Boundary Violations in Separation and Divorce:
What is a boundary?
Boundaries can be considered a line, limit or space that separates one thing from another, they can be physical and visible or non-physical and invisible.
A physical boundary is often serves as a protective function for example our cranium not only contains a boundary for our brain, but it also is a protective barrier to shield our brain from toxins, pathogens, and other environmental threats.
An inter-personal boundary is an invisible line, limit or space in a given culture that separates one person from another. Just like physical boundaries, interpersonal boundaries have protective functions. Such boundaries can be considered generally accepted norms of behaviours and may define acceptable and unacceptable behaviours.
They define a comfort zone and are considered essential to physical and mental health. This is considered true for both children and adults and especially for relationships between children and adults.
Appropriate boundaries (that is, normal and healthy boundaries) play a significant role in development and maintenance of personality traits and personal qualities such as self-esteem, individuality, independence, autonomy and decision making.
Those who fail to develop appropriate boundaries tend to make poor decisions in a variety of areas especially in relationships. It results in difficulties to get along in the world.
Boundary violations occur when one person crosses a line. They can be physical, psychological, or emotional boundaries that should exist between that person and another.
Boundary violations are very common in dysfunctional families and yet some mental health and legal professionals in the family court system fail to recognise the presence and / or the clinical significance of such violations with respect to diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, and causation. Professional’s omissions regarding their significance can have dire consequences for all members of the family.
The clinical literature contains a significant amount of documentation regarding the harmful effects of boundary violations on children and adults. Particularly if they are multiple, ongoing, or severe.
Psychological or emotional boundary violations may include the denigration of one parent to the child, unkind comments, unwanted criticism of a racial, ethnic, religious or gender based context, trivialisation of another’s thoughts, wishes or feelings, over controlling behaviour, inappropriate familiarity, premature intimacy, inappropriate sharing such as the sharing of inappropriate financial information or legal information Other examples may include criticisms of the other parent’s friends, extended family or job.
Most people understand that it would be inappropriate to tell a friend that his or her partner is ugly.
For the same reason it is a boundary violation to make disparaging remarks to a child about his or her parent or other relatives. This becomes relevant where one parent undermines the relationship with the other parent using indoctrination, manipulation and other techniques.
For children, one must consider if the adult’s behaviour is age appropriate for the child. Thus, inappropriate sharing of personal, financial, or legal information is a boundary violation because in general it is not appropriate to share such information with a minor child.
Boundary violations are incredibly harmful to children who are subjected to repeated and severe boundary violations. If a child grows up in a home where boundary violations are common, then one is not likely to develop an understanding of inter-personal boundaries.
In adulthood such individuals are likely to violate other people’s boundaries thus putting them at risk for a wide variety of failures including failed marriages, failed relationships, or failed careers.
In parental alienation we see a pattern where the alienating parent will have experienced a range of boundary violations in their childhood. Parents who fail to recognise the potential catastrophic affects of boundary violations on a child’s psychological and emotional development represents a parenting competency / capacity issue.
Boundary violations meet standard definitions for child psychological abuse in the DSM V, (2013) where child psychological abuse is defined as “nonaccidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child’s parent or caregiver that results or has a reasonable potential result of significant psychological harm to the child” (p.719).
One does not have to be a legal expert or mental health professional to see that boundary violations meet this definition as well as the definition for parental alienation and pathological enmeshment.
Boundary violations are a defining feature in cases of parental alienation. There will be a pattern of boundary violations by the “favoured” parent but not by the rejected parent. The badmouthing of the rejected parent and his or her family, the limiting of contact and access to the other parent, confiding in the child, changing the child’s name, and forcing the child to choose a parent are some examples of boundary violations. In circumstances where the rejected parent engages in boundary violations this is considered estrangement and not parental alienation.
Boundary violations are considered to represent a pathological enmeshment where one parent has engulfed the child to a point where the child’s boundaries have been obliterated. The enmeshed parent has erased the normal healthy boundaries that should exist between a parent and a child resulting in chaos on the child’s psychological and emotional well being and development. Essentially the child is hijacked to meet the favoured parents’ own needs.
Often the clinical significance and the need for urgent intervention is not appreciated by those who evaluate and manage cases of child alignment in divorce and separations. Professionals must actively explore the presence or absence of boundary violations and the Courts need to be aware of this phenomenon.