Boundary Basics in the Family Business

What Are Boundaries?
Mental structures that separate the parts of our minds from each other and also distinguish our minds from other people’s minds.
Psychologically as well as physically, they are where I end and you begin. Interpersonal boundaries – the ones between people – are the building blocks of all human relationships. They expand, change and develop as we do.

What Do They Do?

Boundaries make it possible for us to feel emotionally close and connected to people, even intimately, and still be autonomous, independent individuals.  They are the foundation of attachment and separation.

How Do They Function in Families?

Optimally, they keep the family unit together while still allowing the individual members of the family to develop as autonomous, independent people.  The marriage and sibling boundaries within the family function in much the same way as those between spouses and among siblings.  As the family grows, the number of these “sub” boundaries also grows, encompassing in-laws (and ex-laws) and their children and families.

How Do Family Boundaries “Dys-Function?”

In families, attachment and separation are expressed as fusion and differentiation. They are two ends of a continuum, and every family has a boundary style that reflects where on that continuum it is, from so enmeshed  that emotional separation and autonomy is impossible to achieve for its members or so distant, disconnected and separate that only blood ties and empty rituals identify them as a unit.

In overly enmeshed or fused families, boundaries are so weak that no one feels entitled to his or her own thoughts, feelings or decisions. One person usually speaks for everyone. No one’s privacy is respected. Ambitions to grow or go beyond the family are discouraged and seen as disloyal.

At the other extreme, no shared dreams, hopes, or even values unite the family as a unit.  Individual members do not communicate or touch each other emotionally. There’s little sense of belonging. Emotions are denied. Appearances are important. Boundaries are rigidly enforced outside the family, often to cover up family secrets like alcoholism or sexual abuse.



Where Do Family Boundaries Come From?
They’re shaped by interactions between parents and children and among siblings and also by Family Rules.

What Are Family Rules?

Family Rules are transmitted explicitly and implicitly. They influence our ideas and behavior, how power is distributed, what kind of communication is encouraged, and who speaks for the family as well as who thinks for it or feels for it.
Family rules reflect a family’s values, beliefs, roles, obligations, identifications and expectations. They are constituted by gender, culture, generation, education, class, religion and ethnicity – our social environment.

How Flexible Are Family Boundaries?

As adults we tend to seek out partners whose level of fusion and differentiation is the same as our own; that is, if your family’s boundaries were enmeshed or overly rigid and distant, chances are they were in your spouse’s family as well and they will tend to be that way in the family you create together unless you actively and intentionally interrupt the process by which family boundary style is replicated in succeeding generations.

One typical scenario is attempting to create an entirely different kind of family boundary in what’s known as “reaction formation.” This represses unconscious painful experiences in conscious awareness with their opposite, but the repressed emotion, now felt as sadness or anger, always threatens to break through and be enacted in the current family relationship. famifamily dysfuiBeing conscious and aware of your family boundary style and how it operates in your own family and in your family business is the first step.

By janeellen

Jane Adams PHD Social Psychologist