Boundary dissolution, also termed boundary confusion, distortion, diffusion, or violation, refers to a failure to recognize the psychological distinctiveness of individuals or a confusion of their interpersonal roles. The concept of boundaries has a rich history in family systems theory but also is important to psychodynamic explanations of childhood psychopathology. Indeed, the concept itself might be said to stand at the boundary between psycho-dynamic and family systems perspectives.
Salvador Minuchin (1974) argues that the maintenance of psychological boundaries in the family, particularly between children and their parents, is crucial to healthy development. Boundaries define appropriate family roles (e.g., by clarifying who is the parent and who is the child); demarcate developmental differences (e.g., by defining the special responsibilities or privileges of the eldest child); and ensure that parents meet their adult emotional needs in the marital relationship rather than through their children (e.g., by turning to the spouse for nurturance rather than the child). Ideally, boundaries are flexible, allowing family members to be close to one another and yet to have a sense of separateness. Kenji Kameguchi (1996) likens boundaries to a “membrane” that surrounds each individual and subsystem in the family. Like the membrane around a cell, boundaries need to be firm enough to ensure the integrity of the cell and yet permeable enough to allow communication between cells. Overly rigid boundaries might constrict family relationships and limit family members’ access to one another (e.g., “children should be seen and not heard”), whereas overly permeable or blurred boundaries might lead to confusion between the generations (e.g., “who is the parent and who is the child?” [Hiester 1995]).
There are many different ways in which the psychological boundaries between one person and another might be blurred. Therefore, boundary dissolution is best conceptualized as a multifaceted phenomenon. The literature provides evidence for four dimensions of boundary dissolution— enmeshment, intrusiveness, role-reversal, and spousification—that research shows to have different correlates and consequences for child development (Brown and Kerig 1998; Rowa, Kerig, and Geller 2001).