Family Boundary Ambiguity: A New Variable in Family Stress Theory



    1. Associate Professor, Department of Family Social Science, 290 McNeal Hall, 1985 Buford Avenue, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota 55108.
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    1. Doctoral Student, Department of Family Social Science, University of Minnesota; Trainee, Midwest Council on Aging.
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  • Appreciation is expressed to the University of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station for its support of this project and to Reuben Hill, David Reiss, and Sandra Gonzales for their critique of an earlier version of this paper presented to the National Council on Family Relations Theory and Methods Workshop, Washington, D.C., October 1982.


The variable, degree of family boundary ambiguity, is increasingly being used in family research to describe and predict the effects of family membership loss and change over time. Boundary ambiguity is defined as the family not knowing who is in and who is out of the system. The family may perceive a physically absent member as psychologically present or a physically present member as psychologically absent. In either case, the family boundary is ambiguous. This review is presented to clarify the meaning of boundary ambiguity and to explore its scope and application as a variable. We focus here on (a) the process of theory development, inductive and deductive, by which the construct of boundary ambiguity was identified and validated as a continuous variable within family stress theory; (b) the historical antecedents of the construct; and (c) the interrelationships of the variable with other factors related to stressed families.