Mental Health

Case studies: family and boundaries
by Fedwa Wazwaz

“O you who have attained to faith! Behold, some of your spouses and your children are enemies unto you: so beware of them! But if you pardon [their faults] and forbear, and forgive-then, behold, God will be much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace. Your worldly goods and your children are but a trial and a temptation, whereas with God there is a tremendous reward.” (The Qur’an, 64:14-15)

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Human life is marked by its many tribulations.

Some of our tribulations come from outside oppressors, as Pharaoh’s attacks on the Jewish people. Yet many come from within our very families, as did the attacks on Joseph. Even the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings on him, suffered attacks from angry and abusive family members.

We all have responsibilities to our families: siblings, spouses, and children. But we also have rights. And having family doesn’t ever mean they belong to us, and the attachment you have shouldn’t be a blind attachment, where we deny wrongdoing or abuse. One of the worst things we can do in the face of abuse is to deny it.

Trials run in all directions: parents can be a trial, as can children; siblings can be a trial; either spouse can also be a trial. Sometimes, one person is clearly at fault. Other times—many other times—the interaction is simply difficult.

The ways in which the prophets dealt with difficult and abusive family members are a light for all of us. We have their examples to guide us. But cognitive therapy is also important, as it’s important for us to have a witness outside of ourselves, someone in a position of authority to keep us centered and to help us establish positive boundaries.

Case one:

A parent who is abusive and controlling, trying to live vicariously through their child.

In all communities, there are abusive parents and spouses. Both therapy and getting closer to God can help us establish boundaries, so that we can live positive lives: connected to our family members, and yet not allowing them to push us around.

This may take a lot of practice, particularly with very difficult family members. When we are parents, we need to constantly remind ourselves of what it was like to be as a child. And as children, we need to remind ourselves of how difficult it is to be a parent. It’s difficult for everyone—parent or child—to identify one’s thoughts and feelings, and to see one’s own actions in a fair light.  

At times, we have a hard time accepting imperfect family members. Often times, we need to reduce our expectations in order to learn to accept them. This doesn’t ever mean we should accept abuse. In situations of physical abuse, a physical distance is necessary.

But, in many cases, we can mitigate the harm by responding with kindness, refusing to argue, and establishing clear boundaries. And we can always—every day—wake up and choose peace and forgiveness.

Case two:

Male and female siblings who have different cultural expectations and have become estranged from each other based on differing beliefs of the “right” way to act.

Even the prophet had family members who were abusive. Yet despite their abuse—which stemmed from their inability to understand his life and choices—he would still visit his family. There were members of his family who tried to hurt him, and who spoke about him in abusive terms. Yet he remained calm and loving toward them.

As for us, sometimes we need to check our feelings. It’s possible we have a sibling who’s being abusive. But we also might be feeling jealousy, anger, or rancor. It’s important to look at the issue through multiple lenses and to continually reach out to family members who have drifted away.

Certainly, we don’t want to approach every family member at once, particularly in a large family. But there will always be some family members who are open to dialogue and conversation. We can go slowly, and start to feel connected, build boundaries, and understand each other.

Remember, as we constantly make prayers for our family members, that we cannot control or change anyone.

We also need to look both ways! Try not to speak to your family members in an accusatory way, but in a way that helps them consider. As in, Consider that there’s a possibility….

And just as we try to better our relationships with our family, we also need to work on ourselves. In particular, we shouldn’t work on our family as a way to deflect and avoid working on ourselves and our own issues.

And always, the hearts of people are in God’s hands. We shouldn’t violate that, or assume that people’s hearts are in our hands. Even the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, didn’t have the hearts of others in his hands, but could only set boundaries and speak to them of God’s light.

As adults, we can never really make someone else “do the right thing.” We can insist that others treat us properly, and that they fulfill their responsibilities and respect our rights. But we are not responsible for how our family members behave. And understanding boundaries helps us to understand what God expects from us.

Case three:

A family where no one is at fault, but there is an aging parent, major family trial, or other issues where family members must come together and act, but there are different ideas about responsibilities and boundaries that make this difficult.

Sometimes it’s not an issue of anyone acting badly. Instead, entrenched habits, or different ideas about responsibility, can lead to difficult situations. After all, people creatures of habit and we do not like change. When family members are called on to take up new responsibilities, not everyone will be ready to do that. Setting boundaries can help people live up to their responsibilities.

We have to accept that, while there are things that are obligatory, and we can expect these things from family members, we can’t expect others to take the high road or do good works: those have to happen by choice. And we certainly can’t blame or guilt others into taking the high road.  

We don’t want to break our bonds of kinship or our obligations to family members. Yet we are also free to choose, because God gives us the choice to say no. When setting limits and boundaries, it’s important to know our rights and responsibilities, and a first step is to seek God’s guidance, to make sure our conscience is clear, and this will help us to be firm but polite.

In these situations, it’s also good for us to pace ourselves, to make lists, start small, and introduce changes gradually.

In a family situation, we can let others know that things will be changing. We love our siblings, but the situation has changed, so there are new boundaries that need to be set. It’s important to remember that none of us are superheroes, and we all need to be aware when something is beyond our capacity. As it says in the Qur’an, “God does not impose upon any soul a duty but to the extent of its ability.” Sometimes, we have to say: I can’t do this, or, I can’t do this alone.

Once you’ve set boundaries, it’s important to keep them clear. Sometimes, boundaries should be written in order for them to be clear to all parties. And we should always notice when people have changed as we asked! When we thank God’s creation, we are also thanking God.

But being clear doesn’t mean you take the responsibility for endless explanations. You can even set a “personal explanation limit,” and you shouldn’t feel the need to constantly justify your position or to take responsibility for the emotional responses of others.

Also: As much as we’d like to connect with everyone, it’s not possible for everyone to be close all the time. At times, you have to allow tense moments in order to allow people to reflect on their behaviors.

How do you know if a boundary is the ‘right’ boundary?

In deciding if you’re setting up the right boundaries in dealing with family members, it is sometimes helpful to set up a meeting with some sort of mediator. It’s also helpful to talk with authorities: doctors, teachers, scholars, therapists.

Certainly, you don’t want to impose on anyone else an authority they wouldn’t trust. At times, you may have to agree on a mediator to assist in boundary creation, but this needs to be a mediator trusted by all parties: a neutral person who has good intentions.

Of course, at times people understand it’s the right boundary, but they still want to resist it. Boundary creation can take time. It’s often not an issue of “good” or “bad,” but in averting harm and helping everyone to take responsibility for their own actions.

This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, currently titled Reflections of Faith: Lessons from the Prophets.

Fedwa Wazwaz is a Palestinian-American born in Jerusalem, Palestine and raised in the US.  She was the chair for the Interfaith Relations at Islamic Center of Minnesota.  She has completed training in restorative justice at the University’s Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking.  She was a 2008-2009 policy fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.  She is a public speaker and writer and lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

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