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Boundaries of Marital and Family Intimacy: From Theory to Empirical Approaches

Chiara Piazzesi, Martin Blais et Hélène Belleau
Traduction de Valentina Baslyk
Cet article est une traduction de :
Frontières de l’intimité conjugale et familiale : de la théorie aux approches empiriques [fr]


Cadre de la recherche: Cet article traite des frontières symboliques, discursives et pratiques des relations intimes. Notre approche est inspirée par la théorie des systèmes de Niklas Luhmann. La « frontière » est conçue comme une opération de la relation par rapport à elle-même : la relation se définit elle-même par ses opérations communicatives et elle définit ainsi les attentes légitimes de ses membres. La relation existe alors en tant que frontière par ses opérations de communication, qui statuent directement ou indirectement sur ce qu’elle est et sur ce qu’elle n’est pas. Les symboles, les règles de sens et les références sémantiques sont des outils mobilisés dans le travail de frontière. Cependant, ces symboles ne définissent pas les façons de les utiliser dans ce travail.

Objectifs: L’article vise deux objectifs principaux. Premièrement, en mobilisant en en définissant les concepts de « frontières » et de « travail de frontière », l’article offre des outils théoriques novateurs pour les recherches sur l’intimité. Deuxième, il montre l’utilité empirique de ce concept par la discussion d’exemples de son application à l’étude des formes et des processus de l’intimité en sciences sociales.

Méthodologie: Ayant surtout une visée théorique, l’article procède par clarification conceptuelle et définition des notions de « frontières » et de « travail de frontière » en sciences sociales, pour ensuite discuter des applications de ce concept aux relations intimes, conjugales et familiales.

Résultats: Les frontières des relations émergent de l’opérationnalisation de symboles, références sémantiques ou règles de sens dans la communication entre partenaires ou membres des relations. Les symboles mobilisés ne déterminent pas les modalités de leur opérationnalisation, ce qui impose d’observer directement les opérations du travail de frontière afin de les décrire et de les comprendre.

Conclusions : Avoir exploré les fondements théoriques et empiriques du concept de frontières dans la sociologie des relations intimes, cet article documente la place centrale de la sémantique et du discours dans le travail de frontières qui définit les relations intimes. Il montre également comment le concept permet de saisir les opérations d’autodéfinition dont les relations mêmes ont besoin pour continuer à exister. 

Contribution : Cet article offre une synthèse des connaissances sur le concept de frontières et en montre le potentiel heuristique pour aborder les relations intimes, conjugales ou familiales. Les articles rassemblés dans ce numéro y contribuent également en montrant sa pertinence pour analyser une diversité de relations intimes, peu importe leur composition, leur durée ou leurs degrés de stabilité ou d’institutionnalisation.

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The concept of the boundary and its operationalization in the social sciences

1Family intimacy, couple intimacy, sexual intimacy, intimacy of intimate networks: all these forms of intimacy have symbolic, discursive and practical boundaries that are no less powerful and effective for being "invisible" to the actors. Whether they are stable, clear or permeable, the boundaries of intimate relationships serve to establish who is in and who is not. But above all, they function as matrices of legitimate and reciprocal expectations between the members of the relationship they circumscribe.

2The concepts of "boundary/boundaries" and "boundary work" are used in the social sciences to theorize about the demarcation work that people do to create discursive and practical distinctions between identities, fields of activity, professional fields (van Bochove et al., 2016 ; Fournier, 2000), fields of knowledge (Gieryn, 1999) or types of relationships. In the study of intimate relationships, "boundary" usually refers to the negotiation of limits, rights, duties and rules, for example in distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable non-monogamous conduct in long-term intimate relationships (Frank et DeLamater, 2010 ; McDonald, 2010). Marital therapists have also used the idea of "boundary" as a "property line" in an intimate relationship to determine who is responsible for what, and thus to assign responsibility – in the sense of "accountability" – for behaviours, feelings, thoughts, tasks, etc. (Cloud et Towsend, 1999 : 20).

3In their review of the literature on the concept of boundaries in the social sciences, Lamont and Virág (2002) distinguish between social boundaries and symbolic boundaries. They define social boundaries as objectified forms of difference in access to social resources and opportunities, and symbolic boundaries as "conceptual distinctions made by social actors to categorize objects, people, practices, and even time and space. They are tools by which individuals and groups struggle and come to agree over definitions of reality" (Lamont et Virág, 2002 : 168). Symbolic boundaries are thus concerned with the distinction between "us" and "you," i.e. the definition of identities of class, gender, ethnicity, etc. In other words, symbolic boundaries are always relational, since they define one group in relation to another that is not "like" us. This definition of symbolic boundaries, however, does not yet explain how they are operationalized or how they emerge through the actions and discourses of actors in the ordinary interactions of social life. Since they are distinct from objective boundaries in society, symbolic boundaries exist as long as they are "maintained" by the actors through specific work; that is, through cognitive operations and the actions that correspond to them.

