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Work and home transitions: Boundary confusion

Topics: Couples, Family, Mental Health

Work and home transitions: Boundary confusion

Boundary confusion in PSP families happens when the boundaries between work and home are blurred. It can also mean that a person is unable to understand that certain behaviours are not appropriate (whether that is at work or at home). Inappropriate behaviours can affect that person’s relationships either at work or at home or both.

Typically, there are different role expectations for people when they are at work and when they are at home. People behave differently depending on their role. These differences in behaviour are often necessary and require only minor adjustments. However, the adjustments for PSP can be significant. They may have difficulty transitioning from behaviours that work well at work to those needed in the home. Work behaviours that are more controlling, militaristic, and hypervigilant can spill over into the home.

PSP are more at risk for boundary confusion because of the distinct differences between work and home roles. The blurring of roles and inappropriate behaviours at home can be uncomfortable for families and cause relationship tension and conflict. It is important to recognize the signs of boundary confusion and support work and home transitions that reduce the risk.

How might families experience PSP boundary confusion?

Overprotection and Hypervigilance

When PSP shift from a high risk work environment to home, it can be hard to switch off the behaviours that kept them safe at work. PSP might remain on high alert for any dangers (hypervigilance). They might also be overprotective of their SSOs or children because of what they witness at work. Introducing new rules at home and strict discipline for children, expecting absolute obedience, and reducing social contact can be signs of boundary confusion.

Withdrawal and Avoidance

As part of the transition home, PSP might decide not to share any information about work. They may do this to protect themselves and their families. At the same time, SSOs and children might choose not to share information with the PSP family member. They don’t want to cause the PSP family member any added worry (see anticipatory vigilance). All of this can cause a breakdown in communication, and adults and children can feel alone. Sometimes the decisions about what and how much to share can be difficult. Being aware of and talking together as a couple or family about the challenges can help reduce confusion.

Jealousy

PSP may bring their work home with them or their work might dominate couple conversations. SSOs may feel that PSP pay more attention to their work than their relationship or family. Co-worker camaraderie off the job can also result in jealousy. Team building and mutual support that is important on the job can develop friendships outside of work. SSOs may feel that PSP express themselves more freely with their co-workers which threatens their couple relationship. Boundary confusion results when there is too much focus on work and co-workers and too little focus on the couple relationship.

Heightened Expectations

PSP workplaces can have heightened expectations requiring strict order, rules, and consequences to get the job done. When there is boundary confusion, PSP might bring those same expectations home and expect to be listened to, followed, and obeyed. This can cause frustration for families. The kinds of expectations needed on the job may be inappropriate at home. PSP might also expect that, after a long or difficult shift, everything at home will be organized and in control. Unfortunately, this is often not a reality in family life. When these expectations are expressed, SSOs can feel disregarded and overworked.

Examples of boundary confusion

Click on the icon “i” for the example

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References for this page (click to expand)

Agocs, T., Langan, D., & Sanders, C. B. (2015). Police mothers at home: Police work and danger-protection parenting practices. Gender & Society, 29(2), 265-289. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243214551157  

Ashforth, B. E., Kreiner, G. E., & Fugate, M. (2000). All in a day’s work: Boundaries and micro role transitions. Academy of Management.the Academy of Management Review, 25(3), 472-491. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2000.3363315 

Bochantin, J. E. (2016). “Morning fog, spider webs, and escaping from Alcatraz”: Examining metaphors used by public safety employees and their families to help understand the relationship between work and family. Communication Monographs, 83(2), 214-238. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637751.2015.1073853  

Fratesi, D. (2019) Police work and its effect on the family. Pine Bluff Police Department, Police Work and the Family. Retrieved July 15, 2022 from: https://www.cji.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/effects_on_family_paper.pdf 

Helfers, R. C., Reynolds, P. D., & Scott, D. M. (2021). Being a blue blood: A phenomenological study on the lived experiences of police officers’ children. Police Quarterly, 24(2), 233-261. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098611120964954  

McElheran, M., & Stelnicki, A. M. (2021). Functional disconnection and reconnection: an alternative strategy to stoicism in public safety personnel. European journal of psychotraumatology, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1080/20008198.2020.1869399 

Miller, L. (2007). Police families: stresses, syndromes, and solutions. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 35(1), 21-40. https://doi.org/10.1080/01926180600698541  

Ricciardelli, R., Carleton, R. N., Groll, D., & Cramm, H. (2018). Qualitatively unpacking Canadian public safety personnel experiences of trauma and their well-being. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 60(4), 566-577. https://doi.org/10.3138/cjccj.2017-0053.r2  

Ungar, M. (2009). Overprotective parenting: Helping parents provide children the right amount of risk and responsibility. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 37(3), 258-271. https://doi.org/10.1080/01926180802534247 

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