The Enmeshed Family: 14 Signs Of Enmeshment And How To Overcome Difficult Relationship Dynamics

By: Kelly Spears

Updated December 31, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: EmeliaThygesen

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.

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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. 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.

Understanding Enmeshment

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.

Hope For The Enmeshed Family

If you are part of an enmeshed family, there is hope! You CAN gain autonomy, break 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 or involving trust, personal and relational boundaries. 

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 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. 

As Maya Angelou once said, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."

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 and entire families. Be mindful of how a child’s life is affected, however. The enmeshed relationships a parent has with their children when left unchanged, can lead to adult children having trouble setting boundaries. This can sometimes lead to emotional and physical abuse, eating disorders, and a lack of engaged relationship patterns. Unless you find a therapist who can help you to understand what enmeshed relationships are and how enmeshed relationships have impacted your life, you will never overcome the lessons you were taught growing up. For example, setting boundaries between emotional and physical boundaries is an important life lesson. However, if your enmeshed relationships as a child did not  teach you that setting boundaries is important, you may end up in a pattern of bad relationships that are unfulfilling and possibly dangerous. Enmeshed relationships can impact your overall wellbeing, you may be more prone to eating disorders and other unhealthy behaviors. 

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 choose to stray from their rigid beliefs and values, thoughts and feelings. They often count 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 of what involves family. In many cases, the child is expected to fulfill his or her parent's unfulfilled dreams. When family cohesion is not present, the parent may not respond as anticipated. This often happens when major family events become intrusive on family closeness and family cohesion and enmeshment. When attempts are made at setting boundaries or putting up physical boundaries parents may not respond well. Enmeshed relationships among families are by far the hardest to manage as the control that is placed on the related children is such that they feel everything they do is inadequate. Trying to convert from boundary disengaged relationships to engaged relationships is challenging.

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You may be part of an enmeshed relationship or family if you experience any of the following:

  • An unhealthy emotional attachment to a loved one that seems out of your control.
  • Shared emotions, where you have difficulty distinguishing your feelings and emotions from those of your partner or family member.
  • The desire for support and validation purposes. 
  • Lack of healthy families gathering and events.  
  • Inability to have engaged relationships with others outside of your immediate family.
  • An unclear identity, due to your loved one's insistence on spending every available moment together. A level of family cohesion and enmeshment moderate in levels may be at play. 
  • Lack of alone time and space, due to your loved one's insistence on spending every available moment together.
  • Relational boundaries are overly off putting and unstable.
  • The need to be rescued from difficult emotions or the expectation that you'll rescue your loved one from his or her challenging emotions.
  • Guilt, shame, and anxiety that arises from meeting your personal needs in place of providing emotional support to your partner or family member.
  • Intense fear of conflict and abandonment.
  • Inability of setting boundaries that are healthy.
  • The inability to feel "up" when your loved one is feeling "down," due to your partner or family member's need for control. Your loved one may attempt to dictate every aspect of your life, from your friendships and relationships to your political and religious beliefs and sexual preferences. Family events separate from the controllers grasp may be unattainable.

In addition to the unhealthy dynamics above, an enmeshed relationship between a parent and child may be characterized by the following:

  • Inappropriate roles, such as the parent becoming the child's best friend, and the child acting as the parent's primary (or only) source of emotional support. The child may also become the parent's confidant and be expected to keep family secrets.
  • Favoritism, where a parent voices that one child is his or her favorite, or exhibits favoritism through his or her actions, including special privileges.
  • Lack of boundaries regarding privacy between the parent and child.
  • Overinvolvement in the child's relationships, activities, accomplishments, and problems.
  • The pressure to remain in the same town as the parent, or to attend a nearby college. Enmeshed parents often make their adult children feel guilty for pursuing interests and activities outside of the family unit.

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:

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  • 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.

The Effects Of Enmeshment

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, which 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, such as headaches, fatigue, sleep problems, and chronic pain.

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.

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 and familial 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:

  1. Practice mindfulness to establish a connection to yourself and your environment. Carve out a few minutes each day to get in touch with your thoughts and feelings. Pay close attention to your breath, and tap into anybody sensations you may be experiencing. By allowing yourself to be present, you'll learn that thoughts and feelings pass organically. You'll also begin to develop a stronger sense of self, and become less triggered by the difficult people and stressors in your life.
  2. 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. Identify the hurt you feel now, as well as the hurt you felt as a child. Sit down and say, “let’s talk about your feelings.”
  3. Take responsibility for your feelings (and nobody else's). We experience a plethora of emotions daily, and taking on others' emotions can be downright exhausting. 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.
  4. 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.

