Home / Family / When to Say Yes, and How to Say No, to a Troubled Family Member, Part 2

When to Say Yes, and How to Say No, to a Troubled Family Member, Part 2

Shelly* and her counselor continued to work through the Ten Laws of
Boundaries in an effort to break Shelly out of the destructive patterns
that came from living with troubled family members:

Troubled Family Member

Law five: Law of motivation. This particular law was really
hard for Shelly to work through. She had to take a long look at what was
motivating her actions in the first place with her passive responses to
her family members.

“Why,” her counselor asked, “would you put up with what you’ve put up
with for so very long?” He then went on to tell Shelly that different
things motivate different people to “accept” bad behavior from those
closest to them — a fear of anger, being rejected, guilt, loneliness,
needing approval….

Shelly discovered that she put up with everything for three main reasons:

  1. She longed to be needed. She hated her family’s behavior, but she
    was by nature a caretaker, and she was afraid that if she made her
    family take responsibility for themselves, they would no longer need
    her. This caretaking role started back in her family of origin when
    Shelly was a young child, as she took on the role of caring for a
    severely depressed mother.
  2. She was afraid of being alone. Abandoned by her father and
    virtually abandoned by her mother due to the depression, Shelly felt
    that being surrounded by cruel family members was better than living by
    herself. The irony was that, as much as she feared living alone, in a
    way, she already was, since no one really cared for her emotionally in
    her house.
  3. Shelly was afraid what people would think of her. What would
    people say if they heard she kicked her daughter out of the house,
    called the cops on her son, and her husband complained at work that his
    wife was in another bedroom? Image meant everything to Shelly and she
    was exhausting herself trying to keep it up. Not only was she exhausting
    herself, she was not helping her family members any, because she was
    helping them live a lie that all was well within the home.

Shelly had to work through the unhealthy reasons that caused her to
tolerate such bad treatment from her family. This particular step took a
long time, stalling out her process on the ten laws for awhile. These
were old habits, thought patterns, and feelings that needed to be

Ultimately she learned, however, that in addition to keeping herself
healthy, she needed just one other motivation for her responses to her
family members. She needed the motivation of responding in such a way
that the other person found freedom from their own unhealthy patterns.
And this helped her step into the sixth law.

Law six: Law of evaluation. Will my boundaries hurt or harm
the person? Up until counseling, Shelly had always felt she would hurt
her husband’s, son’s, and daughter’s feelings if she stood up to them.
She finally realized she was only harming them in the long run by not
standing up to them. It all came back to that key point. As long as she
enabled their behaviors, they would never take responsibility for

Her husband would never find freedom from deep-seated anger and his
own severe depression. Her son would never learn to respect a woman and
would thus be forever cheated out of a healthy and fulfilling marriage
relationship. Her daughter would never find freedom from her addictions,
never know the satisfaction of the fulfillment of taking care of
herself, and would miss out on her children’s lives.

Law seven: Law of pro-activity. Shelly used to react with
age-old patterns to her family’s behaviors and then react with internal
emotions that destroyed her. She began to take a pro-active stance

As hard as it was, she told her daughter that she wanted her
grandkids to be safe until Shelly got help. She informed her that though
the kids should have been her daughter’s responsibility, she was taking
it over until she got help. And that meant filing for custody of them
and calling the police the next time her daughter came home drunk and
started screaming at everyone.

Shelly told her husband that supper would be at 6:00 every night and
if he could get home, great. If not, it would be kept warm until he
arrived home. But she would no longer prepare a second meal if he got in
too late to enjoy the first one while it was fresh. She also told him
that he could either begin helping with the grandkids in the morning or
help her get breakfast going. She told him that she loved him and truly
wanted to be his helpmeet, but at the same time, she was one person and
couldn’t do it all anymore. And the fact that she couldn’t do it all did
not mean she was a bad wife and worthy of being cussed at.