4In their collection of essays, Families in Society: Boundaries and Relationships, McKie and Cunningham-Burley (2005) emphasize that "boundary" refers more to an operation than to demarcation in the strict sense. Thus, a relationship (or, we may add, an identity) has no boundaries, but emerges as a boundary through work done jointly by its members, including the effort to bring that relationship (or identity) together or to distinguish it from other relationships (or identities), present, past and future.

5The work of boundary management can then involve a person and his/her identity within a relationship (interaction, link) as much as a relationship in itself, or a grouping of people (group, community, institution, etc.). These entities – which are at the same time "social actors" – exist through the delimitation of their boundaries, which they perform discursively as well as practically. In this sense, "symbols" are more "working tools" for maintaining boundaries than boundaries in themselves. Cognitive, sensory, sexual, social and other boundaries are constituted in space and time by reference to a repertoire of meaning rules, images and significations that help identifying and differentiating elements of the social world: this is not that, this and that, and so on. All operations of communication contribute to the emergence and maintenance of boundaries insofar as they designate one side of the distinction between this and that, a distinction that identifies something while excluding everything else. Thus, the empirically relevant question is not whether a cognitive/communicative operation contributes to boundary work, but what is the distinction that this cognitive/communicative operation relies on to achieve boundary work. In this conception, the boundary is the operationalization of a difference and thus is the semantic tool that the communicative operation uses to bring out or maintain a specific boundary. The emphasis is thus placed not on the boundary as such, but on the work that produces it and on the difference that makes it emerge and exist.

6These differences are part of a shared repertoire of meaning that can be reiterated in an understandable way in successive communication operations. Operationalized differences may reach a certain degree of institutionalization and be identifiable as symbolic boundaries (e.g. the color of a person's skin, a loving nickname used by a couple, wearing a crest marking one's political affiliation).

7In their study of “living apart together” relationships (LAT), Karlsson and Borrell (2005) define "home" as a resource used by women to define boundaries in their intimate relationships. "Home" then functions as a physical boundary that becomes the symbol of the private or the personal. This symbol, however, is not the boundary itself, which emerges rather in the relationship through the operationalization of a difference (my home versus the other’s home). The operation of maintaining boundaries makes the symbol exist as the symbol of a boundary and not the other way around. It is for this reason that the same boundary can be reinforced by reference to several differences, as we will discuss in the next sections.

8The concept of boundaries has found particularly fertile ground in the field of the study of work, especially in relation to the individual and organizational management of professional-personal life balance. The seminal research of Nippert-Eng (1996) has made a rich contribution to the theorization of the boundaries between various spheres of activity and related cultures. Nippert-Eng argues for a conceptual distinction between (cultural) boundaries and the physical contours of these spheres of activity, as well as for a perception of boundaries as permeable. The permeability of boundaries is one of their structural properties: their degree of permeability makes them either easier or more difficult to cross. It allows, or on the contrary limits, the overlap between spheres. The actions, strategies and ideas that people mobilize in managing boundaries must take into account their greater or lesser permeability, but may also lead them to modify the boundaries in order to facilitate or limit transitions between spheres. Examples include the distinctions between work and home when work activity takes place at home or when residence and work are in the same place. Boundary work is then both cognitive and practical, allowing for the creation, maintenance, modification, defence or weakening of classifications (Nippert-Eng’s term) of the places, audiences, objects, responsibilities and challenges of daily life, etc. This work and the boundaries it establishes between spheres are idiosyncratic and depend largely on the intertwining of the different spheres, cultures and identities involved. Because of this specificity, subsequent research has focused, for example, on the main tactics of negotiating the boundaries between work and home (Kreiner et al., 2009) or on the modalities of micro-transitions between the "roles" assumed by individuals in boundary work (Ashfort et al., 2000).

9Boundary management work requires skills acquired through direct experience, intergenerational transmission and reference to cultural landmarks. These define the limits of legitimate spaces for action according to the specific characteristics of the actors (age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic class, etc.). Even a quality such as "tact" (Goffman, 1959) can be conceptualized as the performative application of people's ability to distinguish, in a face-to-face interaction, the boundaries of the interaction defined in relation to the relevance of the information exchanged between participants (relevant/non-relevant). It is important to note that these skills are unevenly distributed in society. Their distribution depends on the degree of exposure to and appropriation of the cultural codes and cues that guide the boundary work. The degree of exposure itself depends on a multitude of social characteristics, including the level of education, socio-economic level, occupation/activity, age, gender, ethnicity and religious affiliation of the person in question. This inequality in the distribution of skills needed to effectively achieve boundary maintenance is particularly visible when the boundaries to be maintained separate areas of individual activity and thus the "versions" of individual identity that are to be distinguished.

