Enmeshment in family relationships
Enmeshment is a term given to families who do not have clear boundaries and end up engaging in unhealthy patterns of behaviour that can stifle opportunities for all members of the family.
Typical traits of an enmeshed family:
There is an ‘unspoken’ rule that no one goes against the general views of the family. To be a rebel or think differently means possibly being ostracized. On an extreme level this could relate to religious attitudes or cultural differences but it can also be less extreme where any type of disloyalty – such as giving priority to members outside the family can lead to disapproval.
There is an underlying emotional blackmail and/or pressure to put the family first, irrespective of whether the family is right or wrong. This is dangerous as it leads to “group thinking” that is distorted and unhealthy yet is accepted as the norm by the family. Normalising dysfunctional views leads to an even further skewed idea of what is normal and this can make it very difficult for members to enjoy normal and healthy relationships outside of the family unit.
Family members can be very interdependent on one another – almost to the point where a child has not learned to fully stand alone on their own two feet. A good example might be an adult who still lives at home and has never left the original family home nor married or it could be an adult child who still allows their parents to wash their clothes, cook for them and arrange their lives for them. It is healthy and normal for parents to love and support their children always but to also help their children to be functioning and independent people apart from the family. Enmeshed families see this kind of ‘separateness’ as a threat rather than as a positive.
Happy, healthy families enjoy accepting new people into their midst whereas enmeshed families never fully accept newcomers. A boyfriend or a girlfriend of one of the adult children will never be fully welcomed with open arms as an enmeshed family sees an outsider as a threat to their control and existing balance. Enmeshed families feel threatened by any progress made by family members too – a state of equality in terms of all members is easier as this status quo is easier to maintain and control.
Unfortunately, children raised in enmeshed families are so indoctrinated that by the time they are adults they cannot see the dysfunction that exists and the only tell-tale signs will be a lack of independence and possibly failed romantic relationships. The enmeshed family takes the place of a normal adult core family and stifles any growth in this area. As a result, adults from enmeshed families very rarely achieve their true potential.
A good balance involves family members recognizing that they are individuals and have different emotions and can make independent decisions, while also recognizing that their decisions affect others. In these relationships a parent can see that their daughter or son is upset and anxious and can even empathize with her, but this does not get the parent into an aroused emotional state in which they feel like they have to fix the emotion (or that which caused the emotion) of their daughter/son. They empathize and show nurturing concern for their child but allow her the emotional space to solve her own problems with their support.
The goal in treating enmeshment is to create emotional differentiation. It is a lot like untangling a ball of yarn made up of two or more pieces of yarn. You want the individuals to connect with each other but in a manner that does not inhibit them from thriving individually and in other relationships.
It involves coaching enmeshed individuals to back away from each other when they start to solve each other’s problems. It involves practicing to allow other family members to sit with their own emotions while communicating to them that you’re okay with them feeling the emotion and that they’ll be fine. It involves confident emotional modeling to each other in the enmeshed relationship.
Too much enmeshment leads to a compromised self and a diluted sense of direction. Enmeshment leads to ‘plodders’. Learn to recognise unhealthy boundaries as well as the costs of this enmeshment to personal development.
Feel free to write to me if you have any issues with enmeshment…Mandy X
Photo by CarbonNYC [in SF!]