Navigating 'Boundary Ambiguity'

Whether it’s full-time military personnel or reservists or national guard, many military families have experienced what’s called “boundary ambiguity.” Boundary ambiguity is a state in which family members are uncertain in their perception about who is in or out of the family and who is performing which roles and tasks within the family.

Photo by  Katie McNaught  from  Pexels

Photo by Katie McNaught from Pexels

A study that examined military reserve families over time found that, during deployment, all family members experienced boundary ambiguity. The study, which was published in the Journal of Family Psycology, found that gathering information and attending a family support group provided some relief for families. However, couples – as well as those who had experienced additional life events or losses – experienced the highest levels of boundary ambiguity. The study showed this discipated over time, as families tended to re-stabilize once the reservists had returned to work and a routine had been established.

(Source: American Psycological Association; Faber, A. J., Willerton, E., Clymer, S. R., MacDermid, S. M., & Weiss, H. M. (2008). Ambiguous absence, ambiguous presence: A qualitative study of military reserve families in wartime. Journal of Family Psychology, 22(2), 222-230.,

If you have had to navigate a situation like this, you know it can be tough to figure out roles and routines in your house again. We would give you this piece of advice: Don’t try to be 50/50 on this. Don’t set yourselves up for fights and failure by trying to delineate all the responsibilities. Sure, a list of chores might help (if you’ve got kids—then you’ve got that much more help!), but everyone should be encouraged to see what needs to be done and do it.

Talk about realistic expectations. Think of ways to get the job done together. Use it as a connecting time. Talk to each other. Seek to lighten each other’s loads and then willingly follow through because you love your spouse so much!

One of the biggest problems among the couples we talk to is husbands and wives who measure out their need-meeting service for each other in reciprocal portions. The best many marriages ever do is operate according to the popular “50/50 plan,” the “I’ll-meet-your-needs-if-you-meet-mine” philosophy. In this plan, marriage becomes an issue of trade-offs and compromises, with spouses keeping score so one person never gets or gives more than the other. The goal is to meet each other halfway.

To be fair, some couples who live by this rule are generous to each other and even moderately happy. But apportioning love usually doesn’t result in spouses feeling honored and understood. The problem usually arises when neither of you can agree on where “halfway” is.

There’s a better way. It’s the 100/100 marriage, which is God’s design for a husband and a wife. Listen to what Paul said: “For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word” (Ephesians 5:25-26). When a husband loves in this way, he chooses to serve his wife because of his desire to be obedient to God’s design for him. He is stirred not only by pleasing her but also by pleasing God. The same is true of the wife. When you serve each other, trying with 100 percent of yourself to love and serve your spouse, you will find joy and fulfillment beyond what you can imagine.

 *For more practical marriage advice, check out The Great Marriage Q&A Book. It's available in our online bookstore!