10In the last few decades, we have witnessed the proliferation of digital environments such as social networking sites, whose function is to allow the sharing of information among users. Being "visible" on social networks means presenting oneself and managing one's image in front of multiple audiences (Cunningham, 2013). Since these audiences are not always as clearly defined and differentiated as they are in real life, managing the boundaries between different "versions" of one’s personal identity becomes more challenging and requires the development of specific skills (Ollier-Malaterre, 2018).

Boundaries in the study of intimacy

11Like any relational and cognitive sphere, family intimacy, couple intimacy and sexual intimacy share common operational boundaries. These boundaries function as matrices of legitimate and reciprocal expectations between members of the relationship they circumscribe. The conceptualization of intimacy boundaries that we put forward here is inspired by Luhmann's work on the boundaries of social systems (1984 ; 1997) and by its application to the sociological study of intimacy (Luhmann, 1982 ; McKie et Cunningham-Burley, 2005). According to Luhmann, the boundaries of a relationship (or of any other social system) emerge through the operations that the relationship itself performs: these operations are in fact simply the communicative gestures, acts and words (or silences) that produce meaning within the relationship. To produce meaning, however, means to select: each communicative operation corresponds to a choice with regard to the content, modality, tone and form of what is communicated. This is why any information received has a certain degree of uncertainty and requires interpretation in order for the communication to continue. Although an injunction such as "shut up!" conveys information that is less uncertain than the smile of a stranger in a public place, communication always takes place in a context of complexity. According to Luhmann, complexity refers to the information that we lack in order to be able to understand the complexity itself: in other words, we would need to have an exhaustive list of all possible meanings (which constitute the "complexity" of the message) and then to select the correct meaning in order to understand the stranger’s smile and to grasp the complexity of the information it conveys. However, such a list is never available, hence the degree of uncertainty regarding the meaning to be attributed to what I perceive: complexity haunts any communication or social action. This is mainly due to another constitutive characteristic of any social interaction, the double contingency, which means that, in principle, it is extremely unlikely (not to say virtually impossible) that my interpretation of the information others present to me will exactly match their intentions and vice versa. An example of the complexity of decoding intentions in communication is the issues surrounding the transmission and reception of feedback in the workplace (Stone et Heen, 2014).

12In intimate relationships, as in other social systems, there are various ways to simplify the complexity of communication by stabilizing expectations or, to put it another way, by creating rules of meaning that inform us about how information should be interpreted and about legitimate reactions. Hierarchical social structures, for example, are used to guide the interpretation of information and to define legitimate responses to it. In an intimate relationship, a hierarchical structure is organized around a difference, which may be age, gender, ethnicity, income, etc. Stabilization and coordination of expectations also occur through the emergence of symbolically generalized communication media, of which, according to Luhmann, love is a part (along with money, art, morals, law, truth and power). A symbolically generalized medium of communication defines the type of communication we are talking about in the present situation. Each medium also contains semantics; that is, a shared repertoire of rules of meaning made up over time by the recurrence of symbols, narratives, images, or maxims that define the behaviours and contexts related to love (cf. Piazzesi et al., 2018b). The fragments in Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments) by Barthes (1977) are an illuminating example of the Western semantic repertoire of love: each "figure" presented by Barthes is a kind of commonplace in traditional representations of love, but can also easily constitute a "stage" or a moment in any real love relationship (Piazzesi, 2012). When two people in North America get together and call it a "date," it is clear to both of them that it is an occasion related to the sphere of love, intimacy or sexuality – whether it is a therapeutic "date night" for a couple who have been married for twenty years or the first time two people meet in person after interacting on a dating app. In addition, certain markers of the "date" interaction can be defined and "scripted." For example, traditional semantics clarifies the expectations of the people involved when they have to make decisions such as whether and how to split the bill in a restaurant, who should bring flowers, who should wear makeup, and so on.

13Semantics plays a role in establishing a couple's boundaries. For a relationship (which is a social system) to endure, communication between its members must be sustained. Communication conveys two orders of information: it conveys the information presented within the communication itself (tomorrow's weather, the shopping list, "I love you," "Would you like to watch my favourite show tonight?"), and through this act of communication it also conveys that the communication is continuing. This also means: a communicative operation simultaneously communicates content and information about the fact that the communication continues in the social system in question (in this case the couple). This is what Luhmann defines as the "self-observation" of a system: the relationship is observed in and through its operations, on the basis of which it can determine whether or not the relationship is enduring. This is what is meant by the "boundaries of a relationship": a relationship may (or may not) indicate from the way it operates that it is indeed a particular type of relationship (e.g. a couple rather than a business relationship), and if so, that it is an intimate relationship between you and me (Luhmann,1982), thus different from all others. In Luhmann’s terms, a social system (e.g. an intimate relationship) always operates by referring to the difference between the system and what is external to it (work colleagues, foreign policy, family relations, friendships, the appointment at the garage, etc.), in other words, by referring to the boundaries it reproduces through its operations.

