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How Close is Too Close?: This Is Not About Social Distancing

No matter where or how folks are existing during COVID-19, there is no question that potentially triggering challenges may arise. The collective is thinking about having enough, getting needs met, the future, and the indefinite uncertainties around these things. With so much unknown and out of individuals’ control, what is certain is that today many people are spending time quarantined either alone or with others and have to cope with their environments somehow.

 Now, more than ever, is a time for considering relationships. This could look like reaching out to old friends and building community through electronic communication or perhaps taking measures to navigate being “stuck” in one place with the same people or person day after day. Perhaps some people are taking the time to go off the grid and focus on the relationship with themselves. Maybe some folks are encountering a mixture of these and other relational nuances. Regardless of what the exact circumstances are, it is true that navigating relationships at this time may take some extra care and creativity. 

Although we won’t be covering best practices for physical distance during COVID-19, we will be breaching the topic of boundaries in relationships. Not far off, right? The Cambridge English Dictionary  has several definitions for the term “boundary” that can create frameworks for how we look at relational boundaries. The first is, “a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something.” The edge could be a personal edge or limit. In this thinking for example, a boundary might mark where my personal experience ends and someone else’s experience begins. The second definition is, “the limit of what someone considers to be acceptable behavior.” Here, a boundary could dictate my orientation around another person’s actions; ie: what can I tolerate? It is true that everyone has different experiences and levels of awareness concerning the content and function of relational boundaries and that we as humans are constantly navigating these nuances as they arise in our relationships. 

One view of boundary negotiation is demonstrated in the challenge of enmeshment within relationships. During the systems theory renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S., Salvador Minuchin, pioneer of structural family therapy, coined the term “enmeshment” to describe family systems in which personal boundaries are diffuse, absent, or ill-defined (Dorfman, 1998; 2015). When a family is enmeshed, expectations to adhere to spoken or unspoken rules concerning beliefs, values, emotions, and life experiences hinder the family members from developing functional autonomous selves. Members learn to self-regulate based upon the needs of other family members or the family as a whole rather than on personal needs (Paul, 2019)

A consequence of enmeshment-informed regulation is the sense that, “I am only ok when this/these relationship(s) are ok.” While this form of regulation appears to keep the family system “intact,” it does not support the evolution of individuals as separate from their families. While the term “enmeshment” was developed in the context of understanding families, it can actually occur in any relationship (Paul, 2019). Although the qualities of enmeshment can describe a breadth of relational contexts, it is also important to remember that the concept originated in a Westernized lens supporting the philosophy of individualism. As a result, this area of study sees limitation around cultures that operate under collectivistic, rather than individualistic, value systems (Barrera, Blumer, & Soenksen, 2011).

While everyone will consider boundaries differently according to their own unique life experiences and cultural contexts, it could be helpful to think of relational boundaries as systems that allow individuals to feel the most resourced in the contexts of their relationships. For instance, the term boundary can connote a meaning that puts the focus on the outside, ie: keeping something or some behavior out of my space. While this is not an unhelpful connotation, another way to look at a boundary is exploring what the imaginary line is keeping inside. This internal view of boundaries lends opportunities for an individual to create boundaries based upon self-knowledge and exploration rather than reactions to outside circumstances. Given that a person’s internal experience can shift from moment to moment, boundaries that serve the function of inward resourcing can be fluid and change to best serve the dynamic needs that result from changing internal states. 

Grappling with boundaries in personal and work relationships circa COVID-19? Here at TPN.Health we are here to support our clinical community and remind you that you are not alone here. You can gain access to all of our online resources–digital CEUs, clinical discussion panels, AND a trusted referral network–when you create a TPN.Health clinical profile. Click here to get started.


Barrera, A. M., Blumer, M. L. C., & Soenksen, S. H. (2011). Revisiting adolescent separation-individuation in the contexts of enmeshment and allocentrism. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi: 10.1037/e741452011-008

BOUNDARY: definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Dorfman, R. A. H. (1998). Paradigms of clinical social work. New York: Brunner Mazel.

Enmeshment. (2015, August 19). Retrieved from, J. (2019, November 26). Signs that You May Be in an Enmeshed Relationship. Retrieved from

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