I recently sat down with a young couple who is going through a very serious struggle in their marriage because of someone outside their marriage. You might assume I’m talking about a mistress or an emotional affair, but this has nothing to do with wrongdoing on the part of either spouse. Their struggle has to do with an overbearing parent.
The husband’s mom (and the wife’s mother-in-law) has bombarded the young couple with pressures, demands, emotional pleas, tantrums, threats, bullying, name-calling and a myriad of other unpleasant tactics to get her way and to manipulate the dynamics within the family’s relationships. She seems to see their marriage as a threat to the relationship and influence she once had with her son. See seems to view her daughter-in-law as competition for her son’s attention rather than a beloved new addition to the family.
This young couple seemed exhausted by their dealings with what seems to be a narcissistic and emotionally unstable person. They want to honor and respect her. They want their young daughter to have a relationship with her grandmother. They want peace and no drama, but they also don’t want to be a doormat to her unhealthy demands. Sadly, their struggle is a very common one.
It’s very common for a couple to face an overbearing parent (or parents) in their marriage, but dealing with overbearing and emotionally unhealthy people can happen in all parts of life (work, school, home, etc.). Not if, but WHEN you find yourself in a relationship with someone who is bullying, manipulative, unstable or unhealthy in any way, for the sake of your family and your sanity, PLEASE implement the following boundaries.
5 boundaries to save you from unhealthy relationships and manipulative people (in no particular order)…
1. “Teach” them how to treat you by how you treat them AND by how you allow them to treat you.
Make sure you’re not responding to negativity with negativity. Don’t sink to their level because you’ll lose. It’s been said that when you wrestle with a pig in the mud, you BOTH get dirty, but the pig likes it! Be kind and respectful even when it’s not returned; not as a reflection of their character but as a reflection of yours. If the difficult person continues to bully, you might need to remove them from your life to protect yourself and your family until they change their toxic behavior. This leads directly into #2.
Communicate THIS over and over to the difficult person…
2. Let difficult people know that THEY are choosing not to be part of your life based on how they are acting.
It can be difficult to tell someone (especially someone older than you like a parent) that their behavior is out-of-bounds. Do this with gentleness and respect but also with a resolute firmness that you can’t compromise on this for the sake of your own family. If this difficult throws a fit and starts trying to manipulate or sabotage the situation, remind him/her that THEY are choosing not to be part of your life based on their decisions. You’re outlining the clear boundaries like the concrete median on an interstate; to protect everyone on the road. If they can’t abide by those boundaries, people will get hurt, so their behavior is forfeiting their opportunity for a relationship until (or unless) they make changes. You can’t make them change their behavior, but they can’t make you abide by their unhealthy behaviors. You aren’t removing them from your life, they need to know that they, by their own decisions, are causing the break in the relationship.
#3 might be the most important one on the list if you are married…
3. (For those who are married) Be completely UNIFIED with your spouse in your approach to dealing with this difficult person.
If there’s an overbearing parent (or anyone else) who is trying to insert themselves into your marital business or to pull you away from your spouse, you and your spouse MUST be unified. You can’t be divided. Behind closed doors, you might have disagreements about how to best handle the situation, but especially in public and in your communication with the difficult person you must always be united.
#4 is SO difficult to do but it could change the relationship AND change your own perspective in the process…
4. Don’t treat them like they treat you. Treat them like God treats you.
God gives us forgiveness, love, and grace even when we don’t deserve it and then calls us to love others like he has loved us. As a Christian, I believe Jesus was the perfect embodiment of grace, love, truth, strength, and all that’s good in relationships. He showed radical grace. He modeled what love was supposed to look like, he “turned the other cheek” when insulted, BUT he also refused to be anyone’s doormat. If people weren’t willing to be in a healthy relationship, he didn’t chase after them. He gave them space and didn’t compromise his character or the rules that must exist in all healthy relationships as a way to appease people who weren’t pleased with him. We can learn alot about dealing with difficult people from his example.
#5 sums everything up in one important point…
5. Do all you can to live at peace with them, but if they refuse to live at peace with you, then live your life in peace without them.
This “tough love” can be so difficult, but sometimes someone will simply refuse to be in a relationship with you unless they’re pulling all the strings and you’re jumping through their hoops. Do all you can to live at peace and be one who builds bridges instead of tearing them down, but if this person isn’t willing to do their part, then you might need to love them from a distance. Don’t let them manipulate you, control you, or steal your joy. Pray for them. Put the situation in God’s hands, and once you’ve done all you can, move forward in peace and trust God to do the rest.
For more on healthy boundaries in relationships, I recommend the book Boundaries by John Townsend and Henry Cloud.