Coping With Boundary Ambiguity: Two Approaches, Cultural Differences In The Experience Of Boundary Ambiguity, Helping Families Manage Boundary Ambiguity
On September 11, 2001, four commercial airliners were deliberately crashed—two into the World Trade Center in New York City, one into the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and one into a field in Pennsylvania—and more than 4,000 families from over eighty countries were simultaneously plunged into uncertainty. Relatively few of these families knew with certainty whether their loved ones on the planes or in the buildings were dead or alive; even those who did know had no information about why or how this tragedy had happened. These families—and, to a lesser degree, millions of eyewitnesses around the world—began an unprecedented journey of meaning-making characterized in great measure by a concept known as boundary ambiguity.
Every family, at many points in the life-cycle, must deal with changes in its boundaries: the symbolic markers between itself and its environment and among its members. Exits and entries are inevitable. Some are expected: Children are born into the family, adolescents leave for college or military service or just "their own place," couples marry, aging members die. Others are unpredictable and sometimes shocking: An aging parent demonstrates signs of dementia, a child is kidnapped, infertility changes a couple's dreams for their family, a family emigrates from their war-torn country with few resources or options. At any transition point, normative or nonnormative, a family must renegotiate its internal and external boundaries. These exits and entries constitute a challenge to the family's primary task of boundary maintenance and create stress for the family.
Since the 1940s, sociologists and family researchers have studied the ways families experience and manage stress. Boundary ambiguity has become a valuable concept in understanding why even healthy families sometimes struggle to do this well. Researcher and family therapist Pauline Boss defines boundary ambiguity as a state, resulting from either nonnormative or normative stressor events, in which family members are uncertain about who is in the family and who is out, or about who is performing which roles and tasks within the family system (Boss 1977, 1987, 2002). In some stressful situations, the family cannot obtain the facts surrounding the troubling event. This degree of uncertainty—Is a missing member dead or alive? What will the course of a terminal illness be?—prevents the family from defining the situation clearly enough to know how to respond to it (Boss 1993).
In other stressful situations, the facts are available to the family but the members ignore, deny, or distort those facts. Therapists, researchers, and other outside observers may believe they are able to objectively identify who is in the family and in what capacity, but "the family's perception of the event and the meaning they give it comprise the critical variable in determining family membership and, therefore, the existence and degree of boundary ambiguity" (Boss 1987, p. 709, emphasis in the original). In other words, the discrepancy between an observer's perception and the family's perception cannot be resolved by emphasizing facts, as long as the family assigns a different meaning to those facts.
Definitions of boundaries in the family are further complicated by any incongruence between a family's perception of a member's physical presence or absence and his or her psychological presence or absence. One may not be synonymous with the other. Adoption researcher Debra Fravel and her colleagues (2000) describe physical presence as the literal, bodily existence of a person in the family and psychological presence as the symbolic existence of that person in the hearts and minds of family members in a way that affects their emotions, thoughts, and sense of identity as individuals and as a family. In cases of a soldier missing in action or of a kidnapped child, for example, remaining family members may be emotionally preoccupied with the missing member and have a strong sense that he or she is still part of the family, still influences decisions, still deserves loyalty. The person is physically absent but psychologically present. A different discrepancy is present when a member has a disease such as Alzheimer's disease or is preoccupied with work problems. The member is physically present but psychologically absent. Both kinds of incongruence create boundary ambiguity and challenge the family's ability to manage the stressful event that resulted in the incongruence.
The basic premise is that a system needs to be sure of its components, that is, who is inside system boundaries physically and psychologically, and who is outside, physically and psychologically. Furthermore, that knowledge must be based on congruence between reality and perceptions. It is suggested that a major consequence of an ambiguous system, that is, a system that is not sure of its components, is that systemic communication, feedback and subsequent adjustment over time are curtailed. The system cannot subsequently adapt to the stress of inevitable developmental changes throughout the family life cycle nor to stress from equally inevitable unpredicted crises. (Boss 1977, p. 142).
Boundary ambiguity as a variable in family stress research has been studied in families of soldiers missing in action; families of corporate executives; families launching adolescents; couples dealing with infertility; elderly widows; families with kidnapped children; clergy families; farm families transferring farm ownership; divorced and remarried families; adoptive families, adopted children, and birthmothers; and families providing care to members with Alzheimer's disease. Some of these families are managing relatively normative stressors; others are faced with unexpected, unusual life circumstances. In some of these situations, members' physical absence is incongruent with their psychological presence; in others, their physical presence is incongruent with their psychological absence. Nevertheless, in all, the perceptions of the remaining family members are the critical factor in whether the family is able to define and maintain the boundaries of the family and thus manage the stress more effectively.
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