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."

  1. Form meaningful friendships. Many enmeshed family members struggle to make and maintain connections outside of the family unit. Healthy friendships are important; they open us up to new dynamics and help us understand and appreciate different points of view.

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  1. Explore your interests, which can be difficult amid enmeshment. Look for a club, group, or class in your area. Meetup.com is an excellent place to connect with others in your community. Avoid enmeshments moderate associations that are not healthy.

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 Dr. John 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. Combating controlling enmeshment it’s a therapeutic journey. It cannot be rectified overnight.  However, healthy families can result even if enmeshment, where you grew up, took place. 

ReGain's online therapists can help you begin or continue your healing journey. From acknowledging problematic patterns and recognizing unhealthy relationship dynamics, to establishing healthy boundaries and implementing effective communication techniques, your online counselor will teach you the skills necessary to break free from the chains of enmeshment. Many times therapy is enmeshment it’s finality.

A Journey Well Worth The Effort

Healing from enmeshment is hard work, and the journey to inner peace is well worth the effort. By utilizing the information and resources in this article, along with online therapy, you'll 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

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do you know if you are enmeshed?

When it comes to enmeshed relationships, the clearest indicator of enmeshment is a lack of boundaries. Enmeshment occurs when family members (or other members of close relationships) don’t have clear and strong boundaries. This lack of setting boundaries leads to a lot of overlap in the family member lives. While it might not seem bad to have plenty in common with your family members, enmeshment describes more than just hobbies or interests in common. 

An enmeshed relationship often leads you to feel guilty when you go against anything that any of your family members feel, think, or believe. This kind of toxically enmeshed family dynamic forces the individual to give up their own systems of feeling, thinking, or believing in order to accommodate the dominant family member, or other family members. 

Some of the most common symptoms of enmeshment include:

  • An extremely strong emotional attachment to a loved one that feels uncontrollable or overwhelming.
  • Having a hard time pinpointing where your feelings and emotions stop and where the feelings and emotions of your family member or partner begin; namely, difficulty distinguishing your own feelings from those of your partner or family member.
  • Identity problems, or an identity based mostly (or even entirely) on what your partner or enmeshed family require or desire of you.
  • Not enough time or space to be alone, since you’re expected to spend all or most of your time and energy with your overly involved or enmeshed family or partner.
  • A pattern of having to “rescue” your enmeshed family or partner (or in some cases “be rescued” by your enmeshed family or partner) from difficult or extreme feelings or emotions.
  •  Being made to feel guilty, ashamed, or anxious when you put your own personal needs and desires before those of your family member or partner for any reason whatsoever.
  • A strong fear of conflict or abandonment, or taking extreme actions to avoid conflict or situations which might possibly lead to conflict or abandonment.
  • A strong connection and reflection of your family members or partner’s feelings; being unable to feel happy or content if they are feeling upset or discontent in any way.
  • A lack of control, or a lack of a feeling of control, in your life; the feeling that no matter what you do or desire, your family member or partner will have the final say and make the final decision, and you’ll have to go along with that decision.

These symptoms are especially true of enmeshed relationships. If you want to continue to develop a healthy relationship that is free from enmeshment and that can effect change for the better for both partners, it’s important to keep a keen eye out for these symptoms of enmeshed relationships.

What are enmeshed families?

Enmeshed families are families in which the individual is expected to give up their own needs and desires. In enmeshed families, there is a total lack of boundaries, which usually leads to codependent relationships and a dysfunctional family. Even though the family relationships may seem close, the lack of boundaries actually causes the people in enmeshed families or relationships to feel guilt, anxiety, and often resentment towards their family members or partners.

The biggest difference between a healthy family or relationship and enmeshed families or relationships is boundaries. It’s not always easy to see or measure boundaries, even in a healthy family dynamic, so it’s important to look at the symptoms of enmeshment growing between family members. They are used to the patterns that make them, their family members, and/or their partner feel guilty, anxious, or ashamed. So, a person whose family of origin was an enmeshed family might think that an enmeshed relationship is normal, often to the detriment of themselves and their partner and/or children.

