16. Rigid or Enmeshed Boundaries - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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16. Rigid or Enmeshed Boundaries

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Roles Rigidity Repair in Relationships

Roles, Rigidity, Repair, and Renovation in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

In the middle conceptually between the disengaged and enmeshed families is the clear family.  Boundaries are clearly defined and accepted by its members.  The relationship, couple, or family has its own identity, while each member also has a distinct identity.  Boundaries are designed to prompt cooperation among members.  When one member has a problem, he or she can seek the assistance of other members who are usually willing to be helpful.  Privacy is respected.  Parental authority is also respected with children given due respect as well.  Most relationship, couple, or family decisions are reached through a democratic dynamics such as a vote or through consensus.   Unlike the enmeshed or disengaged system, norms are stable and reliable.  There is a set of expectations and rules for children that are adapted when they become teenagers.  Cooperation tends to be a requirement and an operational value in developing and enforcing rules.  "This flexibility of rules tends to help the family to train the children in the decision-making process (Minuchin, 1974; Minuchin et al. 1978).  All home activities are distributed among members according to individual abilities, thus all members know their rights and duties.  This kind of family is expected to breed normal and well adjusted people.  Members of this family type enjoy decision-making and utilize problem-solving skills.  Consequently, the Clear family is able to produce genuine thinking among its members (Minuchin 1974; Minuchin et al. 1978)" (Simadi et al., 2003, page 472-73).

Figure 1: Family Classification ((Simadi et al., 2003, page 471)

The relationship, couple, or family goes through natural stresses that require adapting to new demands and circumstances.  Strength in the relationship, couple, or family depends on partners being able to activate alternative ways of managing when either both internal and external situations require the family to restructure.  The relationship, couple, or family seeks to deal with stress such that continuity is maintained while also allowing for necessary restructuring.  The clear family is most likely to do this.  A couple with such characteristics is likely to adapt itself to its development progression.  The therapist is also not likely to see such a couple since its partners are not as likely to need couples therapy.  Or, the couple's issues promise to be not as severe and/or are more amenable to quick therapeutic intervention.  On the other hand, if solutions that were previously unsuccessful are nevertheless rigidly re-applied, then negative interactions and consequences may result.

During the initial sessions, whenever the therapist inquired about either Michael or Evie would react as if hearing brand new information.  Evie did not know that Michael preferred baseball to football.  Michael did not know that Evie was interested in American colonial curios.  Evie handled the bills and bank accounts.  Michael did not know about or ask about the household financial situation.  Evie did not know what Michael did on his buddy trip each year to the woods.  She was suspicious about the potential debauchery on the trip, but knew she was not to ask.  And, Michael did not tell.  That was his time and his business.  Michael and Evie did not speak to each other very often and were not curious about each other's interests and activities.  The "together time" they spent was watching television together and an occasional child performance to jointly attend.  Even then, they seldom talked, much less actually shared with each other.  Even their infrequent sexual relationships were disconnected- each in his or her own world.  They seemed to be accidental co-passengers on some journey neither was committed to anymore.

The therapist will often find that the current situation of the couple had evolved or devolved over an extended period.  The couple may have been more intimate and functional earlier in the relationship.  Issues may have not arisen or gotten bad enough yet, or mutual attempts to meet needs were adequate… or okay enough in the earlier bloom of love.  However the couple did not adapt while the relationship and demands evolved, as either the relative ineffectiveness of responses and/or the difficulty of the situations intensified.  "Symptomatic behaviour is seen as a maladaptive reaction to changing environmental and developmental requirements, and thus the presence or absence of problems does not define normality" (Vetere, 2001, page 135).  Rigid responses or behaviors tend to be applied over and over despite ineffective results or significant accompanying negative side effects.  The lack of flexibility is a consequence of and/or creates a lack of sensitivity and responsiveness to members' needs.  As a result, an individual or the whole system may feel very disengaged from others.  Boundaries between members are rigid along with a tendency for the relationship, couple, or family unit to be isolated from the extended family and others, such as the neighbors.  Members tend to do things in isolation, independent of others.  They tend not to ask for assistance or share common goals.  Since members live separate and parallel lives despite being in the same household, there may be limited communication.

