The 3 Types of Boundaries from Structural Family Therapy
Boundaries are the invisible forces that shape our interactions. They tell us what is okay, what is not okay, and under what circumstances.
They also function to create subsystems within families or groups. In other words, they tell us who is included, who is excluded, and who has the most power.
Many of us know about boundaries and use them daily. However, we often do not recognize the impact boundaries have on our family members, our partner(s), or even ourselves. Identifying the types of boundaries you are setting or encountering can empower you to create positive change in your life and relationships.
1. Rigid Boundaries
A solid line or circle is used to depict rigid boundaries because they are nearly impossible to penetrate and there is rarely room for negotiation.
Most often, I have observed people setting rigid boundaries to protect themselves or their families. For example, cutting off someone who demonstrates narcissistic or harmful behaviors may be necessary to prevent exposure to further abuse.
However, the fear behind a rigid boundary can become distorted. For example, when a child gets in trouble after hanging out with a new school friend and the parent responds by saying they are never to speak to them again.
The distorted, rigid boundary is so unreasonable that it is likely to be broken. This can quickly turn into a negative spiral of increased attempts to reduce fear by asserting greater control.
Rigid boundaries are characterized by disengagement and tend to have the largest impact on relationships.
- Couples: “You are not allowed to make new friends or smile at people like that.”
- Family: “Don’t ever talk about your father’s drinking around other people.”
- Individual: “I am never going out again.”
2. Diffuse Boundaries
A dotted line or circle is used to depict diffuse boundaries because they are easily penetrated and lack structure.
Many people who set diffuse boundaries are not clear on their values, their worth, or they feel powerless to create change. They may even get caught in the trap of believing that setting clear boundaries will result in others abandoning them or them abandoning others.
For example, a fearful mother intervenes in her son’s marriage by saying negative things about his wife. For fear of offending his mother, the son avoids setting a boundary which invites his mother to continue the behavior. The son cannot yet fathom that setting a clear boundary would result in greater clarity for everyone and would do a better job of honoring his value of family.
This too can spiral out of control and leave people feeling lost, confused, or manipulated.
Diffuse boundaries are characterized by enmeshment. In other words, there is nothing separating you from me.
- Couples: “I told my friends about our sex life because that is how close we are.”
- Family: “I am the cool mom, so you can do whatever you want.”
- Individual: “I can eat fast food whenever I want, after all I am embracing body positivity.”
3. Clear Boundaries
A dashed line or circle is used to depict clear or open boundaries because they have a defined structure that can also be penetrated. In other words, clear boundaries are both strong and negotiable to some degree. When you set clear boundaries, you set your relationships and your future-self up for success.
Setting clear boundaries at a minimum includes a verbal description of the behavior you do not find acceptable and having a basic plan for how to protect yourself if your boundaries are not respected. Check out my post on how to set clear boundaries that maximize your chances of success if you want to learn additional details. If you are not in a safe space, then you may decide not to verbalize your boundaries and just take the action necessary to protect yourself.
However, you must be careful with clear boundaries because they can feel threatening, especially if this is your first time attempting them. Systems, including family systems, resist change. People often respond poorly to boundaries because they threaten to restructure interactions or change the existing system.
Therefore, your plan for what to do next is incredibly important. If you do not follow through, then the system will revert to functioning as usual. This makes it even more difficult to set boundaries in the future because the system has learned that, with enough pressure, things will change back. This is also why I strongly recommend you talk things over with a therapist prior to setting new boundaries, especially when you are encountering a large or complex system.
As with the prior example, if the son tells his mother that calling his wife names is unacceptable, then she is likely to respond by becoming upset/frustrated. She may attempt to justify her behavior and/or continue calling the wife names. At this point, the son will need to follow through to keep the system from sucking him back in. If the fear of offending his mother starts to come up, then this is going to be a particularly difficult challenge.
Clear boundaries do not guarantee that other people will respect your boundaries, only that everyone understands what they are.
- Couple: “Telling your friends about the details of our sex life is crossing the line.”
- Family: “Calling my wife names and making comments about my marriage is not appropriate. If it continues, then we may need to spend some more time apart.”
- Individual: “If I spend more than two hours per day this week on social media, then I am going to talk with my counselor about it.”
With so many types of boundaries and potential pitfalls, it is no surprise that most of my clients request help with setting or maintaining clear boundaries. It is an acquired skill that requires a fair amount of forethought and emotional regulation.
This post/content is intended for informational purposes only. It is not therapeutic advice and should not be used as a substitute for reaching out to a mental health professional or doctor.