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Boundaries and Dysfunctional Family Systems

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

"I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again."

- from "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost

Another month, and another essay. After a two month break during which I seem to have facilitated a spirited discussion concerning the merits and failures of Alcoholics Anonymous, I'm now returning to my ongoing essay series concerning the technical contributions of various schools of psychotherapy to the psychotherapy process. I covered psychodynamic, behavioral and cognitive-behavioral contributions in past months, and also the importance of non-technical aspects of psychotherapy. According to my plan for how all of this gets laid out there are two more key therapy schools to cover, these being the Family Systems and Humanist schools. Today's essay concerns the important contribution of the Family Systems school.

an open gate looking onto a fieldFamily Systems practitioners are the ecologists in my scheme for describing the various schools (Philosophers, Engineers, Ecologists and Gnostics: Four Approaches to Psychotherapy). Accordingly, we should start by talking about what it means to be ecological. To be ecological means to understand that creatures that appear to be independent beings aren't really independent at all, but rather are fundamentally interdependent on one another and on their shared environment for their continued survival. The term originated within the field of Biology when the study of living systems such as oceans, forests and prairies revealed how inseparably interlinked many species are. A simple and common example illustrates. Flowers require bees to pollinate for them so that they can reproduce, while bees require flower pollen for food, or whatever it is that they do with pollen. While a bee and a flower can be said to exist independently of one another, they do not occur that way in nature, and neither might survive for long if indefinitely deprived of the other. Though individual species are distinct in form, they exist in context of a "whole cloth" community of species no part of which can be unraveled without unraveling the rest. 

Though individual clinicians have grasped the intrinsically social and ecological nature of identity since the early days of therapy (e.g., Freud's idea of Transference, and contributions of lesser known but nevertheless important psychodynamic clinicians such as Harry Stack Sullivan), it was not until the 1950s and 60s that an organized and fully ecological vision of psychotherapy took shape in the form of what is today called Family Systems theory. In this very social vision of therapy, groups of people operating as units are the proper client to which therapists must address their efforts. Individuals exist, but problems they experience are not individual but rather are social in nature. Social problems can only be comprehended when viewed in their social context. Not surprisingly, the approach was pioneered by clinicians working with families and couples, and has been championed by the Social Work profession.

Numerous authors contributed to the development of the Family Systems perspective, including influential clinicians such as Virginia Satir, Murray Bowen, Jay Haley and Salvador Minuchin. In today's essay, I want to focus on one important theoretical contribution in particular, made I believe by Dr. Minuchin, which is the idea of boundaries, because, in my humble opinion, if you understand about boundaries as they exist in social groups, you have understood the core vision of the Family Systems perspective, and have access to a tremendous conceptual tool useful for understanding how to help patients (or yourself).

A boundary is a barrier; something that separates two things. Walls, fences and cell membranes are examples of physical boundaries. Psychological boundaries can be said to exist too, even though such boundaries have no physical reality. Psychological boundaries are constructed of ideas, perceptions, beliefs and understandings that enable people to define not only their social group memberships, but also their own self-concepts and identities. Such boundaries are the basis by which people distinguish between "We" or "I" (group members; insiders; part of "Us") and "Other" (outsiders and examples of what is "not-self"). Each person can be said to have a psychological identity boundary around themselves by which they distinguish themselves from other people. Like other boundaries, this identity boundary both separates people and also defines how they are linked together. This is to say that the act of drawing the boundary itself provides the basis for saying that one person is separate from another psychologically, but does so only by drawing a distinction between those two people, which implies a relationship, never the less. Self cannot exist without also "Not-self" existing, just as figure cannot exist without ground against which to contrast. Identity necessarily includes social relationships which are built into the self to varying degrees.

The member/non-member distinction that is afforded by drawing an identity boundary applies not only to individuals, but also to social groups. Boundaries are also drawn around committed couples, separating them from other people, and in the process making two individuals into an "Us". You could say that the commitment that two people share to be a couple is exactly the boundary they draw around themselves itself. Again, there is no physical reality to the boundary, but it is there nevertheless. Other sorts of social groups (co-workers, board members, etc.) are similarly bounded as well, making them into a cohesive group through the process of drawing a distinction between what they do together and what other people do.

Social groups of any size are seldom uniform things. Rather, there are frequently sub-groups that form within larger groups that have special status and power within the group as a whole. The prototype for this sort of power hierarchy is the nuclear family (e.g., parents with children). Parents function as a powerful and bounded subgroup within the larger group known as the family. Younger children function as a subgroup as well, but one with less power than parents have.