As a result, there may be little awareness of other members' emotional or psychological needs.  Rules and standards of the relationship, couple, or family are clearly and rigidly established.  Changes are not allowed.  New ideas are not allowed.  There tends to be large gaps between the adults and the children in this system.  The relationship, couple, or family creates isolation similar to that in enmeshed families.  Teens may leave the family to look for security and love absent or unavailable in the family.  Children can show a variety of negative behaviors: school problems, acting out, alcohol or drug use, and psychosomatic symptoms including headaches and stomachaches.  "In these families, research indicates that depression and deprivation of basic needs, such as loyalty, are dominant due to insufficient social interaction.  Additionally, vocational failures were found because children have missed sibling and parent orientations for problem solving and decision making (Benjamin, 1985)" (Simadi et al., 2003, page 472).  The therapist will find him or herself continually offering suggestions or feedback about dealing with problematic behaviors that require the individual or partners to push against rigid boundaries.  Rigid boundaries in a relationship or nuclear may be in response to earlier family-of-origin experiences of enmeshed or overly diffuse boundaries.  Although an individual is a part of a whole- a couple or a family, he or she has a need if not an expectation for privacy.  Family or cultural traditions allow or restrict members' communication and accessibility to one another.  Morris and Blanton (1998) discussion of couples that include a clergy member can apply with many couples or families.  "In terms of intrusiveness, Minuchin (1974) suggested that healthy family functioning can only occur when family boundaries are unambiguous or clear enough for subsystem members to carry out their functions without undue interference.  Lee and Balswick (1989) and Mace and Mace (1980) have indicated that intrusiveness (i.e., lack of privacy, fishbowl, glasshouse) for clergy and their wives is extremely problematic for most clergy families.  The inability to know "who is in" and "who is out" of the family reflects boundary ambiguity that is at best difficult to manage productively.  This intrusiveness may include physical and/or psychological intrusion that may hinder the clergy family's ability to manage and regulate itself or create feelings of being taken advantage of as an individual or family (Lee & Balswick, 1989)" (Morris and Blanton, 1998, page 38)

The relationship, couple, or family with a clergy member stays under scrutiny of the larger system of the congregation.  In the relationship, couple, or family system individual members may be under careful scrutiny as well by extended family and social contacts.  Beyond being constantly examined, the partner or other family members- particularly the parents may also intrude upon a member's privacy, choices, and relationships.  One's life is open to other's commentary and interference.  Individuals are into each other's business.  Each member knows or assumes to know the emotions and thinking of one another.  The therapist may observe a couple where one partner answers questions directed towards the other partner without compunction.  The individual may describe a scenario between the two of them with descriptions of words spoken and thoughts unspoken for the both of them.  If his or her re-telling is contested, the individual will dismiss the partner's rendition of his or her own thoughts.  With little or no privacy, there often is confrontation between individuals or between subsystems- for example, children getting involved with their parents' issues.  Minor issues trigger the experience of being disrespected and resulting conflicts.  Because of inaccurate assumptions about other's feelings and thoughts, communication breaks down which creates more distance between individuals.  A message is given but not responded to, or an unsatisfactory or unreasonable reaction is received.  Healthy boundaries and roles become distorted to keep some semblance of illusionary power.  A parent may ally with a child to gain power against the other parent.  Norms and roles become unpredictable depending on circumstances, thus creating confusion and disorganization.  Individual members are not confident whether others will respect or violate their rights.

Confusion in the relationship, couple, or family can cause members to seek emotional fulfillment outside of the family.  Adolescents especially may seek out validation and respect from others- in particular a teen peer community.  Unfortunately with problematic choices and peers, they may engage in socially maladjusted behavior, as well as having psychosomatic and other health issues.  "Members of enmeshed family demonstrate numerous antisocial behaviors in order to get attention from their family and to satisfy their psychological needs, such as need for love and security (Smadi, 1996).  Moreover, this type of family generates a scapegoat person, an individual who demonstrates some sorts of abnormal behaviors as an attempt to achieve some balance of power among the family members and to take care of psychological needs such as needs for attention, love and support.  The Enmeshed family often has a scapegoat person in order to hang all their problems upon his or her shoulders (Benjamin, 1985; Capalow, 1968)" (Simadi et al., 2003, page 471-72).  In the childless couple, both partners may agree that one partner be designated the scapegoat.  Or the partners may engage in an ongoing battle that the other partner has the real problems and to blame for dysfunction.  It is noteworthy that the alcoholic family system often has a scapegoat role for one of the children to hold in order to take pressure off of the dysfunctionality of the alcoholic and spouse.  Alcoholic and other similar family systems have boundaries, roles, and communication patterns that are characteristically dysfunctional.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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