Enmeshment is a concept in psychology and psychotherapy introduced by family therapist Salvador Minuchin to describe families where personal boundaries are diffused, sub-systems undifferentiated, and over-concern for others leads to a loss of autonomous development.
Enmeshment is most prevalent in parent-child relationship dynamics. Parents who wish to exert control over their children create various spoken and unspoken rules that govern children’s beliefs and behavior. These restrictions can follow children into adulthood, and parents may find it intolerable if an adult child strays from this narrowly defined path. Adult children who deviate from established family norms may encounter extreme resistance, emotional abuse, manipulation, and guilt from other family members. These issues can compound to create a condition called enmeshment trauma.
While many families value closeness and intimacy, enmeshment goes beyond the bonds of a close family. Enmeshment may mean a parent centers their actions or emotions on the child(ren) and their successes or mistakes, attempts to know and direct all of the child’s thoughts or feelings, and relies heavily on the child(ren) for emotional support.
SIGNS OF AN ENMESHED FAMILY
Parents from enmeshed families might put unfair burdens on their children, starting from a young age. Children grow up with the implied message that they should feel ashamed for wanting to prioritize their needs. Other red flags of enmeshment include:
- A lack of privacy between parents and children
- Parents expecting children to be their best friends and always confiding in them
- Children receiving praise for maintaining the family’s status quo
- Parents being overly involved in the child’s life
- A child being “best friends” with a parent
- A parent confiding secrets to a child
- A parent telling one child that they are the favorite
- One child receiving special privileges from a parent
CAUSES OF ENMESHMENT
- Growing up in an enmeshed family environment, which can make it difficult to form and maintain healthy relationships free from enmeshment. Unhealthy patterns tend to be passed down through multiple generations when enmeshed relationships exist.
- The desire to break free from a parent’s rigid rules and boundaries, and making a conscious effort to steer clear of rigidity in the hope of breaking the family cycle, which can sometimes result in enmeshment.
- A parent’s reaction to a child’s illness or trauma, when the parent feels an intense desire to keep his or her child safe from further physical or emotional harm, even after the illness or traumatic event has passed. Enmeshed relationships can set a child up for a lifetime of confusion and conflict.
EFFECTS OF GROWING UP IN AN ENMESHED FAMILY
Individuals with close family bonds tend to be happier and healthier, both mentally and physically. Unfortunately, many families fail to implement healthy boundaries, leading to enmeshment and deep emotional pain.
While enmeshment in families can increase one’s sense of belonging, it can also have a harmful and toxic impact. Members of enmeshed families often fail to adequately develop an individual sense of identity and self-esteem. They may avoid taking healthy risks and trying new things, both of which are typically believed to be important aspects of the developmental process. Some individuals affected by enmeshment may feel controlled, which might lead to resistance of parental influence or complete withdrawal. Others may feel overly responsible for the emotions of others and guilty when they tend to, or even acknowledge, their own needs.
Children affected by enmeshment may feel like they have to take care of the parent, rather than the other way around. People from enmeshed families may also feel guilty if they spend time away from their family members, and they may face pressure to remain physically close to home and to engage in typical family activities regularly instead of pursuing their own interests.
Being a member of an enmeshed family can be discouraging, awareness opens the door to healthier, happier relationships. Because enmeshment often spills over into romantic relationships and even friendships, recognizing telltale signs and seeking help is key to breaking the cycle. People in enmeshed relationships, whether as a child or in a romantic relationship, often feel defeated by emotional and physical abuse. They have trouble setting boundaries as an adult because their unhealthy enmeshed families set the stage citing boundaries are permeable.
Understanding enmeshment with the help of a family therapist, requires taking the vital first steps of seeking professional help. Healthy families do not typically need to find a therapist because there is an understanding of physical boundaries. When you’re in an enmeshed house as a child, it is best to find a therapist to avoid unhealthy relationship patterns as an adult.
It’s important to note that enmeshment is almost always unintentional. Children who grow up in enmeshed families often carry similar patterns to their own families, unaware of the dysfunctional cycles and unhealthy relationships they’re passing on. It takes an individual becoming aware of his or her shortcomings and unhealthy behaviors to facilitate change. Understanding enmeshment and enmeshed relationships can help you break the pattern.
The long-term effects of enmeshment can impact an individual’s life into adolescence and adulthood. Common effects include:
- Personality disorders and other mental health issues.
- Self-esteem problems, often due to a lack of identity and sense of self.
- Boundary issues, as healthy boundaries, were not modeled during childhood.
- Unstable relationships due to family instability during childhood.
- Eating disorders may be prompted by the need for control in a person’s life.
- Substance use disorders and self-destructive behaviors. Many individuals attempt to relieve their emotional pain by turning to alcohol, drugs, and other addictive behaviors.
- Lacking a relationship on how to redirect negativity.
- Physical health problems include headaches, fatigue, sleep problems, and chronic pain.
Awareness is the first step to healing an enmeshed relationship. The following tried-and-true tips will help you start untangling your enmeshed bond with your family:
- Practice mindfulness to establish a connection to yourself and your environment: You’ll learn that thoughts and feelings pass organically by allowing yourself to be present. You’ll also begin to develop a stronger sense of self and become less triggered by the thorny people and stressors in your life.
- Acknowledge your feelings: Rather than pushing uncomfortable feelings away, acknowledge them, and allow yourself to sit with them before allowing them to drift away naturally.
- Take responsibility for your feelings (and nobody else’s): We experience a lot of emotions daily, and taking on others’ emotions can be draining. Make a conscious effort to take responsibility for your feelings, don’t expect loved ones to carry the burden of your emotions, and avoid trying to make others more comfortable by attempting to change their emotional state.
- Begin setting personal boundaries. Only initiate a conversation about boundaries when you and your loved one are calm. Be direct and assertive without being harsh or judgmental. Pay close attention to your feelings, and be sure to maintain the boundaries you set.
- Form meaningful friendships: Many enmeshed family members struggle to make and maintain connections outside the family unit. Healthy companies are essential; they open us up to new dynamics and help us understand and appreciate different points of view.
- Explore your interests
· Go to family therapy if your family members are game.