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Clear trumps delicate in setting boundaries
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Dear Carolyn • My mother is the sweetest, most caring mother a girl could ever ask for. However, she has a tendency to overstep her boundaries. We live VERY far apart and see each other about twice per year. She recently invited herself on a vacation with my family (husband and child). I noted very delicately that it would be difficult to see and do everything we wanted to with her in tow. I suggested she come to visit us later in the year. Her response was that she is coming anyway and will stay with a friend. I again tried to explain (this time in a detailed email), that I would really prefer to have this time with just my brother and old friends and there would be little opportunity for her to spend quality time with us. Her response to this and a similar incident was, "Wow, well, you really put me in my place!" I of course feel horrible and ungrateful, but I think I have a right to my own family vacations! How do I set boundaries with my mother in a delicate and respectful way without either of us feeling like I am in high school again?

Ungrateful

Dear Ungrateful • It's counterintuitive, but efforts to be "very delicately" "delicate and respectful" are often the source of the hard feelings. Limits are at their most palatable when they're clear. Not abrupt, not harsh, just clear. "Mom, I'd rather you didn't join us on this vacation, for reasons that don't reflect on you at all — but let's both get our calendars out and plan something else." You might be thinking, hey, that's what I said — but you didn't. You first said "no" to her in a vague way that, to the boundary-challenged, actually translates as, "Yes, with X conditions." So she met your conditions and thought she was good to go. She's sweet and caring, I'm sure, but manipulative too, no? Breaking your ancient tiptoeing habit is worth the hard work. When you're clear with Mom up front, then any hopes you dash will be early, semi-formed ones — which is still no fun, but it beats shooting down more fully imagined plans. A concrete "I love you, Mom, let's pick another date," then following through on that promise, inoculates you against accusations that you're just putting her "in her place."

Carolyn Hax's column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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