14Boundaries thus emerge by circumscribing a universe of meaning that is repeated through the selection of meanings and that delimits a relationship as long as this selection is made based on a difference that evokes the relationship boundaries themselves; that is, the difference between the relationship and the rest of the world. The boundaries of an interaction, for example, can be drawn by referring to the difference between what is present and what is not, or between the present and the past: by "agreeing" on what is relevant now, we constitute a boundary between "inside" and "outside" that helps us to select the possibilities of meaning in the interaction we are conducting. Young parents who go to a restaurant without their children can coordinate their expectations by temporarily excluding any child-related topics from their communication: in doing so, they reiterate the boundaries of their intimate relationship, which can be blurred in everyday family life (as is evident in some of the articles in this issue, including the one on "solo" parents by Alexandra Piesen).

15The boundaries of a system or relationship are not necessarily associated with universal symbols (the rules of meaning may change over time), or with physical or geographic boundaries. Moreover, contrary to what the concept of "symbolic boundaries" presupposes (Lamont et Virág, 2002), the boundaries of an intimate relationship do not define a shared identity, but rather the rules for communicating information and producing meaning in the relationship through difference, especially between the loved one and the rest of the world. This operational differentiation works even when the relationship is not yet defined as an intimate liaison in the literal sense; that is, when the members of the relationship have not yet specified that they "are together," and in the event that the liaison ends. According to Luhmann, being "a couple in love" means that it is possible for the partners to infer from any communicative operation that the relationship is continuing and that it is still a love relationship. The fact that this operationalization of the boundaries of the relationship does not require a common identity becomes very clear when we consider transformations in contemporary Western love stories (Piazzesi et al., 2018b). The boundaries of the love relationship can be maintained even in the presence of a strong tendency to value the autonomy, independence and individuation of the partners (Beck, Beck-Gernsheim, 1990 ; Giddens, 1992).

16This conceptual framework makes it possible to approach the study of intimate relationships, regardless of their characteristics in terms of stability, duration, composition or institutionalization. The boundaries of relationships emerge in and through discourses and practices and, consequently, through the production of meaning in a system. But what are the modalities, resources and challenges specific to this "boundary work?" In the following section, we will discuss some empirical studies in order to provide possible answers to this question.

Examples of applications involving intimate relationships

Semantics of love, representations of intimacy and boundary work

17    The first empirical application of the boundary concept as we have defined it can be found in the research conducted by Chiara Piazzesi, Martin Blais, Julie Lavigne and Catherine Lavoie Mongrain on representations of women's intimacy in La Galère, a television series chosen because of its great popularity in Quebec (Piazzesi et al., 2018a ; 2018b). The series (62 episodes, 6 seasons) recounts the amorous, sexual and conjugal trials and tribulations of Claude, Isabelle, Mimi and Stéphanie, four heterosexual women between the ages of 35 and 40. At the beginning of the first season, these long-time friends decide to move in together with their seven children. Claude and Isabelle are in conjugal relationships and continue to maintain them, while Mimi and Stephanie are single and looking for "true love." We have selected scenes presenting the speeches or actions of at least one of the four female protagonists on the relevant themes (feelings of love, sexuality, conjugality and domestic life).

18We consider the series as a narrative that features already available semantic references for love, conjugality and sexuality, while combining them into a new story (Plummer, 1995 ; Swidler, 1986 ; 2001 ; Piazzesi et al., 2018a). Our research aimed in particular to understand how the various semantic references pertaining to available paradigms of intimacy are used by people in an intimate relationship to establish, strengthen, weaken or modify the boundaries of the relationship itself. The semantics of love, in fact, prescribes a boundary work to the social system that is the intimate relationship, but it does not determine a priori by whom and how this work is to be carried out in the contingency of communicative operations. In this sense, the notion of "boundary" has been used in their analysis as a bridge to theorize the connection between semantic elements (or references) and the empirical definitions of the intimate relationship as observed in the television series.

19Members of an emerging intimate relationship face major uncertainty about the status and future of their relationship: Is it love? Will it be love? This uncertainty is due to the double contingency (in other words, to the fact that each partner is a "black box" to the other) and it is dealt with through communication, thus exchanging signs that are associated with love in the semantics available. We have analyzed occurrences of boundary work – work aimed at modifying the perception of the difference between a given relationship and the rest of the world – at two main stages: the initial moment when a relationship begins with an indeterminacy about its outcome, and the situation in which a couple has already formed and developed a common "history." The problems encountered and the semantic references used in both stages do not necessarily differ. Rather, the results of this research show that the same boundary definition "problems" occur cyclically in intimate relationships. We have identified two cases: in the first, the boundary problem is handled through reference to different semantic elements, while in the second, the same semantic references are used to handle a variety of boundary problems.

20In the first case, the main characters use traditional or romantic references to deal with initial uncertainty: jealousy is seen as a sign of interest on the part of the man; a man's phone call is seen as a clear sign of romantic interest on his part; being introduced to someone's family is also a sign of romantic commitment. When the "signs" identified by women are not enough to resolve uncertainty, they demand clear answers: a sexually exclusive commitment, an explicit declaration of interest, to be more involved in the other person's life, and so on. The norms of sexual and emotional exclusivity, of sharing personal spheres, and of ongoing interest in the other are used interchangeably to test the "seriousness" of the relationship, and thus to define its boundaries in situations of uncertainty. This uncertainty may arise at different stages of the relationship and be dealt with by the different semantic references described here.