When it comes to enmeshed families, and especially the dynamic between parents and children, you might also see these enmeshment symptoms which are common in other’s lives in enmeshed families:

  • Roles that are inappropriate for the family dynamic, such as the parent becoming the child’s “best friend,” or the parent confiding all of their secrets and emotional stress on the child.
  • Favoritism towards one sibling, whether it’s actually said out loud or just proven in the parents’ actions.
  • A lack of privacy, even as the child grows up and becomes more and more independent and self-sufficient. 
  • The parent is over involved in the child’s school and social life, and this pattern continues even as the child grows towards adulthood.
  • Lots of pressure to stay physically close to the parent, and lots of guilt when the child tries to pursue activities or interests outside those of the parent.

These symptoms, especially when taken as a whole in family relationships, are the most common indicators of an enmeshed relationship or family. 

How do you deal with enmeshed families?

One of the most common and helpful approaches to dealing with enmeshed families is structural family therapy. In structural family therapy, a therapist or counselor will sit down with the members of a family and talk through the family systems. Family systems are the ways and means by which a family goes about addressing interpersonal conflict and problem solving as a family. 

The therapist or counselor asks a lot of questions and the family replies. Then, based on these answers and by observing the interaction between the family members, the therapist or counselor can offer advice and a course of action to undo any enmeshment. A lot of structural family therapy focuses on setting, maintaining, and respecting the boundaries of each individual family member.

How do you stop enmeshment?

The most effective way to stop enmeshment is to first identify it, and then set up and maintain boundaries. These boundaries can cover physical and emotional protections of your time, energy, and resources. Without setting, maintaining, and respecting each other’s boundaries, it is impossible to stop enmeshment.

What causes enmeshment?

For most enmeshed families or relationships, enmeshment is caused by patterns and experiences in one or more of the family’s or relationship’s members. Many people who grow up in enmeshed families go on to perpetuate enmeshed families or relationships as adults. For this reason, a person’s family of origin is a big indicator when it comes to predicting and diagnosing cases of enmeshed relationships.

Fear of abandonment is also another main cause of enmeshment. When a person is afraid of being left or abandoned in a relationship or family dynamic – whether this fear is rational or irrational – they are likely to over-attach themselves emotionally to their family relationships or to their partner. So, experiencing abandonment or being afraid of being rejected or abandoned is a major contributor to enmeshment, especially as it is seen in enmeshed family relationships.

What are enmeshed boundaries?

Enmeshed boundaries are basically a lack of boundaries. When you have enmeshed boundaries, you’ll often find it hard to pinpoint exactly where your own needs, desires, and emotions end and where those of your partner or family member begin. This is because when you have enmeshed boundaries, it’s basically the same as having no boundaries at all. You might also find that all of your time and energy is taken up by the enmeshed relationship; this can leave you feeling like you don’t have enough time or energy to spend alone or on projects and activities that are unique to you.

It is important to have a close bond in a relationship or family; strong and reasonable boundaries that are maintained and respected are the key to healthy close bonds. However, if the boundaries in a relationship or family become enmeshed, it is nearly impossible to keep a healthy relationship.

What does an enmeshed family look like?

An enmeshed family will show all of the characteristics of an enmeshed relationship. This means that there will be a distinct lack of boundaries that will often result in feelings of guilt, shame, and often resentment among the members of the family. 

There are several symptoms of enmeshment that apply directly to family dynamics, as well:

  • Inappropriate roles for the family dynamic, such as the parent becoming the child’s “best friend,” or the parent confiding all of their secrets and emotional stress on the child.
  • Favoritism in the family, whether the parent says it out loud or just proves it in their behavior towards the children.
  • A lack of privacy which continues even as the child grows and gains self-sufficiency.
  • The parent is over involved in the child’s school and social life; helicopter parenting even as the child grows and gains self-sufficiency.
  • The child feels a strong pressure to stay close to the parents and to follow the desires of the parents rather than their own goals; the child feels a strong sense of guilt or shame when they diverge – or even desire to diverge – from their parents’ hopes or expectations.

What are the signs of abandonment issues?

If you’re looking for signs of abandonment issues, the place that these symptoms most clearly manifest is in close or intimate relationships. In these relationships, these are some of the most common signs of abandonment issues:

  • Being a “people pleaser” – always wanting to make other people happy.
  • Giving way more to a relationship than they take or accept from their partner.
  • An inability or unwillingness to trust anyone.
  • Pushing away people who love them or whom they love, for fear of rejection.
  • Always feeling insecure in a relationship, or fearing that everything in the relationship could go wrong at any moment.

