Individuals with close family bonds tend to be happier and healthier, both mentally and physically. Though deep relationships between family members are important, some families fail to implement healthy boundaries. While there are different categories of unhealthy family dynamics in relation to boundaries, the particular one that we're discussing is known as enmeshment.
Enmeshment occurs when the dynamics of relationships in a family don't allow individuals to maintain their own individual, emotional space. This can be as a result of traumatic life events, which can cause parents to feel overly protective of their children, or as a result of these familial patterns being passed down from generation to generation.
If you believe your family is enmeshed, you are certainly not alone. In this article, we'll define enmeshment and identify the key characteristics, causes, and effects of this particular family dynamic. We'll also discuss the importance of healthy family relationships, how to overcome difficult relationship dynamics, and valuable resources for individuals, couples, and families in need of help.
Many people don't realize they are part of an enmeshed family until they're well into adulthood, and some individuals never recognize the signs. Enmeshment involves blurred or nonexistent boundaries, unhealthy family patterns, control, social problems, a dysfunctional relationship pattern, and lack of independence and individuality. We'll cover these difficult dynamics in more detail later.
Though the idea of family members having empathy and understanding of each other's stressors and challenging situations may sound positive, families in these dynamics often struggle long-term. Enmeshment isn't sustainable, as it takes away from a person's individuality in their family. Children of enmeshed families often have a harder time being responsible for their own choices and may have difficulty in their personal development. These dynamics can follow a child of enmeshment into adulthood and affect their romantic and platonic relationships in the long run.
Hope For The Enmeshed Family
If you are part of an enmeshed family, there is hope. You can gain autonomy, challenge problematic patterns, and learn to set healthy boundaries with family members and others. You can also get support on an emotional level, restore unstable family patterns, establish setting boundaries that are healthy, and find a good relational balance that involves trust, personal and relational boundaries. Though this process can take time and patience, it's a rewarding journey that can help you and your loved ones feel closer. With the help of an individual or family therapist, you can figure out what patterns are manifesting in your relationships, and how to cope with them in an effective way.
While 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 with a history of enmeshed relationships can be more prone to struggling with emotional and physical abuse. They have trouble setting boundaries as an adult because their unhealthy enmeshed families set a precedence of boundaries as permeable.
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 while remaining unaware of the dysfunctional cycles and unhealthy relationships they're passing on. It takes an individual becoming aware of their shortcomings and unhealthy behaviors to facilitate change. Understanding enmeshment and enmeshed relationships can help you break the pattern.
If you or a loved one are experiencing domestic abuse, reach out for help immediately.The National Domestic Abuse Hotline can be reached at 1-800-787-3224, and is available 24/7.
Signs Of Enmeshment
Deeply ingrained, longstanding enmeshment patterns can be difficult to recognize within a family unit, as dysfunction becomes the norm. Enmeshment is most common between parents and their children, though it can also occur between couples. Since family units are inherently connected, these dynamics can alter the home environment, and create bonds that are co-dependent.
It's important to be mindful of the boundaries in a parent-child relationship. Though it can be difficult for parents to allow their children to have their own autonomy, children from enmeshed families can be more prone to mental health challenges later in life. Children in these situations may also struggle to take healthy risks, and deal with lower self-esteem. Without the ability to be independent and have an awareness of their own mental and emotional wants and needs, it can be difficult for children to develop a strong sense of self. Without these important life skills, children from enmeshed families may feel that they don't have an identity outside of their personal relationships.
Many enmeshed parents expect their children to adhere to their spoken or unspoken rules into adulthood. Enmeshment between a parent and a child can get complicated. These parents may find it unacceptable if their adult children disagree with their beliefs and values. They will sometimes rely on their children for emotional support, expect them to live nearby, and follow a specific career path. If you grew up with enmeshed relationships, you may feel like you do not get a say in what you want in life outside your family.
It can be challenging for individuals to attempt to set boundaries with enmeshed parents. Parents may feel betrayed, angry, or spiteful. It's important to note than many enmeshed parents do not realize that they are, in fact, enmeshed and encouraging further enmeshment. While this certainly doesn't excuse the behaviors, it may be helpful when trying to understand and potentially rectify the family dynamic.
However, because of this parental sense of betrayal, anger, or spite, many children in enmeshed family structures find it difficult to change the dynamics of the family, especially while they're still living at home. Since these patterns are often deeply ingrained in the attitudes and habits of family members, it can feel threatening when the "cohesion" of the family begins to shift. For people in enmeshed families that are hoping to maintain a sustainable relationship with their family members, therapy can be a great tool to move forward.
You may be part of an enmeshed relationship or family if you experience any of the following:
In addition to the unhealthy dynamics above, an enmeshed relationship between a parent and child may be characterized by the following:
What Causes Enmeshment?
There's no doubt that enmeshment is a complex relationship dynamic, and the root cause(s) can be just as complicated. Examples include:
The Effects Of Enmeshment
The long-term effects of enmeshment can impact an individual's life into adolescence and adulthood. Common effects include:
The Importance Of Close Family Bonds
As humans, we crave connection, especially from our immediate family members. Feeling connected to others has a positive effect on our physical and mental health, along with our level of happiness and overall well-being. It's important to note that though enmeshed families are unhealthy long term, the desire to have close family bonds is understandable. Finding the right balance for you and your family members can actually bring you closer together and help your family unit feel secure and supportive.