21The second case, the use of the same semantic reference to deal with different problems related to relationship boundaries, shows the central function of references to time. In particular, references to time can be used to:

  • Break down boundaries: There’s been something missing from our relationship for a long time; I've been telling you for ten years that we have to change; I've warned you a thousand times, that's enough, and so on;

  • Weaken boundaries: I don't know where I'll be next month; it's not what we had planned for the two of us ten years ago, etc.;

  • Reinforce boundaries: He’s the love of my life; I don't love your money, I’ve loved you as poor as you are for 12 years; tell him that I’ve always loved him; kiss me like you’ve never done before, etc.;

  • Stabilize/confirm existing boundaries: Let's live in the present and not worry about the future; we’re not building a relationship, we’re afraid to be alone, etc.

22In these examples, communicative operations involve references to partnership semantics and are mainly used to reinforce personal autonomy, to suggest the need for work on or a "therapeutic" attitude toward the problems of the relationship, or to "cool down" its fusional tendency. The temporality of the relationship is then evoked to affirm psychological and existential changes in the partners, to highlight distance, to underline the absence of any "therapeutic" evolution in the couple (progressive learning through reflexive work). References to "romantic" temporality are used to create a feeling of exceptionality, to intensify the present moment, to reinforce the idealization of "our" love, of "what makes us special" (which can be recalled years later or in moments of crisis).

23We observe that reference to time can generate different meanings within an intimate relationship. This is due to the complexity of the time-oriented structures of meaning that circulate in contemporary love semantics. According to Luhmann (1982), the problems of instability in love relationships began to be addressed through references to temporality from the 17th century onward. The increasing importance of temporality increases the reflexivity of love, since every action of the other can be interpreted in relation to the temporal development of love. Moreover, all information has a different meaning at different moments in a love relationship, and an understanding of the temporal process of love informs the partners about how to interpret it appropriately. Thus, the historicity of love can be related to its temporality or to specific individual behaviours: what can happen to any love relationship (in modern terms, for example, the seven-year itch, a cooling of desire, etc.) as opposed to what happens to our intimate relationship specifically. In the 18th century, the character and personality of the partners began to be seen as no longer immutable over time. Love semantics suggests that people can change, and this may increase the chances that feelings of love will survive. Here, individual changes ("you've changed!") and the love process ("love dies") become functional equivalents within the framework of love semantics. Finally, 20th century partnership semantics defines temporality as a necessary learning process in and through the relationship. Time is thus involved in the development of relational work, of mutual commitment to problem-solving, and of a mutual understanding between the partners (Leupold, 1983). Separation (i.e. the dissolution of a relationship’s boundaries) can result from the recognition that there are no opportunities for joint learning and development: intimate relationships are assessed on the basis of their ability to support the partners' self-actualization and learning.

24To conclude, our analysis of boundary work shows that semantic references (i.e. culture and its repertoire of symbols) are utilized by people to "create" boundaries, but they do not determine the precise manner in which boundary work operations are performed. Different communicative operations may use the same semantic reference, just as different semantic references may serve the same function and result in the same operation. These references, signs or symbols are not unambiguous (a result of the double contingency and complexity of meaning) and semantic cues help to reduce the complexity of sign interpretation, but only up to a point. For example, references to the temporality of the love process can produce varying information and influence the boundaries of the intimate relationship in different ways. If love semantics sets the condition of the possibility of a love encounter and stabilizes expectations, there remains great contingency in the symbols and meanings that are mobilized to draw the boundaries of each relationship. Resolving the contingency at the specific scale of their relationship allows the partners to consider their relationship as unique.

The social use of money within couples as a revelation of the boundaries of intimacy

25A second empirical application of the concept of boundaries as defined here concerns money and its management within couples. A number of research studies conducted by Hélène Belleau on the social meaning of money and domestic economics have brought to light complex and multiple conjugal practices that move away from an economic logic of the rationality in which each spouse asserts his or her personal interests (Belleau, 2008 ; 2011 ; Belleau et Cornut-St-Pierre, 2014). The primary objective of this research was to document couples' financial arrangements and the social representations associated with them, as well as the logic underlying them. However, a secondary analysis of practices and discourses highlighted the actors' work on the boundaries of the intimate relationship, work that is articulated, as we shall see, with semantics of contemporary conjugality illustrated by eight rules of meaning (Belleau et al., 2020).