Past abandonment and a history of abusive relationships (whether romantically or in the family history) are also key predictors of a person’s struggle with abandonment issues.

What is the difference between enmeshment and codependency?

Enmeshment and codependency look very similar on the surface, but their underlying issues are often different. In the case of enmeshment, the enmeshed relationship often stems from one or more of the member’s fear of being abandoned or rejected. In the case of codependency, it often comes from roles that emerge around existing destructive patterns, such as abuse or addiction. In both cases, though, a person will often feel the pressure to put the others’ needs and desires above their own in order to avoid conflict, often to their own detriment.

Since the enmeshment definition can be confused with codependency by those who have not researched the term to learn the true enmeshment definition, there is sometimes confusion about the difference between enmeshment and codependency. Frequently enmeshment occurs alongside codependency. However, there is a difference between the terms themselves. Codependency looks like relying on another person for your emotions to be managed and your needs to be met past the point that would occur in a healthy relationship. Codependency on its own isn't quite as problematic as enmeshment, but if enmeshment is present, they do tend to go hand-in-hand. Enmeshment might, in fact, be established in the first place because of a person's tendency toward codependency, especially in situations such as family bonds where a child doesn't necessarily know what's going on, have a say, or understand what's normal and appropriate in terms of familial involvement and interconnectedness.

Here is the American Psychological Association definition of codependency as it appears on their website: 

"1. the state of being mutually reliant, for example, a relationship between two individuals who are emotionally dependent on one another.

  1. a dysfunctional relationship pattern in which an individual is psychologically dependent on (or controlled by) a person who has a pathological addiction (e.g., alcohol, gambling)." 

Refer to the question "what does enmeshment mean?" below for the APA dictionary enmeshment definition.

What does enmeshment mean?

Enmeshment is a description of an unhealthy dynamic that occurs in familial relationships and other interpersonal bonds. Many people search the web for "enmeshment definition" after hearing the term. According to the American psychological Association dictionary, the enmeshment definition which refers to relationship dynamics is, "a condition in which two or more people, typically family members, are involved in each other's activities and personal relationships to an excessive degree, thus limiting or precluding healthy interaction and compromising individual autonomy and identity." 

Enmeshment is disengagement from one's sense of self and autonomy. It is not the same as having a close knit family or romantic partnership at all and can be damaging on various levels. 

Why is enmeshment bad?

Enmeshment is detrimental to your sense of self. In many cases, enmeshment contributes to mental illness trauma or significant difficulty with interpersonal relationships in the future. The level of enmeshment can vary. Unfortunately, enmeshment can sometimes pair with abuse, though this isn't always the case. It does remain toxic, however. When enmeshment occurs between a parent and a child, the child may struggle with their self-esteem, sense of identity, and extreme fear of conflict or upsetting others, the ability to distinguish their own emotions, and mental health symptoms such as those related to depression or anxiety. 

The ability to establish clear personal boundaries, maintain your sense of self, and distinguish your own emotions from others is an essential part of a person's growth and development. Those who relate to the enmeshment definition struggle with these things, and it can impact their life substantially. In healthy relationships, or within a healthy close family who has strong family bonds, an individual will be able to develop and maintain their sense of self and develop and maintain personal boundaries. 

Enmeshment can be a difficult problem to solve. It takes a lot of un-learning unhealthy patterns and processes in addition to establishing new, healthy patterns. That said, you can heal from enmeshment and establish healthy relationships moving forward. Many people who have experienced enmeshment go to therapy or counseling to heal. One theme that can be focused on in family therapy is enmeshment. Individual counseling can also help a person who has struggled with enmeshment or who was raised by an enmeshed parent. If you express concern and family reply with a lack of agreement or belief that there is a problem, it may be a situation where you have to distance yourself from said family members to whatever degree is healthy and accessible for you in order to heal. When working through enmeshment, it's a therapeutic process that may take time, so be gentle with yourself as you start to explore who you are and who you want to be outside of an enmeshed parent or family. 

Counseling will work on helping you to establish boundaries in a healthy way. Enmeshed children are not raised in a household where boundaries are enabled by the enmeshed parent. Healthy relationships are based on boundaries and personal space, as well as unconditional love and support. It is perfectly natural for a child of an enmeshed family to defend a parent’s abuse, saying that it was out of love. Siblings may defend the parents, as well. It is important for enmeshed family members to understand that abuse is never justified or okay. A counselor will work to help their client understand this, as enmeshed members take for granted that there are other truths that exist outside of the ones they were raised in and understand to be “normal.” They’ll start to understand that the relationship with an enmeshed parent was not healthy.

