Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More
We hear the term “boundaries” applied to relationships quite a bit these days. While most people are familiar with the term, I find that many have a hard time describing what a healthy boundary actually is and how it should work in relationships.
What is a relational boundary?
A boundary is something that separates two things. Walls and fences are examples of material boundaries.
Relational boundaries separate people and help distinguish your unique identity from that of another person. This concept is relatively easy to understand when that person is an acquaintance or coworker. But it gets more complicated the closer you are to that person. It’s easy for the boundaries to become too loose or too rigid.
How do boundaries develop?
The family unit you grew up in (whatever form that may take – two parent, single parent, foster parent, etc.) is the training ground for how we learn about boundaries. If our parents and other influential adults understood what healthy boundaries were and modeled these for us, we probably grew up with the ability to develop close, meaningful relationships that were long-term and felt safe and secure. If our parents weren’t clear on what healthy boundaries entailed, chances are good that we’ve been guessing our way through one disappointing relationship after another for some time.
Examples of boundaries
A healthy relational boundary between parents, for example, enables them to have a private life separate from their children. Parents share confidences and sexual intimacy with one another that is not shared with the children or others outside the family. This is a healthy boundary to have.
In contrast, it is not healthy for one or both parents to use the children as confidants for their marital problems or show romantic expressions of affection toward their children. These are boundary violations.
So, boundaries function to keep some information and action private, while allowing other information and action to pass through. Think of healthy boundaries as a chain link fence; it allows enough permeability for the good parts of the relationship to pass through while blocking out the unhealthy parts.
Problems occur when the parents are unclear of where boundaries should exist. For example, after an argument with your spouse, you tell your 8-year-old child that you need a hug because “Daddy made me upset by yelling at me.” By asking your child for emotional comfort you put her in a position of taking responsibility for what YOU should be taking responsibility for: working the conflict out with your spouse and seeking comfort there in that relationship. When this misplaced type of connection happens it is called an enmeshed boundary. In other words, someone in the family is taking too much responsibility (in this case, the daughter) for something that really belongs to another individual (Mom) in the family setting. Another example of boundary problems would be a father who gets into an argument with his teenage daughter. Instead of trying to work it out after the emotions have settled down, the father and daughter go days without speaking but drop obvious hints along the way that they are still upset with each other. This is an example of a disengaged boundary. This type of boundary problem arises when someone chooses to default on their responsibility or expects someone else to take it for them. In this situation, neither the father nor daughter is taking responsibility to try and repair the relationship.
So, where an enmeshed boundary pulls individuals into roles and responsibilities that aren’t theirs to assume while a disengaged boundary creates distance between the individual family members.
A continuum of boundaries
One way to view family boundaries is to envision it as a continuum that ranges from an enmeshed system at one extreme to a disengaged system at the other end and balance near the middle.
What do balanced family boundaries look like?
In a balanced system, each person takes full responsibility for what belongs to them in order to make that relationship work properly.
A balanced boundary system could be visualized by a line the separates two people. For a healthy relationship to occur, both have to take responsibility to come up to the line and do what they are both responsible for in that relationship.
- If they step over the line to do what the other person should do, it is enmeshment.
- If they remain distant from the line and default on what is theirs, it is disengagement.
The hard part in assessing family boundaries is deciding what belongs to me and what belongs to another person in the family. How you sort that out will determine how you choose to communicate and what you attend to.
A balanced family boundary system incorporates a healthy mix of engagement and autonomy for the individuals in that family. For example, parents need to keep some information away from their children (conflict they need to work out between them) but overtly communicate other information to your children that they need to know (that you love them). Children need to be allowed to have age-appropriate autonomy but not too much so they feel neglected.
It is challenging to find where that boundary line should be, especially when it has not been drawn in a healthy way. But, with open communication about how you want boundaries in your family to change, along with lots of practice, you can learn how to build much healthier relationships that are respectful, safe and meaningful.