Other examples of common power heirarchies include the workplace, where almost always, an executive sub-group has power over a worker sub-group, and government, where a similar sort of executive sub-group governs a sub-group of citizens. These sort of hierarchies, unevenly sharing power amongst subgroups within larger social groupings is a normal condition.

I said that in addition to distinguishing people from one another that boundaries also help to relate people as well. There is a literal sense in which this is true, having to do with how boundaries function to regulate communications between people. A boundary around parents, for example, is what enables parents to have a private life separate from their children. Parents share confidences and sexual intimacy with one another, secure and trusting in the knowledge that such confidences and intimacies will remain private and not shared with outsiders (here including both "outside" outsiders such as true strangers, and "inside" outsiders (e.g., family members who are not parents, such as children). Despite there being a distinct class of information which stays within the boundary that parents draw around themselves, there is also an even larger class of information that parents are free to share with children. Parents do share their love with their children, for instance, talking to children freely about how they are valued, and providing guidance and discipline to help those children learn how to become responsible healthy adults (at least that is ideally how it goes). So boundaries function to keep some information private, while allowing other information to pass through unimpeded They are thus semi-permeable filters, rather than absolute brick walls.

Note again that boundaries have no physical reality, but exist nevertheless, being implicit in how people relate to one another. The boundary between two parents is built of mutual commitment and trust that neither parent will choose to share private information or betray a confidence with non-members of their "group of two" (e.g., their private committed relationship).

Having covered the preliminaries, we can start to get to the meat of why knowing about boundaries is important for effective therapy. There are ideal shapes that boundaries should have, and ideal filtering capabilities too. Psychological problems are very likely to occur when boundaries get bent far out of their ideal shape or cease to filter information properly.

Such an abstract set of statements as my last paragraph contains cries out for a concrete example, so here is one. Ideally, a family system (consisting of parents and children) will have a particular shape that works to help insure the mental and emotional health of its members. Each parent needs to be able to trust the other parent and feel secure in their mutual bond. The parents need to identify themselves as parents and function together to coordinate their children's upbringing. Parents need to keep some information away from children (such as information about their sexual relationship, or worrisome information such as the state of family finances, etc.), but be sure to communicate other information clearly (such as their love for their children). Children ideally need to be allowed an age-appropriate amount of autonomy, but not allowed to have so much autonomy that they feel neglected or not also reigned in when that is necessary. Most families decidedly don't manage to do all of this perfectly, but many do manage to pull off enough of these goals to make it work.

Then there are the families where there are significantly non-ideal and problematic boundaries. The parents who fail to nurture their children, or who nurture them so much that the children feel smothered. The parents who do not manage to keep their private business private; who sexualize their children before they are ready for that information, or who recruit children into adult confidant roles and confide their loneliness or anger towards the other spouse. The parents who divorce ungracefully and continue to fight after their divorce is complete, using their children as messengers. There are many examples of how boundary problems within families can create significant pain for family participants.

You already most likely know the term used to describe these families whose boundaries are seriously non-ideal. They are called "Dysfunctional Families". That popular term comes out of the Family Systems literature.

Enmeshment and Detachment

I said above that boundaries have an ideal shape, and an ideal information filtering ability, but really, if you think about it, a boundary's shape is really a function of its ability to filter information properly. A functional boundary (that works to make family members healthy and happy by keeping information appropriately hidden or available) will have a correct and more or less ideal shape. When the boundary doesn't filter properly (when all information passes through, or no information passes through), it will have a wrong shape too.

Any given group's (or individual's or sub-group's) defining boundary can be evaluated based on how well and how situation-appropriately it filters information. Some information needs to be kept private, while other information needs to be shared. Deciding what to share and what to keep private is a moving target and a balancing act, however. It is easy to inadvertently share something you're not supposed to share, or to withhold something that would be better to share. Good judgment is called for so that extremes of over-sharing, or under-sharing do not occur. Boundaries that chronically fail to keep people separated enough are typically described as "enmeshed", while boundaries that fail to keep people related enough are described as "detached". As a general rule, it is not a good thing to be too enmeshed or too detached. Family systems that can be characterized by consistently enmeshed or detached subsystems are likely to be Dysfunctional Families in the truest sense of that phrase.

