2 minute read

Boundary Ambiguity

Coping With Boundary Ambiguity: Two Approaches

The family gamble. When boundary ambiguity is created by a lack of clear facts about the event, some families resolve the ambiguity by arbitrarily deciding on a perception of the event that makes the most sense given the available information. Boss refers to this as the family gamble (1987, 2002). Indeed, it does lower the degree of boundary ambiguity, but only as long as the chosen perception is not threatened by new information. For example, a family may decide, based on limited medical information, that a member in a coma is not going to wake up. This decision lowers the ambiguity and allows the family to reorganize their boundaries, but if a nurse reports that the member showed some signs of regaining consciousness, the ambiguity will likely rise. Even though the new information is positive, it again has a disorganizing influence on the family boundaries. Although this constant renegotiation of family membership and interaction is stressful—from high ambiguity to low and back again over time—Boss's research suggests that, "despite the uncertainty of their decision . . . a family is always better off making an educated guess about the status of their loss rather than continuing indefinitely in limbo" (1999, p. 94). Long-term, chronic ambiguity is almost impossible for even healthy families to tolerate.


Denial. Related to the family gamble is the place of denial in managing boundary ambiguity. Families may refuse to acknowledge a physical reality or the facts about a stressor event. Although denial is often labeled as an unhealthy response, it actually may be either functional or dysfunctional in dealing with boundary ambiguity. Particularly in the early stages of a stressful event, a cognitive decision to deny a negative outcome may allow a family to maintain morale while they wait for further evidence. In the wake of the September 11 tragedy, for example, relatives of possible victims who were interviewed by reporters consistently used the phrase, "Till we know for sure. . . ." One woman said, "Even if there are only two more hours of this hope, I'll take those two hours."

As the event unfolds, however, or if the situation remains ambiguous over a long period of time, denial becomes increasingly dysfunctional as a means of coping with the stress, because it becomes a barrier to reorganizing the family structure and interaction. The family instead defends itself against feeling the emotion of the possible negative reality.

Other families, in a kind of reverse denial, also defend against experiencing the painful loss of a member by prematurely closing out the one whose membership in the family is ambiguous. A parent with a terminal illness, for example, might be excluded from his or her former decision-making role; perhaps other family members stop confiding in him or her about emotional or relational concerns. Both extremes of denial, although understandable in their attempts to reduce the pain of the loss inherent in the boundary ambiguity, serve to increase the family's dysfunction.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsBoundary Ambiguity - Coping With Boundary Ambiguity: Two Approaches, Cultural Differences In The Experience Of Boundary Ambiguity, Helping Families Manage Boundary Ambiguity