Recognizing the Signs of Enmeshed Family Relationships and How to Manage
By Lydian Shipp
Updated August 20, 2019
Enmeshment is a dysfunctional relationship style that's characterized by too-close relationships. This style is usually found between family members. Although closeness and intimacy in families are positive and important for developing strong bonds, enmeshment takes this closeness to the next level. This level of closeness and intimacy often causes an unhealthy, imbalanced dynamic between the family members involved.
Although enmeshment is most common between parents and children, it can happen in any configuration between any family members. Spouses can have enmeshed relationships, as can siblings. However, no matter who is involved, the signs of an enmeshed family relationship are generally the same (with slight differences).
What Are The Signs Of An Enmeshed Family Relationship?
Identifying an enmeshed family relationship can be difficult because of the nature of this relationship style. Here are some signs that you might be enmeshed with another family member:
Intense, Overlapping Interests, Emotions, Activities, Thoughts, etc. Between Family Members
In enmeshed family relationships, family members inflict their thoughts, emotions, or interests on each other. Parents may live vicariously through their child(ren)'s activities, or certain family members may expect and require other members to feel a particular emotion in response to a certain situation. Although family members often share feelings, thoughts, and interests, this symptom goes beyond the expected bounds of familial closeness and intimacy.
Privacy is usually lower between family members than it is with strangers (or even friends), but enmeshed relationships have a very low level of privacy that can be uncomfortable and stifling. Enmeshed family members might get angry if you refuse to share details of your life or feelings, causing emotions of guilt, anger, or resentment that can seem inconsolable without the reassurance of the other family member.
Enmeshed family relationships are unhealthy because of the intertwined thoughts and emotions of the family members involved. Dependence on another person for both positive and negative emotions can signal an enmeshed relationship.
For example, experiencing a disagreement (major or minor) in an enmeshed relationship may cause feelings of extreme anxiety, fear, or depression. When the other person in the relationship is happy, you're happy; positive emotions are completely contingent on the relationship, as are negative ones. The feeling that you "have to be with the other person to be happy/okay" can also be a sign of an enmeshed relationship.
Lack Of Independence
An external locus of control that looks to another family member for decision making is a clear sign of enmeshment. In an enmeshed relationship, members don't make decisions independently, regardless of age, relationship status, or other factors. Of course, taking the thoughts and feelings of a family member into account before making a decision is one thing, but refusing to do anything without their express approval is categorically different. Older adults who still live with and rely on their parents in all aspects of their lives are an example of this sign of enmeshment.
Feelings Of Not Being Able To Disengage Or Of Not Being Able To Disengage OR Create Distance
When enmeshment happens, a sense of not being able to disengage from the other person can take over and interfere with other relationships and activities. Enmeshed relationships can be difficult to manage, too because of this impression of inability to create distance and boundaries between yourself and the other person.
Inability To Say "No."
One sign of enmeshment is a feeling that you can't say "no" when a family member asks for something or expresses a desire through their actions. Even if something more important in your life should take priority, you might feel that responding affirmatively to an enmeshed family member's needs is the most important thing to do, regardless of your personal life situation.
Saying "no" might mean that your family member will get angry or depressed, or, under the right circumstances, they may use love withdrawal to convince you to do what they want. This can be an upsetting and confusing situation to manage and understand, especially as an active participant in the relationship.
How To Manage Enmeshed Family Relationships
The first and most important step of managing an enmeshed family relationship is to recognize that there's a problem and make an action toward resolution/management. Everyone's situation is different, but these are some techniques useful for managing enmeshed family relationships:
- Find A Licensed Family Counselor
Find a qualified family counselor who can help you so that you can create a better life with healthier family relationships. Sometimes it can be difficult to see the patterns and obstacles when you're one of the people stuck in the middle of the problem, and a counselor can help point things out to you that you may not have otherwise realized. This is one of the most important steps toward managing an enmeshed family relationship.
Seeking help for your situation isn't only for you, but your family members too. If it seems appropriate, inform your family members and ask them if they'd be willing to participate in family counseling. Some family members might be more amenable to this than others. For this reason, it may be a good idea to first seek individual counseling so that you have the support and a source of advice, no matter what happens.
- Reconnect With Yourself
One of the signs of an enmeshed relationship is the inability to see "where one person ends, and the other begins." Taking the time to focus on yourself can help you see what's yours and what belongs to the other person, which is one of the first steps toward being able to successfully manage an enmeshed family relationship.
Some experts recommend the practice of mindfulness, which can take many forms, but a good place to start is with a 5-10 minute daily mindfulness meditation. Set aside this amount of time during a part of the day when you won't be bothered and make yourself comfortable with a cushion on the floor or sitting upright in a chair. Start by focusing on your breath. Focus on the feelings in your body. Any thoughts that come into your mind are fine, acknowledge them, observe them, but don't judge them. Allow the thoughts and feelings to pass through your consciousness without placing any value on them. Record your experiences in a journal afterward.
Other ways to connect to yourself include taking up a new hobby (or reimagining an old one), getting involved in a club or organization, or taking a class. In fact, making connections with other people (strangers or friends) can be another good way to reconnect with yourself and discover your personal feelings, needs, interests, and thoughts. The goal is to grow yourself as a person and form an independent life that's separate from that of your family members, but that still involves them in a way that's healthy and balanced.
- Set Manageable-Sized Boundaries With Your Enmeshed Family Members
Setting boundaries is key to fostering healthy family relationships. In enmeshed family relationships boundaries are lacking, so being able to identify when and how to set boundaries can make a huge difference in managing enmeshment.
When setting boundaries, it's still important to be aware of the other person's perception and possible reaction(s). Instead of rebelling and setting boundaries in an angry, forceful way, first, show an appreciation for certain aspects of the other person's behavior and then gently express exactly what you need from them (or don't need). For example, if a mother calls her college-age daughter every day to talk to her for 2 hours and the daughter feels that this is stifling her growth as an individual, the daughter could tell her mother that she really enjoys their conversations, but she's not having enough time to do what she needs to do when their conversations are that long and that regular. The daughter could suggest an alternative (a boundary) that would work better for her, such as talking on the phone the same amount of time once a week or for less time every other day.
This gentler way of setting boundaries can, over time, foster a healthier and more productive relationship between enmeshed family members.
- Release The Feeling Of Guilt
It's normal for people in enmeshed family relationships to have a feeling of guilt attached to the idea of setting boundaries with family members. But, this feeling of guilt isn't necessary. Boundaries are a healthy and vitally important part of any strong relationship, and it's essential to set them between yourself and your family.
An overwhelming feeling of guilt is one of the signs of an enmeshed relationship. Release this feeling and reassure yourself that you're doing the right thing by setting boundaries. It can be difficult at first to do this but feeling guilty is only going to interfere with your ability to tune into your feelings and thoughts. As mentioned above, mindfulness can be a good way to start releasing this guilt. Become aware of the feeling, but don't fall into the guilt trap.