Some examples of dysfunctional family systems will help to illustrate how over-enmeshment and over-detachment function and why it is problematic. Let's consider a common sort of scenario where two married partners with a child have marital problems. Perhaps one of the partners has had one or more sexual or emotional affairs outside the marriage, and this has not been disclosed to the other partner who only knows that something is wrong. Here is an example of a relationship boundary that has become overly detached, meaning that the boundary around the couple is failing to continue to distinguish them as a couple; the boundary's filter closes down, important information is not shared, and appropriate privacy is not being maintained. Early on, the failure is unilateral, occurring in the mind of the straying partner more so than in the mind of the faithful partner, but since it takes two people to have a relationship, if one partner fails, the relationship ultimately must fail too.

Now, consider that the couple divorces and splits custody of their child. The partner who has been left is perhaps bitter, angry and humiliated about the experience, and feels a great internal pressure to have someone to vent this emotion towards. If that parent is able to maintain a healthy boundary as a parent, some other outlet other than the child will be chosen and the child will be spared that role of "shoulder to cry upon". If the parent is overwhelmed and unable to keep the boundary between parent and child intact, then the child may be recruited as a confidant and exposed to a world of pain that he or she is not ready to process. This would be an example of enmeshment, where family members that should, for their own health, retain separate roles become instead fused together inappropriately and too much information is shared.

Now, consider a further twist. Let's say that the two parents cease to want to talk to each other, and start to do their communicating through their child. Every time the child transfers to a parent's house, he or she is told to tell the other parent a bunch of information. Even worse, each parent may start putting the other parent down in front of the child, in the process, loading the child up with conflicting duties and emotions. The child may even be inappropriately asked to choose one parent over the other. This sort of communication through a child is an example of Triangulation, which is a common shape suggesting unhealthy boundaries are present. In this scenario, the child's emotional life is hijacked and invaded by his or her parent's unhealthy agendas, and the child suffers as a result.

The Psychodynamic school of thought has a concept that makes sense to talk about here, known as "Introjection". Introjection can be said to be occurring when someone indoctrinates another person in a forceful or dogmatic manner, not allowing for any possibility of that other person choosing or not choosing to believe what is taught. Introjection is an ultimate sort of boundary invasion. When someone has been introjected, it is like they have been colonized by an invading army. The person's "native" ideas are suppressed in favor of the introjected ideas. Introjected people are not always aware that they have been introjected, especially when this occurs at a young age. See my essay on Foreclosed Identities for how this works.

So – this is more or less how psychological boundary problems occur and what they might look like. Therapists who are boundary-aware (e.g., Family Systems trained therapists like Marriage and Family Therapists or MFTs and many Social Workers) will look for boundary problems as they evaluate a family or group they are working with. Their therapy will consist of an active effort to help reconfigure the family system so that boundary problems are resolved and restored to a more ideal shape.

How can a normal person learn to identify when they are experiencing boundary problems within the groups and family systems they are a part of? There are several tell-tale signs you can look for. One is that you feel invaded or somehow trampled or disregarded by the actions of another person you're in a relationship with (no matter how transient or informal that relationship might be). If this is the case, you might do well to seek out Assertiveness Training assistance, as this sort of thing will help you re-establish the intactness of the boundary you draw around yourself.

Another way to become aware of boundary problems is to look for points of unreasonable rigidity within your relationships. Healthy relationships have a certain amount of flex to them; they can bend a little bit without breaking. Enmeshed relationships or entrenched and detached relationships are generally more rigid in nature. Overly enmeshed people will talk about duty and honor as though they are defined completely by these things (which they may well be). They will be unwilling to compromise their duty to others even when it can be demonstrated logically and rationally to them that their loyalty is misplaced or exaggerated. Overly detached people will be unwilling to revisit relationships they have written off even when there is evidence that the underlying conditions that necessitated detachment in the first place have been addressed.

Please don't get the idea that all enmeshment or detachment is bad for you. For example, it is a healthy thing to detach yourself from some terminally troubled relationships and to never reconsider returning to them. This is definitely the case when you are in an abusive relationship. It may also be the case when you are in a relationship with a seriously personality disordered person such as a Narcissist.

What is your experience? Many people are proud to say that they have escaped "dysfunctional families". Are you one of them? Are you perhaps in one of them now? How aware are you of your own boundaries and those of the family and social groups you are a part of? How have your efforts to maintain your own boundaries helped you to cope or to grow as a person. How have your experiences with inappropriate family boundaries affected you? In general, what are your thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome, and being able to read through thoughtful comments helps make an essay such as this one that much more interesting.