Dear Amy: When do boundaries become a form of controlling?
Last summer, my sister’s husband died by suicide.
At her request, my parents and I helped with huge tasks through the blurry first weeks. Then, gradually, she reduced contact with us.
Calls and texting were fine, and typical boundaries seemed to be respected.
Then last week my sister mailed my parents a letter, saying that they could only use postal mail to contact her. (They had been sending short emails and texts of generic updates.)
My parents are in their 80s and at a loss. She seems to be blaming our parents for everything, but with communication so prescribed there doesn’t seem to be a way to move forward.
She also stopped responding to me, and I am hurt but feel like I can wait this out.
I sent a birthday card and some bland notes to her.
I did tell my mom that at least she didn’t cut off all communication, so that’s good.
My sister also communicates with my older son (who lives in another country), which is what led my therapist to say that maybe this is how she is communicating.
My parents are going to a support group and I have used my EAP for therapy, but this boundary/control/communication piece is hard.
I feel like my sister is trying to control us, but maybe I am wrong and just don’t like that someone is dictating the boundaries and how the boundaries are respected, and then changes them when she wants to.
I keep wondering why she doesn’t just cut us off, but a therapist says this is how she is choosing to communicate.
Any other ideas?
– Bewildered by Boundaries
Dear Bewildered: I agree that erecting and enforcing boundaries is a form of control. Healthy boundaries help all of us to establish our autonomy, essentially keeping others from encroaching and overwhelming us.
Yes, your sister is controlling all of you. Given what she has been through, the kindest response would be for you to assume that this is simply the best she can do right now.
I wonder if her choice to switch to postal mail is an attempt to simply slow things down. Texts and calls might seem startling to her right now, pressuring her to rise to contact that she can’t manage.
You don’t say if your sister is receiving therapeutic help, or if she is communicating with you and your folks at all – after dictating these terms.
Be supportive, gentle, and reassuring with your parents. Send your sister some newsy notes and postcards. Don’t pressure her, but do your best to keep the door open – even if you don’t like the current parameters. I hope for her sake that she chooses to walk through and reconnect with all of you.
Dear Amy: I’m in my late-20s. I live in my hometown and have stayed close to my parents. I have a job, a car, friends, and share an apartment with a friend.
I have a strong hankering to attend a popular music festival, featuring a group I have followed for years, but have never seen in person.
I’ve floated the idea of doing this with my parents, but they have strong objections. They are worried about a number of factors, mainly concerned with safety (we’ll be camping, along with other festival-goers).
I am a careful person. I’ve never given them a reason to worry – before this.
I’m seeking your advice about what to do and also how to handle this with my parents.
Dear Fan: After you book your tickets, plan for your food, and gas up your car, you should tell your parents about your plans and assure them that you will keep in touch with them at least once each day.
They will express their worries and might pressure you not to do this. You should reassure them that you’ll be careful, and ask if you can have dinner with them the night after you return.
That’s it. You’ll have to handle yourself responsibly, and they will, too.
Dear Amy: I liked your response to “Worried Mom,” who worried obsessively about her adult sons.
My mother obsessively worried about me. Her overwhelming anxiety led me to avoid opening up to her about my life in many, many ways. By the way, my mother is now 99 years old.
She’s worried her entire life and, for my sanity, I still find myself keeping an emotional distance from her.
– Still Having Fun
Dear Fun: Anxiety profoundly affects relationships.
(You can email Amy Dickinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a letter to Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068. You can also follow her on Twitter @askingamy or Facebook.)
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