It may take time, patience, and effort to work on enmeshed relationships, but it can be incredibly rewarding. When enmeshed families become aware of their unhealthy patterns, they can begin to connect through open communication, healthy mutual emotional support, a sense of belonging, and validation. By implementing these positive changes, parents raise their children with the ability to form and maintain positive relationships as adults. Rather than feeling anxious and unstable in romantic relationships and friendships, these individuals can feel safe, secure, and content with loved ones.
Overcoming Difficult Relationship Dynamics
As mentioned previously, 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:
Setting healthy boundaries is a sign of self-respect. As shame researcher Brené Brown says, "Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others."
Remember: This Is YOUR Healing Journey
You may experience some pushback from enmeshed family members as you begin to recognize dysfunctional patterns and set healthy boundaries. Everyone must acknowledge and accept unhealthy family dynamics in their own time. You can begin to untangle yourself from enmeshment even if your loved ones aren't on board.
In the next section, you'll find links to several resources that offer insight and tips for breaking free from enmeshment and other unhealthy relationships.
Helpful Resources For Overcoming Difficult Relationship Dynamics
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by clinical psychologist Lindsay C. Gibson introduces the four types of difficult parents and offers tips on healing from a painful childhood.
Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend is a must-read resource for anyone who struggles to set boundaries in any relationship. You'll find it particularly helpful if you have difficulty saying no to others.
Emotional Blackmail by Dr. Susan Forward will help you overcome the guilt, shame, fear, and sense of obligation you feel due to manipulation.
An Adult Child's Guide to What's Normal by Drs. John and Linda Friel is an insightful resource for individuals who are intent on leading a healthier, happier life free from the pain of past emotional trauma.
Start Your Healing Journey With Online Therapy
While the above-mentioned resources can be incredibly enlightening and helpful, healing from enmeshment and other difficult or damaging relationships often requires support from a trained professional.
ReGain's online therapists can help you begin or continue your healing journey. From acknowledging problematic patterns and unhealthy relationship dynamics, to establishing healthy boundaries and implementing effective communication techniques - your online therapist can teach you the skills necessary to break free from the chains of enmeshment.
A Journey Well Worth The Effort
Healing from enmeshment can be challenging, but extremely beneficial. By utilizing the information and resources in this article, along with online therapy, you can begin to separate your true feelings, emotions, and thoughts from your enmeshed relationships, opening up a whole new world of possibilities.
"Close your eyes and imagine the best version of you possible. That's who you are; let go of any part of you that doesn't believe it." - C. Assaad
“My wife and I decided to give online couples counseling a go after finding traditional methods weren’t all that suited to our busy working and parenting lifestyle. Our counselor Donna Kemp has been amazing! We both feel she’s listened to us and given us the confidence to step out of our comfort zone to deal with problems that are easy to avoid. She is encouraging without being pushy. We’ve both responded very well to her and her methods and look forward to continuing on with Donna. Highly recommend!”
“Austa has been wonderful thus far. She has helped my partner and I during an unimaginably difficult time... She has also guided us in communicating effectively and setting appropriate boundaries in our relationship. I was hesitant to pursue counseling at the beginning, but I truly believe that it is making a difference for our relationship. Austa is easy to talk to and she is a great listener. I would wholeheartedly recommend her as a counselor.”
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is An Enmeshed Relationship?
An enmeshed relationship is one where there are little or no emotional boundaries or sometimes even physical boundaries between the people involved.
Enmeshment can happen between romantic partners, or it can be a dysfunctional family dynamic that plays out among an entire family of parents and children.
The people who are in an enmeshed relationship tend to be overly involved with each other. They may have very little personal emotional time as individuals, and they may be so enmeshed in this particular dysfunctional relational pattern that they don't have any other relationships that are at all close.
What Is The Difference Between Enmeshment And Codependency?
Enmeshment and codependency often go hand in hand; however, the two words mean different things. Codependency is a relationship, usually between romantic partners, in which one person is extremely reliant on the other person. Typically, codependency happens, at least starts, because one person is ill or has an addiction.
Enmeshment refers to an unhealthy emotional bond in which family members or partners do not set or often cross each other's personal boundaries. In an enmeshed relationship, both adults and children may struggle to form or maintain their emotional identity. Because the boundaries are so blurred between one and the other family member, they may be too tuned in to the other's emotions.
Enmeshment is a form of a bond, but it is not a healthy one. It doesn't allow people to be themselves or experience their own feelings in a healthy way. However, healthy families have a healthy separation between the people in the family. They can come together well when they choose and remain independent individuals at the same time.
Even if one or more of the people in the relationship is in an aroused emotional state, they will each face their emotions in their own individual ways. Healthy parents aren't always nurturing concern in their children when they themselves are upset. Instead, they nurture their children in ways that foster self-identity and individuality.
How Do You Break An Enmeshment?
If you suspect that you are in an enmeshed relationship, you may benefit from talking with a counselor who specializes in family psychology. They can look at your family's history to determine whether there might have been enmeshment in previous generations.
Then, the therapist can help you and your partner or family member to face your individual negative emotions, even if your family or partner has different feelings. You may find that you have a completely different emotional experience when you allow yourself and are allowed to be separate from the other or others in the relationship.
However, if the enmeshment is related to any form of abuse or neglect, it's usually best to seek professional medical advice to ensure your child's life is protected. Even if it is an older child, such as a teenage daughter, remember that safety comes first. After that, you can work to help you and your family recover from the enmeshed relationship.