26This secondary analysis was based on the comments of people living as couples, gathered during individual interviews regarding the discourse and practices, particularly financial, of heterosexual spouses in Quebec. More specifically, the interviews took place within the framework of four research studies conducted in Quebec between 2005 and 2012 (160 qualitative interviews, 2 hours each on average), the common denominator of which was a series of open-ended questions on the economic dynamics between spouses and on the representations of the couple. The interviewees, aged 22 to 62, were recruited by some 20 interviewers (17 women and 3 men) using a variety of methods (word of mouth, community organizations, etc.) mainly in major urban centres (Montreal, Quebec City, Trois-Rivières) and the outlying regions, but also in more rural areas (Montérégie, Laurentians, Lanaudière, Bas-St-Laurent).

27Money, conceptualized as a rational and neutral market phenomenon, has long been perceived as incompatible with the values of solidarity, giving and altruism inscribed in the family sphere. Theorists have most often compartmentalized commodity-money relations and intimate relationships as if they were different worlds with few links between them. In doing so, they have simply appropriated the oppositions that structure the expectations of spouses, especially the one between the antagonistic and immeasurable worlds (Zelizer, 1997) of love (altruism, giving, disinterest) and money (self-interest, profit, calculation). In early 1970s sociology, Anglophone sociologists in particular began to examine this classic view of money, on the one hand, and the perception of the family sphere as the ultimate place for altruism and solidarity on the other. The gender perspective has been central to deconstructing these assumptions. Money has therefore been considered by a number of authors as an excellent indicator of the marital dynamics that emerge from the meeting of personal and collective interests within households.

28As Zelizer has shown, these two worlds of love and money are deeply intertwined in the same behaviours that aim to hide their bond (one offers a gift without ever revealing the price, for example). Money is never exchanged in the domestic sphere in a neutral and impersonal way. Its meaning is socially constructed according to this specific social space and to the gender and class affiliation of those who manipulate it (Zelizer, 1997). Hence the interest in observing the financial practices of individuals who see each other through the prism of the rules of meaning of love semantics that, stemming from different logics, guide their conduct in daily life in terms of both affective and material aspects. It is precisely here that the actors’ work of defining the boundaries on these issues can be observed.

29We can see, for example, that at different periods in an intimate relationship, money is truly revelatory of this boundary work. In the semantics of love, the rule of meaning of disinterest and altruism induces the actors of a still nascent intimate relationship to be generous toward each other. Gender, however, sometimes plays an important role. "Paying the bill for a dinner for two" in a restaurant is a communicative gesture that is part of the semantics of love. This is still often a man's prerogative in heterosexual relationships, but it can also lead to a debt that allows the relationship to continue with the promise of another encounter ("my turn to pay next time"), a phenomenon described by Luhmann as self-observation. Paradoxically, in love semantics, this rule of disinterest and altruism encourages spouses to keep silent about economic inequalities (to state them would be to defend one's own interests, according to market logic), even if they perceive them very clearly within their household. This rule leads to the assumption that one partner will not value his or her own personal interests (market logic) to the detriment of the other (Henchoz, 2014 : 32). Similarly, the rule of meaning of trust in the given word is seen as a clear sign of commitment to the other. Combined with the rule of meaning of the fiction of duration, the idea that the relationship is necessarily long term, trust induces many spouses not to want to put things in writing in case of a breakup "because it is unlikely" and "because they trust each other."

30In the semantics of love, we also find the rule of deferred reciprocity. Kellerhals et al. (2004) argue that deferred reciprocity is a way for spouses to reconcile the standard of merit (which can be calculated) with the standard of giving (loving without calculation): spouses accept the risk of believing that what they give today will eventually be returned to them. In the contemporary semantics of love, deferred reciprocity refers both to the notion of exchange and to the inscription of the affective relation in time in reference to the rule of meaning of the fiction of duration. The exchange is based on the egalitarian value of the spouses according to a system of culturally defined equivalences (Henchoz, 2008). At least three elements can currently be put into the marital balance: the time and energy devoted to the well-being of the family; the financial contribution of each person to the life of the couple or family; and the taking on of domestic, caring and educational tasks. One of the two spouses may have more time or money without calling into question the balance between the spouses.

31The balance of exchanges is also envisaged over a long period. More than half of our respondents said they manage money by pooling incomes to support each other through alternating income fluctuations. However, these arrangements are not necessarily the result of consensus. To avoid tensions and disputes, some postpone discussions on the balance of exchanges in the hope of protecting the relationship from conflict. This allows the relationship to be maintained and to endure, but may have the effect of masking imbalances and inequalities, or of preventing them from being explicitly discussed by the partners. Our analyses also show imbalances generally structured by gender difference: men invest more in terms of money, women in terms of time and energy. The consequences of these imbalances, however, are more disastrous for women than for men (Belleau et al., 2020). With the arrival of children, women tend to reduce their working hours while men actually increase them (Gagnon, 2009). The impact of this phenomenon in the event of a break-up is felt over several years and adds to the persistent income gap between men and women (Galarneau et Sturrock, 1997 ; Gadalla, 2008).

