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Boundary Dissolution

Dimensions Of Boundary Dissolution

Enmeshment. At the extreme of boundary dissolution is enmeshment, a lack of acknowledgement of the separateness between the self and other. Minuchin (1974) described the enmeshed family as one in which family members are overly involved with and reactive to one another, such that "a sneeze brings on a flurry of handkerchief offers." On the positive side, such families may provide feelings of mutuality, belonging, and emotional support. However, at the extreme, enmeshment interferes with the child's development of autonomy and individual agency. Changes in one family member quickly reverberate throughout the entire family system and may be perceived as threats to the family togetherness. For example, adolescence may precipitate a crisis when a young person begins to assert his or her own independence, such as by expressing the desire to go away for college (Kerig, in press-a).

In psychodynamic theory enmeshment is the initial state of being from which all children must wrest their sense of individual selfhood. According to separation-individual theory (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 1975), infants originally experience themselves as part of a symbiotic relationship with their mothers. Over the course of infant development, inevitable failures in perfect empathy and wish-fulfillment help children to recognize that their mother is a separate individual with her own thoughts and feelings. However, in pathological development, emotionally deprived mothers may feel threatened by the infant's emergent sense of individuality and act in ways so as to promote and prolong this sense of parent-infant oneness. The consequences to the child can be severe, interfering with the ability to forge and assert a separate sense of identity. For example, enmeshment in the parent-child relationship is believed to be central to the development of borderline personality disorder, a syndrome characterized by the inability to preserve a cohesive sense of self and to maintain emotional boundaries between the self and other (Pine 1979). At a lesser extreme, childhood enmeshment predicts young adults' attachment insecurity and preoccupation with their families of origin (Allen and Hauser 1996).

Intrusiveness. Intrusiveness, also termed psychological control, is characterized by overly controlling and coercive parenting that intrudes into the child's thoughts and emotions and is not respectful of the autonomy of the child (Barber 1996). Whereas enmeshment is characterized by a seamless equality ("we feel alike"), the intrusive relationship is a hierarchical one in which the parent attempts to direct the child's inner life ("you feel as I say"). Psychological control may be carried out in ways that are more subtle than overt behavioral control. Rather than telling the child directly what to do or think, the parent may use indirect hints and respond with guilt induction or withdrawal of love if the child refuses to comply. In short, a psychologically controlling parent strives to manipulate the child's thoughts and feelings in such a way that the child's psyche will conform to the parent's wishes. Longitudinal data show that infants of intrusive mothers later demonstrate problems in academic, social, behavioral, and emotional adjustment in first and second grades (Egeland, Pianta, and O'Brien 1993). Psychological control also is predictive of anxiety and depression in children (see Barber 2002) and of delinquency, particularly in African-American youth (Walker-Barnes and Mason 2001).

Role-reversal. Role-reversal, also termed parentification, refers to a dynamic in which parents turn to children for emotional support (Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark 1973; Jurkovic 1997). Although learning to be responsive and empathic to others' needs is a healthy part of child development, parentification involves an exploitative relationship in which the parents' expectations exceed the child's capacities, the parent ignores the child's developmental needs, or the parent expects nurturance but does not give it reciprocally (Chase 1999). A parent engaged in role-reversal may be ostensibly warm and solicitous to the child, but the relationship is not a truly supportive one because the parents' emotional needs are being met at the expense of the child's. Further, children are often unable to meet these developmentally inappropriate expectations, which may lead to frustration, disappointment, and even anger (Zeanah and Klitzke 1991). In fact, parents' inappropriate expectations for children, such that they provide nurturing to their parents, are a key predictor of child maltreatment (Azar 1997).

Research shows that, over the course of childhood, young children who fulfill their parents' need for intimacy have difficulty regulating their behavior and emotions (Carlson, Jacobvitz, and Sroufe 1995) and demonstrate a pseudomature, emotionally constricted interpersonal style ( Johnston 1990). In the longer term, childhood role reversal is associated with difficulties in young adults' ability to individuate from their families (Fullinwider-Bush and Jacobvitz 1993) and adjust to college (Chase, Deming, and Wells 1998). Parent-child role reversal also is associated with depression, low-self esteem, anxiety (Jacobvitz and Bush 1996), and eating disorders (Rowa, Kerig, and Geller 2001) in young women. Due to cultural expectations that associate caregiving with the feminine role, daughters may be particularly vulnerable to being pulled into the role of "mother's little helper" (Brody 1996; Chodorow 1978). Consistent with family systems theory (Minuchin 1974), boundary violations also are more likely to occur when the marital relationship is an unhappy one and the parent turns to the child for fulfillment of unmet emotional needs (Fish, Belsky, and Youngblade 1991; Jacobvitz and Bush 1996).

Role-reversal may take different forms, depending on the role the child is asked to play. Parents might behave in a child-like way, turning to the child to act as a parenting figure, termed parentification or child-as-parent (Walsh 1979; Goglia et al. 1992); or they may relate to the child as a peer, confidante, or friend (Brown and Kerig 1998), which might be termed adultification or child-as-peer. Although providing a parent with friendship, emotional intimacy, and companionship ultimately interferes with the child's individuation and social development outside the home, the negative implications of a peer-like parent-child relationship may be less severe than a complete reversal of roles in which the parent relinquishes all caregiving responsibilities. Role reversal can also occur between adults, such as when an adult turns to the spouse to act as a parent, seeking guidance and care instead of a mutually autonomous relationship, termed spouse-as-parent (Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark 1973; Chase 1999). Another form of role reversal occurs when the parent behaves in a seductive manner toward the child, placing the child not in the role of parent or peer, but of romantic partner.

Spousification. Of particular concern to Minuchin (1974) was the blurring of the boundary between the marital and child subsystem, which can lead children to become inappropriately involved in their parents' marital problems. This may take the form of a compensatory closeness between an unhappily married parent and a child of the other sex, termed spousification (Sroufe and Ward 1980) or child-as-mate (Walsh 1979; Goglia et al. 1992). Although spousification is often considered to be a form of role-reversal, it is distinguished by the fact that the parent is seeking a special kind of intimacy—perhaps even including sexual gratification (Jacobvitz, Riggs, and Johnson 1999). For example, Sroufe and colleagues (1985) found that emotionally troubled mothers, many of whom were survivors of incest, engaged in seductive behaviors with their young sons while responding in a hostile way toward daughters. However, the relationship between spousification and gender may be more complex. When marital conflict spills over onto parent-child relationships it also may take a hostile form, termed negative spousification or spillover (Kerig, Cowan, and Cowan 1993). Spillover of marital tensions may cause a parent to view a child in the same negative terms as the spouse, thus blurring the boundaries between them (e.g., "You sound just like your father"; "You're your mother's daughter, aren't you?") (Kerig, in press-b). Research has shown that maternal stress and depression increase the risk of negative spousification that, in turn, predicts anxiety and depression in school-age children (Brown and Kerig 1998).

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsBoundary Dissolution - Dimensions Of Boundary Dissolution, Is Boundary Dissolution A Whole-family Or Dyadic Phenomenon?, Is Boundary Dissolution A Culturally Bounded Phenomenon?