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A visual guide to interpersonal boundaries


(for additional information, see "Couples and interpersonal boundaries")

Individual and shared boundaries Disconnected boundaries Overstepping boundaries Merged boundaries Engulfing boundaries

Sometimes it easier to understand a problem when you see it. Boundaries can be a vague, difficult to understand notion because they can be conceptual as well as concrete. Some boundaries are easy to understand, such as when someone opens your mail without consulting you. Others are almost intangible, for example, when one partner gives up their mood to match their partner's mood. Boundaries are a very common issue to arise in marriage counseling

Boundaries then, can be seen in multiple dimensions. One dimension is how separate and distinct you are with others. You can think of this as a self boundary. Another is how separate and distinct you are with different parts of your self. For example, are you completely present in the 'here and now' or do you find yourself reliving the past, projecting into the future or slipping off into fantasy? You can think of this as an internal boundary. A third boundary is how separate and distinct your nuclear family is from your extended family and friends. For example, do either set of parents act presumptuously, without consulting you, such as dictating the location and timing of holiday plans? You can think of this as a family boundary.

If you are in therapy, it is especially important that your therapist have appropriate interpersonal boundaries. The therapist should be clear about the fact that you are there to resolve your conflicts and meet your needs. This is not always the case. A study by Ernest Hartmann found that a number of therapists scored "extremely thin" on his Boundary questionnaire (Hartmann, 1997). A therapist who talks for most of the session or who reveals excessive information about themselves or others may have issues with "thin boundaries." Below are some boundary diagrams. See which one(s) best fit your relationships. Keep in mind that your boundaries are not fixed. Boundaries can and do shift, sometimes frequently.

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Good interpersonal boundaries
form a strong base for any relationship.

Five major interpersonal boundary types




Individual and shared boundaries
 Individual and shared boundary


Disconnected boundaries
 Disconnected boundary type


Overstepping boundaries
 Overstepping boundaries


Merged boundaries
 Merged boundaries


Engulfing boundaries
 Engulfing boundaries

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Individual and shared boundaries


Individuals in this type of relationship can respectfully state their preferences and set limits without any accompanying guilt. While each individual is conscious of their preferences, they remain flexible and can negotiate compromises with another person.


Disconnected boundaries


Individuals in this type of relationship tend to set rigid type boundaries and tend to emphasize self sufficiency. They will tend to think in somewhat abstract, logical terms and may have trouble expressing feelings.


Overstepping boundaries


Individuals differ in this type of relationship. One person prefers to be more in control in the relationship. The other person will sometimes just go along, so as not to cause any trouble or "make waves." The person who tends to go along might set boundaries by hinting, implying or by agreeing but then not following through. The individual who tends more toward control may feel entitled and may set boundaries in a demanding or harsh way. A reasonable amount of individuality can be maintained in this type of boundary relationship.

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Merged boundaries


Individuals here may find the notion of boundaries a bit abstract or hard to comprehend. An example, from the book Boundaries in Marriage:

quote marks
She did not experience herself as a free agent. It never occurred to her that she had the freedom to respond, to make choices, to limit the ways his behavior affected her. (p. 23)

This type of boundary is where the lines of individuality are blurred on a consistent basis.


Engulfing boundaries


The individuals in this type of relationship are very different and yet have similarities. The engulfing individual is driven by a sense of unworthiness and a deep fear of abandonment. To manage those feelings, this individual will act as though theirs is the only opinion that counts. The engulfed individual is driven by feelings of unworthiness and a fear of abandonment. But instead of controlling, this individual yields on almost everything.

The fear of engulfment can prevent some individuals from entering into or staying in relationships. An example of this can be found in Boundaries and Boundary Violations in Psychoanalysis (emphasis mine):

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[...] her biggest fear in life was not loneliness but chaos, the dissolution of all boundaries. In her interpersonal relations, her usual defense after a real or fantasized hurt was to distance herself [...]. A fantasy she had nurtured for several years was to emigrate to a distant and sparsely populated country, like Australia. No one would know her there, and she could live alone at the edge of a forgotten little suburb, taking care of her garden. (pp. 26-7)

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Intergenerational Boundaries


Boundary styles are formed in childhood and mainly within the within the context of the family of origin. Using the boundary types shown above, you can examine your family of origin's boundaries. Language is an important indicator of what boundary style a family might exhibit. One person described his father as "my right arm," a vivid description of the merged boundary type. One mother had a long list of unreasonable demands that she placed on her children, stating "you're a part of me!" illustrating an engulfing boundary style.

Marital and family relationships should encourage the growth of all the individuals. It should be based of freely given consent and agreement. The use of guilt, merging and smothering demands of sacrifice are inconsistent with healthy human relationships.

To Illustrate



David Schnarch conceptualizes boundaries using the term "differentiation. " In this passage from the book Passionate Marriage he illustrates many of the boundary types. See if you can identify them:

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People screaming, "I got to be me!" "Don't fence me in!" and "I need space!" are not highly differentiated. Just the opposite. They are fearful of "disappearing" in a relationship and do things to avoid their partner's emotional engulfment. Some create distance; others keep their relationship in constant upheaval. Declaring your boundaries is an important early step in the differentiation process, but it's done in the context of staying in relationship (that is, close proximity and restricted space). This is quite different from poorly differentiated people who attempt to always "keep the door open" and who bolt as increasing importance of the relationship makes them feel like they're being locked up. The process of holding onto your sense of self in an intense emotional relationship is what develops your differentiation. (p. 67)

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References

Cloud H., Townsend J. (1999). Boundaries in Marriage. Michigan: Zondervan.

Hartmann E. (1997). The concept of boundaries in counselling and psychotherapy. Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 25(2), pp. 147-162.

Martin C, Gabbard G., Lester E., Gabbard, G. (1995). Boundaries and Boundary Violations in Psychoanalysis. Virginia: American Psychiatric Publishing Inc.

Schnarch D. (1997). The Passionate Marriage. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Page last modified: November 20, 2012