32The work that individuals do on the boundaries of intimacy is also visible when it comes to simply defining what is "income" for each partner. Analysis of the discourse clearly shows that the frame of reference for each of the partners in the couple may differ. The income of either spouse may be considered by one or both spouses to be either supplementary income in the household, personal income or family income. Is the money of individual spouses pooled, partially shared or managed separately? Can we really talk about a family income, which distinguishes the conjugal unit from the rest of the world (compared to roommates, for example: see Belleau and Proulx, 2011)? Some people believe that cohabitation or marriage necessarily involves pooling, a financial "we", while others believe that the value of autonomy dictates a clear separation of each person's resources. Thus, the same issue of defining boundaries is resolved by reference to different semantic elements, which also vary over time. The beginnings of life together are more often marked by the separate management of assets, whereas the arrival of children, marriage or the purchase of a house encourage many couples to partially or entirely merge their incomes. In specific terms, it is bank accounts, bills in the name of one or both spouses and budgets that define this work of drawing boundaries between the self, the conjugal "we" and others in daily materiality.

33In short, these few examples show, from the perspective of money and its management, the extent to which semantic references to an organized and structured, historically constituted repertoire of rules of meaning (Luhmann, 1997 ; 1982) are used by individuals who draw boundaries over time that are somewhat precise, but almost always fluctuating.

The articles in this issue

34In this thematic issue of Enfances, Familles, Générations, we have collected articles that address the challenges related to the boundaries of intimate, family, marital and sexual relationships. While the articles do not share a single conceptualization of the idea of boundaries, they do allow us to appreciate its heuristic potential for analyzing the challenges to the emergence of all relationships and their boundaries through discourses and practices. They also illustrate the work required to maintain, alter or dissolve these boundaries, as well as the role and uses of socially available resources to achieve this work. In addition, they demonstrate the applicability of the concept in diverse situations, involving both the partners themselves and the role of technology in boundary work, and the overlap between intimate and institutional boundaries, as well as the resulting constraints.

35In the first article, Ekaterina Pereprosova documents the placement of children in foster care in Russia. She examines the work done on boundaries and their negotiation not only between people involved in intimate relationships, but also in their relation to the institutions that monitor these relationships. The author discusses the work of building, maintaining and changing boundaries in the relationships between children, foster parents and biological families. The engagement of institutional actors in the process of building new relationships helps to redefine their boundaries. They are influenced by the Russian national culture that defines measures taken for the placement of children, where the foster family is more akin to an adoptive family than an extension of an institution. The article illustrates the friction between institutional and emotional or personal definitions of the boundaries of intimacy and their management by foster families.

36The article by Alexandra Piesen is devoted to the "shifting territories of intimacy" with contemporary "solo" families in Paris. To better capture the experience of parents in single-parent families, the researcher prefers the term "solo parents," which better expresses the feelings of the people she interviewed. Piesen's research findings show that these parents are engaged in ongoing work on the boundaries between parenting, marital and self-relationships in their single-parent situation. For these individuals, boundary work is reflected in the semantics of the management of time and space (both physical and symbolic): the creation of rituals to celebrate time with their children, the management of the institutional rhythm of shared custody, the withdrawal of conjugal intimacy in favour of intimacy with the child, managing the risk of "merging" with the child to the detriment of personal intimacy, and so on. Piesen concludes that solo parents are good examples of relational boundaries and resource management in the relationships that intersect in their lives and structure their experience.

37In her article, Anaïs Chevillot analyzes the difficulties that women artists encounter in defining and maintaining the boundaries between the spheres of professional and intimate or domestic activities, or in a sense, between their multiple identities. For these women, the challenges of boundary work do not depend exclusively on the presence of a family (spouse and children), as the percentage of female artists in couples and with children is rather small in the sample studied. Instead, it is the atypical schedules, the permeability of the creative spaces, and the social and relational expectations of women in general that constitute the main obstacles to the fluid management of boundaries between spheres of identity for these artists. In this case, as in that of other populations, the semantics of time and space are at the heart of strategies to further consolidate the boundaries of artistic creation. 

38Working on the boundaries of intimacy can be a source of great anxiety, especially in times of uncertainty about one's identity and the legitimate ways of constructing a self-narrative. This is the case in adolescence, particularly in the age of digital technologies. Glowacz and Goblet discuss the sharing of intimate digital photos via text messaging and social networking applications (sexting) during adolescence. Sexting is configured as a practice of intimate experimentation, aimed at strengthening and characterizing the relationship with the person receiving the shared image. This practice poses significant risks from the standpoint of personal intimacy, since it makes the person vulnerable to the consequences of improper circulation of his or her images. It is therefore instructive to study how adolescents evaluate and prioritize their management of the boundaries of personal and relational intimacy in relation to digital practices.

