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"Boundaries" as Moral Ideals

Bob Fancher came of age in Mississippi during the Sixties. With the utter upending of “the Mississippi way of life” during the civil rights ...Read More

You would think a concept as central to mental health ideology as “boundaries” would have a fairly strong scientific basis.

After all, when mental health types talk about “boundary problems,” their rhetoric waxes dramatic, filled with tragedy and heroism, with tales of abuse, misuse, and-in due course – redemption. “Boundaries,” you would think, must be a very well-established phenomenon, with a rich body of sound investigation limning its features. Why else give it such weight, both for condemning those of whom we disapprove and guiding the recovery of those we pity?

You would think we could point to the scientists who discovered boundaries, and the experiments or studies through which they did it. You would think we could survey the history of research through which healthy and unhealthy boundaries have been delineated. You would think we could write a grand tale of controversies over exactly what sorts of “boundary problems” correlate with what sorts of mental health disorders, and what kind of research resolved them – or failed to do so.

And you would be wrong.

Now, we could certainly write a history of the concept of boundaries – when the concept was introduced, and by whom, and to what uses the concept has been put. But there would hardly be a scintilla of anything resembling science, of any sort, soft or hard, in the tale.

There’s a reason for that. There’s no such thing as boundaries for empirical study to investigate. You can’t study what doesn’t exist.

The problem is not that boundaries are not physical. We can investigate memory, inference, image manipulation, temperament, associations, and all sorts of other psychological realities with no reference to physicality.

The problem is not that boundaries are theoretical, invisible entities. Notions like “cognitive schemata” or personality types or mental modules or extraversion or introversion – and on and on – are all theoretical and invisible, but we have vast industries of empirical investigation devoted to them. We can investigate all sorts of unseen, hypothesized entities, simply by deriving their implications and testing for them: If, in fact, entity p exists, or not, what would follow?

The problem is that “boundaries” is a contrivance, and a misguided one – a concept born of mental health’s confusion of moral conviction and reports on nature.

“Boundaries” does not name of a set of natural facts about the world; there is no such thing as “healthy boundaries,” in the sense of healthy skin, healthy eyes, or healthy breathing.

Boundaries, as mental health types use the term, are moral ideals: ways we imagine the world would be better, if only we lived by them. When we talk about “healthy boundaries,” we are really saying, Here’s how we think people should relate to each other. When we talk about “boundary violations” or “unhealthy boundaries,” we are saying, “Wrong!”

Hence the outrage, condescension, and pity characteristic of discussions of “boundary problems” – and the near-beatific promise of redemption with which therapists and patients speak of “getting better boundaries,” and the air of inviolable imperative with which they speak of “setting boundaries.”

Generally, the concept mistakes a certain set of moral options for natural necessity. It is used to say, “We’d like to see life arranged in just this particular way. We’d like relationships to be divvied up thus-and-such. People’s autonomy gets to function like this. People have these rights, but not those, to require various things of each other, and to refuse various things of each other. And since that’s the way we want it, that has to be the way nature requires it. So if you don’t do it like we say, you’re a sick person. Get with our program.”

That’s not a particularly effective way to argue with anyone except the naïve and easily-swayed. “You violated boundaries” doesn’t carry much weight with anyone except the people who belong to the cult of boundaries. The rest of us just go, “Huh? What do you mean, ‘boundaries’? And how’d you become the arbiter of where ‘they’ are supposed to be drawn?”

The correct way to argue for moral options is in moral terms – not by simply claiming to have discovered the true nature of things. Moral options, unlike laws of nature, are just that – optional. Nature does not require them. Many facts about nature can (and must) be considered in moral reflection, but moral terms have to be introduced.

I generally admire and share the goals that birthed and nurtured the notion of boundaries. Nothing matters more to quality of life than right relations between persons. Knowing where one has the right and need to exercise autonomy, where and when one can rightly decline the requests or expectations of others, where and when one must honor obligations and acquiesce to demands – these are crucial elements of flourishing.

Whether I owe someone a particular act or resource cannot be settled by talking about my boundaries. It has to be settled by looking at the actual history of interactions between us, including our promises, how we have drawn on each other’s good offices or appropriated each other’s energies, and what roles we have a right to expect each other to play our respective lives.

When we have done someone wrong, it’s because we have done them wrong, in morally specifiable ways – not because we have “violated their boundaries.” When we rightly demur from what others ask of us, it’s because we have no obligation to accede to their requests, not because we “have good boundaries.” The people who use the concept of boundaries inadvertently point toward a fact that mental health types overlook or deny: getting better often means becoming a better person. Getting better often requires becoming wiser, more responsive, and more competent in our relationships.

Wouldn’t we be likely to do better work if we just admitted that straightforwardly and studied how to do it in an informed manner, instead of smuggling in moralism through confused ideologies?

Keep Reading By Author Robert "Bob" Fancher, Ph.D.
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