Families and Groups with Rigid Boundaries

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

1. A family has a child with a serious mental illness. They do not want outside interference and will handle the situation on their own.

2. A young teenage girl and boy want to hold hands but, if they do, they will face hostility from their Hasidic/Amish/etc. family and community.


3. A man wants to report child abuse happening within his extremely rigid and religious sect but knows it’s discouraged by the leaders who do not want outside authorities coming in.

4. A man is his forties has been a member of this street gang since he was ten years old. He has grown tired of the violence and wants out. However, if he tries to leave he knows his life will be in danger.

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One of the major features of family life is that members act to maintain the status quo. In other words, with few exceptions, there is resistance to change. However, many families recognize that change is inevitable. They recognize the fact that children grow, develop and, ultimately, leave home to start their own families. Then, there is the family that attempts to prevent members from changing and leaving home. They can also work to prevent outsiders from joining. If the family is thought of as having a circle that surrounds it, and that circle is a boundary, then, some boundaries are flexible and others are rigid. A rigid family boundary is the one that attempts to hold on to all of it’s members without allowing any outsiders in or out. They are closed.

In the same way, there are groups in society that function in a similar way. They have rigid boundaries and make entering and leaving difficult. For example, the Masons are a famous and old secretive group with fairly rigid boundaries. They accept outsiders but only if they are invited by a member and if they go through initiation rights that are as secret as the organization.

Gangs are criminal groups with rigid boundaries. They, too, have initiation rights that must be followed in order to gain entry. However, it’s rigid boundaries make it impossible to leave without dire and deadly consequences. The Bloods, Crips and Mafia are examples of these types of organizations.

There are certain sects within many religions that function in a similar ways and have rigid boundaries. Among these are the Hasidim or ultra Orthodox Jews who are a very exclusionary group of people. For anyone wanting to join that sect of the religion, there is a rigorous and challenging amount of learning that must occur. One must be extremely motivated to meet all the requirements to become Hasidic. Leaving the sect is difficult. Those who leave are often rejected and shunned even if a son or daughter are among those who want to leave.

Parallel to the Hasidic Jewish sect are a very exclusionary Christian group called the Amish. There, too, joining and leaving are difficult because the circle or boundaries surrounding the group are rigid.

In many of these groups membership comes with a particular kind of dress code. It’s interesting to note that Hasids and the Amish, while very different from one another, have a dress code that is somewhat similar with their emphasis on wearing black clothing and discouraging the use or wearing of anything colorful.

Whether the groups we belong to are family, gang, religious sect or other, they exert enormous influence over behavior, thinking and relating. The more rigid the boundaries the greater the influence. The reason for this is that rigid or closed groups exert control much more than influence.

The more rigid a group is the more it’s resistant to change. The more resistant a group or family is resistant to change the less it will adapt to changes in the outside world. Therefore, it will work harder to maintain the status quo regardless of new and challenging circumstances coming from within or outside its boundaries.

What kind of family or group did you grow up in? Was it rigid or did it invite outside people and ideas? What type of family or group do you now belong to? Do you feel free to make your own decisions?

Your questions and comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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