways that keep them from burning down the family tree.

If there’s ever a time when it’s appropriate to remark on how your adult children raise theirs, offer advice no one asked for, or triangulate the relationships between siblings, the family reunion is decidedly not that time! If a boundary is ignored, speak up about it—“I’d rather you didn’t talk to Kate about her weight, Mom; it’s not helping" —is the first step. “I’ve asked you not to do that, Mom,” is the second. “Do you realize how much this is hurting your grandchild,” is the third. And that calls for a warning: "If you do this again, we're leaving." And then do it, because boundaries without consequences are just nagging.

While reminding everyone of the innate strength of family ties, even those that have been frayed over time, reunions can be an opportunity to solidify or even create important boundaries that have been ignored or neglected in the past. One way to do that in advance is to remind a spouse, sibling, in-law or parent if you’ve told them something you want kept private from other family members. Another is to set ground rules with your spouse about maintaining a united front in discussions about your marriage, child-raising, financial status, or any sensitive topics that are just between the two of you.

It's hard not to violate our kids' boundaries because we started so early, all for their own good. But that was then, when they weren't capable of making many of the decisions you made for them in order to ensure that they reached adulthood safely. Now they have, and the kind of interference with their autonomy that was permissible then is not. It's long past time to banish "I'm only saying this because I love you," a phrase that precedes many of the most common boundary trespasses, from your vocabulary; even if it's true, it literally goes without saying. If they didn't know that, they probably wouldn't be coming to the reunion anyway.

This is the time to strengthen your family’s values and legacy and to reminisce about the past—not go on about it until your grandkids tune out, but tell the stories you want passed down to future generations. To bring out your family albums and home movies and remind other family members to do the same. To create a family tree, perhaps with the help of Ancestry or another online service, and share it. To pass on their baby books, trophies, diplomas, souvenirs, and other mementos so they won't have to decide who gets custody of them later. Even to think about creating a family mission statement. I've been googling examples online and sending the best ones along with other reunion updates. I've been gratified by how enthusiastic my grandchildren are about creating one together.

Now all I have to do is figure out who's sleeping where. Oh, and when to tell them there's no wi-fi where we're staying and only limited cell phone reception.

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