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2021 Oct

Bonds & Boundaries

Finding the balance between us and them.

Moderation is needed for all aspects of healthy living, not just eating and drinking. Our psychological life requires balance, too. One of the hardest things to balance is the tension between our need for other people and our need to be true to ourselves.

People have problems when they go too far toward either extreme. There is a sweet spot right in the middle between being an island and getting absorbed by the crowd. We are happiest and most well-adapted when we can be our own person within a nexus of people who know us well and give us their emotional support. When we can remain an autonomous individual within our closest relationships, we feel self-confident. Bonds of love stabilized by definitive individuality produce strong, secure people who function well as adults in a complex, multidimensional world.

How on earth does this happen? How do parents raise children who develop this balance? Why aren’t we all loners? Or dependents who can’t function without our group?

The answer is that our psychological needs have evolved to follow two dissimilar paths, a double helix of opposing but complementary needs linked together to give us an enormous psychological advantage. We can move back and forth between our urge to belong and our drive to become, following whichever impulse best suits the moment.

Our dual nature makes us a perfect fit for a world in which individual exploration and initiative is just as essential to survival as pooled resources in a group. Sometimes our species’ survival has depended upon individual invention and personal action, and other times group loyalty was the essential factor. Our healthiest people excel at both living in community and expressing their unique individuality.

When Tolstoy said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” he meant that happy families keep an optimal balance between individuality and family bonds, while unhappy families find millions of ways and degrees of imbalance to skew that elegant helix into a tangled mess.

Some problems arise when there is not enough emotional connection, such as when people suffer attachment disruptions early in life and don’t learn to trust others or develop secure relationships. Other problems happen when there’s too much connection, when the family does not allow its children to build a life of their own outside the family’s influence.

Insufficient connection creates people whose emotional isolation and mistrust make it impossible to form rewarding relationships in which they feel lovable and safe. Alternately clinging or isolating, they can’t live comfortably in the world of emotional closeness. On the other hand, too much connection makes people mere vassals of the family state. They are not encouraged to express their individuality or create a separate life if it threatens the family control. In this scenario, everything serves the emotional and vanity needs of the most dominant family members.

This is psychological enmeshment, in which the parent keeps family relationships preserved in amber as a kind of end-point in itself, fixing everyone’s identity and purpose. The parent is not emotionally mature enough to see the child as a person in his or her own right. They derive security from the child’s attachment to them, not thinking about what that costs the child in terms of life opportunities. Such psychologically trapped children see the family as both function and identity, undermining their ability to make and sustain bonds outside the family.

When families of origin forget that family bonds should support and respect each person’s individuation, adult children may have to set firm boundaries that allow them room for their individuality and personal interests. This boundary-setting is necessary in order to strengthen that double helix-like balance between individual needs and family obligations. You can’t have a healthy family system if younger members are not helped to differentiate into future adults.

When parents respect their children’s individuality and observe healthy boundaries, good relations and mutual enjoyment are more likely. Then the double helix of bonds and boundaries works as it was meant to: each strand following its own curling path but each moving in synchrony with the other, linked by the balanced forces of both individuation and emotional connection. In this kind of relationship, you can be yourself and enjoy your loved ones at the same time.

When our bonds are balanced, loyalty to you doesn’t mean I have to disappear, and following my path doesn’t mean I need to shut you out. In this way, we can keep our bonds and our boundaries too, stronger for them both.

Lindsay Gibson

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Virginia Beach. She is the author of Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents and Who You Were Meant To Be. Visit www.drlindsaygibson.com for more information.

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