39Christophe Giraud explores sexual ambiguity in the emerging relationships of female students in urban Paris. In the young women's representations of themselves and in their partners' management of their representations of them, boundary work is observed between opposite cultural sexual scripts: the easy girl and the uptight girl, or settled couples and couples engaged in one-night stands. Negotiating the boundaries between these contradictory scripts plays an important role in the place that sexuality occupies in nascent relationships and in the choices that young women make in terms of physical contact and sexual practices. The author's work reminds us of the importance in research of not isolating young people's sexual practices from their relational context. It shows the relevance of focusing instead on the work of negotiating the boundaries between sexuality and feeling, particularly within nascent relationships.

40Marital breakdown is another context for redefining intimate boundaries, especially friendly ones. Gaëlle Aeby documents five types of reconfigurations in this context. A first reconfiguration, friendly expansion, refers to an increased investment in friendly relations following a break-up. In contrast, a second type, friendly retrenchment, describes a decrease in the scope of this network. Negotiation, possibly an intermediate form of reconfiguration, marks shared community or professional networks where partners are strongly interconnected and in which the former partner, or his or her friends, will still occupy a prominent place. Parental refuge describes reconfiguration as a refocusing on one's family of origin, along with a reduction in other forms of attachment. Finally, the fifth type, the new partner, refers to a refocusing of social ties around a new life and a new partner, with few or no new friendships. The author identifies three conceptions of justice that underlie the boundary work in these post-break-up reconfigurations of the social network: ownership of friendships, equal sharing and guilt.

41Two articles in this issue explore the work of intimate boundaries in the context of migration. The article by Odasso discusses the influence of the immigration system on the intimate relationships of binational couples. Conducted in Belgium and France, the study aimed to document and contextualize the experience of these couples in the administrative, legal, police and social procedures required to obtain legal immigration status for one of the partners. The sometimes dramatic consequences of the immigration system are presented under three ideal-typical categories: resilience (strengthening the cohesion and unity of the couple); the establishment of a logic of exchange (for example in "fake" marriages); and the break-up or end of the relationship. The couples interviewed are sometimes "couples of convenience", who feign intimacy before the state authorities for immigration purposes. These cases are noteworthy from the perspective of studying intimate boundaries: the work of constituting and "displaying" these communicative boundaries can be performatively effective even when the feelings generally considered essential to the emergence of a relationship are absent.

42Monica Schlobach examines the construction of family feeling in transnational families (whose members reside in different countries) and the role that information and communication technologies (ICTs) play. Her article is based on a corpus of interviews conducted with 23 Brazilian migrants living in Montreal, with 15 spouses and 18 close relatives who remained in Brazil. ICTs allow these families to maintain a co-presence, a certain simultaneity of exchanges and a sense of family unity across the boundaries that separate them. Nevertheless, ICTs are not sufficient to fully manage the emotional suffering associated with separation and transnational migration. Confronted with geographical distance, these electronically mediated families are subject to what the author describes as a tension between the breakdown of ties and an investment in nurturing continuous flows of affect.

43Nadia Mounchit discusses the role of migration as a resource among migrant women from West and Central Africa residing in France. She identifies three ways of harnessing this resource within the conjugal space, each one revealing boundary work based on specific forms of articulation between the cultural referents of the societies of origin and host societies. First, migration sometimes serves as an alternative normative framework, whereby migrant women exploit differences in norms between their host and home societies to renegotiate conjugal relations in accordance with their own interests and aspirations. Second, migration is described as an administrative debt that spouses may employ as a pressure point or as a means of domination over women. Third, migration is identified as an alternative project, a way of achieving independence, of breaking free from an unsatisfactory marital relationship or escaping from an arranged marriage. Through her work, the researcher shows how migration can be a resource for action in the conjugal context.

44The final text in this issue documents the impact of medically assisted reproduction (MAR) procedures on the perception and maintenance of intimate boundaries by partners who use them. From the results of an ethnographic study carried out in a public centre for medically assisted reproduction in Italy, Léa Linconstant shows the transformations in the boundaries of kinship and of the couple through the stages of MAR. This "medicalization" of the body involves a series of stages that define a particular temporality, sometimes very long and costly, of reproduction. Couples face challenges that force them to work on unexpected boundaries, for example when they have to consider the use of gamete donation, which makes partners redefine the boundaries of the family they are in the process of creating. The intervention of medical staff also creates anxieties among future parents about the boundaries of intimacy, as fertility clinics sometimes perform a symbolic "appropriation" of the children born with their support, who become in their words "the babies" of the nurses and doctors involved as well. The boundaries of the family are thus continually being challenged by the medical procedures and discursive production that surround MAR.

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Chiara Piazzesi, Martin Blais et Hélène Belleau, « Boundaries of Marital and Family Intimacy: From Theory to Empirical Approaches »Enfances Familles Générations [En ligne], 34 | 2019, mis en ligne le 22 décembre 2019, consulté le 27 février 2024. URL :

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Chiara Piazzesi

Professeure, Université du Québec à Montréal (Canada),

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Martin Blais

Professeur, Université du Québec à Montréal (Canada),

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Hélène Belleau

Professeure, Institut national de la recherche scientifique (Canada),

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