What is enmeshment? Enmeshment is a term used to describe the blurring of personal boundaries in relationships. It usually begins between family members, but it often spreads into other relationships. It involves a lack of individual independence or autonomy. The relationships are too close for comfort. For instance, someone in an enmeshed relationship may be unable to find a balance between being supportive of the other person or be able to do what they want. There is the crossing of an invisible line into a dynamic where the interaction in the relationship is unhealthy.
A healthy dependence on your family as people can you rely on and feel a sense of belonging to, is good. But, if the boundaries become blurred, this can be a problem. For example, if the role of a parent and child becomes reversed. Or, if a child is not allowed to develop their own independence. Enmeshment can also take the form of one person always saving another or being the “fixer”. On the other hand, it can involve one person always wanting to have control over what is said and done. In this scenario, others aren’t allowed others to express their individuality.
Enmeshment in families can be a pattern that has spanned several previous generations. Parents often repeat what they have learned. Alternatively, those who have come from families that were distant may consciously try to parent differently. This can result in overcompensating for a closeness they feel they did not have.
Enmeshment can occur if there has been an event or situation where one person has needed to step in. This may have been the right thing at the time, but this pattern has stuck and continued longer than necessary. Individual family members may then lose their individual sense of self and become codependent. Families with a narcissistic parent or anyone with a narcissistic personality disorder are also at risk of family enmeshment due to unhealthy boundaries and expectations.
People who are in enmeshed families and relationships often do not realize or recognize that this is a dysfunctional family dynamic. They may not understand the harmful long-term effects enmeshment can have on people’s future relationships. Acknowledging blurred boundaries can also be a difficult thing for many people to accept they should change.
Signs of Enmeshment
Some of the signs of enmeshed relationships include:
- Guilt: People in enmeshed families and relationships often feel guilty if they want to do something on their own. They may feel pressured to remain living in the same city or neighborhood as adults and not pursue and explore what they wish to in life. This can turn into resentment over the long term.
- Shared or Symbiotic Emotions: If one person is upset or emotional about something, the other person experiences and feels the same full gamut of emotions. With emotional enmeshment, people are unable to maintain a boundary that shows their empathy. They may not see that it is the other person’s feelings and emotions in a situation at play, not their own.
- Fixing or Rescuing: One person may always be fixing, rescuing, or saving others. They may step in rather than allowing, encouraging, or supporting people to problem solve for themselves. This can result in people losing their confidence and self-esteem in being able to do things on their own.
- Controlling: One person may always want to control another person or people. This can include what they say and do, and what other friendships and relationships they form. No emotional or physical space is given for people to be themselves, or responsible for their own actions. As a “family”, there may be spoken or unspoken rules about what is allowed in terms of religion, sexuality, or politics. Compliance is a must, anything different is unacceptable.
- Expectations: Parents may push their children into a profession or direction in life they wish they had gone. They don’t encourage and help their children seek what it is they want. Adult children who have not been given opportunities to learn independence and responsibility may find it difficult to manage their own adult lives.
- Over Involvement: People in enmeshed relationships may become over-involved with each other. This can be to the exclusion of other people. Parents and children may become ‘best-friends’ or ‘joined at the hip, they do all activities together. Few, if any, relationships and friendships are formed with people in their own age groups or cohort. Codependent parents may become over-involved in their children’s activities. There is little space for privacy or opportunities for learning independence and responsibility.
- Inappropriate Roles: In the parent-child relationship, a child may become the main source of emotional support to a parent. Alternatively, one child may become a favorite over another sibling. In separated or divorced families, parental alienation syndrome may occur. This happens when one parental figure destroys or alienates the child from the other parent and seeks all the parenting time. The alienated parent is unable to maintain healthy relationships with their children or other family members.
What to do if You Have an Enmeshed Family
If you have an enmeshed family and can relate to many of the signs above, there are steps you can take to try to establish better boundaries. Some of these include:
- Family Therapy: Enmeshment is a family dynamic, so the more the merrier if your family wants to work towards finding ways to address it head-on! Structural family therapy can help people find ways to understand their particular dynamic. A therapist will likely explore options with you together as a family. And help with ways to communicate individual needs and desires.
- Individual Therapy: Participating in individual therapy can help with understanding how an enmeshed family may have affected your life and relationship with yourself and others. A therapist would likely help you explore what is best for you. And then learn ways to communicate with your family to make changes and set healthier boundaries.
- Connect With Yourself and Others: If you are in an enmeshed family or relationship where you have little space, try to find some. Spend a little time on your own reflecting on what it is you want and need in terms of your relationships with others and your own emotional well-being. Reach out to friends outside of your family connections or look at joining a club or group where you can enjoy and explore your personal interests.
- Begin Boundary Setting: Start with small steps in setting some personal boundaries around what is right for you. It is a skill that is learned, and it may be a completely new experience for both you and those you are enmeshed with! Allow yourself to think about what you need and how you feel. Find a way to communicate this clearly, and in a way that respects yourself and the other person.
Enmeshment: Bottom Line
Close and balanced family relationships where people feel supported and allowed to express themselves as individuals are considered healthy. Enmeshed families and relationships that are too close or controlling, are not. Families can be complicated things. Enmeshment is not always easily recognized or changed if others involved do not wish to do so, but it can be done. If you have recognized it in yourself or in your adult relationships, you may also be seeing how the effects of enmeshment have affected your life as a whole. To make changes start small. Reflecting on what is best for you in life and ways you can start creating and setting better boundaries with those around you.