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Boundary Ambiguity

Helping Families Manage Boundary Ambiguity

Strategies for helping stressed families may be more effective if the initial focus is on clarifying the perception of who is in and who is out of the family. Because family members of different ages and genders will often vary in how they interpret an unclear loss, a primary goal might be to help a family achieve some degree of agreement in their definition of the situation (Boss 1999).

As this redefinition and reorganization of the family occurs, helpers may find the use of appropriate rituals—borrowed from others or created by the family members themselves—to be a powerful expression of both the ambiguity itself and the resolution of that ambiguity. Rituals can help families make the transition to their new identity even as they honor the missing member(s). The ultimate goal for families is to find some way to change even though the ambiguity of their situation might remain.

Every family will at some point face a situation that represents an irrevocable change in the family's structure and interaction. Adapting to these changes in the family system is an important coping strategy for all families and their members. "Whether these changes result in relief or sadness, they represent the loss of something irretrievable. Families cannot go back to the way things were. Human development brings inevitable change; hence family boundaries also change. The perception of who is in and who is out must match those changes if family boundaries are to be maintained." (Boss 2002, p. 106)


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Boss, P. (1977). "A Clarification of the Concept of Psychological Father Presence in Families Experiencing Ambiguity of Boundary." Journal of Marriage and the Family 39:141–151.

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Boss, P. (1993). "The Reconstruction of Family Life with Alzheimer's Disease: Generating Theory to Lower Family Stress from Ambiguous Loss." In Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach, ed. P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R. Schumm, and S. K. Steinmetz. New York: Plenum Press.

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Boss, P. (2002). Family Stress Management: A Contextual Approach, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Boss, P., and Greenberg, J. (1984). "Family Boundary Ambiguity: A New Variable in Family Stress Theory." Family Process 23(4):535–546.

Boss, P.; Pearce McCall, D.; and Greenberg, J. (1987). "Normative Loss in Mid-Life Families: Rural, Urban, and Gender Differences." Family Relations 36(4):437–443.

Fravel, D. L.; McRoy, R. G.; and Grotevant, H. D. (2000) "Birthmother Perceptions of the Psychologically Present Adopted Child: Adoption Openness and Boundary Ambiguity." Family Relations 49:425–433.

Kaplan, L., and Boss, P. (1999). "Depressive Symptoms among Spousal Caregivers of Institutionalized Mates with Alzheimer's: Boundary Ambiguity and Mastery as Predictors." Family Process 38(1):85–103.

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