Shelly told her son that disobeying rules like curfew had
consequences, and it was his choice whether or not he would get those
consequences. It wasn’t her fault if he was grounded. It was his own
disobedience that got him grounded. And any physical abuse from him
would get him more than grounded — it would get him a trip to the police

Law eight: Law of envy. This is wanting what someone else
has, but not doing what you need to get it. Shelly had been doing this
most of her life. She wanted a home of peace and love, but had been to
fearful of doing the difficult things that would help bring that about.
That led her and her counselor into exploring the 9th law, which went
hand-in-hand with this.

Law nine: Law of activity. Growing and achieving things in life doesn’t come easy. It takes hard work. As the book Boundaries
used as an illustration, if a baby bird doesn’t hatch its own way out
of the shell, it dies soon after being released. Pecking away at the egg
and struggling with its little feet and wings is what gets the blood
pumping, resulting in a healthy and thriving baby bird. Shelly had been
working hard and she had more work yet to do — but it was that hard work
that was going to bring about life-changing results.

Law ten: Law of exposure. By the time Shelly and her
counselor had reached this part of the process, Shelly had pretty much
already completed it in the above steps. This was the law of telling
others what her boundaries were. She had been slowly telling them all
along and they had been slowly getting it.

Shelly’s life didn’t change overnight. In fact, it took two long
years for her to work through the ten laws and make personal changes.
Her family’s changes took even longer — a total of five years in all —
and not everyone changed for the better.

Initially, her husband seemed to grow angrier and more verbal with
Shelly when she began standing firm. With time, however, he saw that she
meant what she said, and when she had fled to a safe place with the
grandkids for a third time, he was ready for his own counseling.
Underneath his anger and abuse, he truly did love Shelly.

He entered individual counseling and they periodically did couple’s
counseling together. Until he pulled his stuff together like Shelly had
to do, it was hard for them to pull together as a couple. With time,
though, they did it. Seven years later, Shelly and her husband are seen
walking hand in hand down the street after supper most nights, and on
warm summer nights, quiet laughter can be heard through the windows as
they work on a jigsaw puzzle together.

Shelly’s son was actually the first to respond to Shelly’s
boundaries. As a teen, he pushed against boundaries but desperately
wanted them. The breaking point came when he went to slap Shelly one
night and she surprised both him and herself when she grabbed his arm
and said with a strength she didn’t know she had, “Don’t go there. You
do, and I’m at the phone calling the cops.” Shelly was even more shocked
when her son broke down, began crying, and told her he hated it because
he was “becoming his old man and he hated his old man.” They talked
long into the night, and he was agreeable to see an adolescent therapist
for awhile.

The more Shelly’s husband came around, the more their son came
around. As much as Shelly needed to stand firm, what her son needed most
was a father who modeled healthy male behavior. The healthier his dad
got, the healthier he got. Now-a-days, it’s not unusual to see him and
his fiancé randomly popping in for a snack and a few tries at the
jig-saw puzzle themselves.

Shelly’s daughter still has not made healthy choices. True to her
word, Shelly called the police on her daughter the night she showed up
drunk and began breaking windows in an effort to get in. In the
following weeks Shelly and her husband gained full custody of their
granddaughters. The girls’ mother flip-flops in and out of jail and
rehabs, and the family is still hoping she finds freedom from her
addictions. Until she does, they continue to pray for her and agree to
visits with her only if she is sober — which is rare. Her children now
consider Shelly and her husband their “Mama” and “Papa”.

Additional thoughts:

This article may have struck one too many chords with you. If so, may
I first say that my heart goes out to you. You are in a painful place
and it is one that is full of loneliness and even fear. There is hope,

The crazy cycle can be broken out of. As law nine states,
however, it won’t be without a lot of work.

I’m not sure who said it, but there is a saying that goes, “No one
will choose to change until the pain of remaining the same becomes
greater than the pain of change.” You need to ask yourself, “Which is
the greater pain, changing my situation or staying in it?” If it’s the
latter, I would recommend 1) buying the book this article is based on,
complete with the workbook, 2) gathering a strong support system as you
implement the counsel in the book, and 3) finding a wise counselor to
help you through the process.

And as always, if the place you are in means you are in immediate danger, please find a safe haven immediately!

This article is adapted from principles found in Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No, by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.

*All characters are fictional as are specific circumstances. However,
the story has been created based on the countless scenarios I was
presented with while running my private counseling practice.

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