Common defenses and viewpoints of enmeshed children are:

  • A family member may see dissent as betrayal of their parent 
  • That there will be consequences for their actions if they do not continue to conform to the enmeshed lifestyle. 
  • That bad grades lead to abuse and that this is normal. 
  • It is not okay or normal to enable dysfunctional behavior. Behaviors of enmeshed family members are not viewed as dysfunctional behavior because the behaviors are all that the person or people understand to be the truth and “normal.”
  • There is not necessarily a specific role that family members maintain. Since boundaries are removed in enmeshed families, familial roles are often mixed or blended into a generic viewpoint. 
  • Harmful behavior is not seen as negative; it is normal. Behaving poorly may lead to abuse, but it is accepted as a natural occurrence and not harmful behavior. 
  • Family members may enable abuse. Things that can lead to abuse are disobeying the order of the enmeshed household. 
  • The level of closeness in an enmeshed family is natural. However, those outside of an enmeshed family do not hold the same convictions, and sometimes acts of closeness can be considered frowned upon. For example, an enmeshed parent and their inappropriate level of involvement may be frowned upon. 
  • The sudden loss of a parent in an enmeshed family can be seen as both horrible and relief. Sometimes children of an enmeshed family want freedom, and until a parent dies, it is seemingly impossible to escape. Whether the death is by natural causes, sudden onset, a natural disaster, or other means of death, surviving members' outcomes can still be catastrophically painful. 

What is enmeshment in a relationship?

Enmeshment is extremely different from a healthy romantic relationship or close family. Say that a child and their mother are enmeshed. The child's life is affected because they do not have their own personal boundaries, can't develop their own sense of self, and take on their mother's emotions as their own. They are conjoined with the enmeshed parent in a way that is toxic and does not allow one another emotional space or room for differences. There are no personal boundaries or decision-making opportunities allowed that are appropriate to the age of the child. The child has little to no say and little to no privacy, and they lack a sense of self. In this case, where the two are enmeshed the mom is essentially robbing the child of an opportunity to grow into an individual with a strong sense of self, decision-making skills, confidence, personal boundaries, the ability to say "no," and healthy relationships or relationship patterns. That is an example of enmeshment in a familial relationship. Enmeshment between two adults in a romantic relationship will look similar to an enmeshed parent and child relationships in terms of enmeshment symptoms and over-involvement in each other's lives, and it's likely to impact someone's mental health and sense of identity similarly, but it will occur in members of a couple instead of members of a family unit. Should someone leave the partnership, their idea of a healthy relationship or healthy relationship patterns may be skewed, but that doesn't have to be the final outcome. It is possible to work through the effects of enmeshment, develop solid personal boundaries, and build healthy relationships where each partner has autonomy and respect for one another as an individual.

What is enmeshment trauma? 

Enmeshment trauma is the effect of dysfunctional relational patterns or patterns within a family system. Those who have been in an enmeshed family system or lived with enmeshed family members, such as an enmeshed parent, may subsequently become involved with a disengaged relationship to engage in a negative relationship that assimilates to enmeshment or emotional incest. 

A good relational balance involves managing others emotions as well as the emotions of the adult child in their adult relationships. When you are not equipped with understanding the proper description of a relationship, as people in enmeshed relationships are not, boundaries are permeable. This can lead to a sort of trauma known as enmeshment trauma.  

For an adult child that suffered from enmeshment trauma or who was raised by an enmeshed parent, adult relationships may take a hit. Since parents of enmeshed children did not teach an engaged relationship with established boundaries and personal autonomy, adult relationships suffer significantly. The relational balance involves family relations as a singular entity, rather than individuals in a family relationship. This enmeshment trauma can be long-lasting without proper therapy, advice diagnosis, and a support group.  

How do you fix enmeshment?

The concept of enmeshment is one where in a relationship you feel as though you are one unit. Enmeshment describes a situation where an enmeshed parent, or another individual, is overly reliant on their kids. It’s a situation where you are too entwined with someone for it to be healthy. There are no boundaries, you have no self-identity, and any sign of dissent is a direct betrayal of the family. Some people describe an enmeshed parent as a “surrogate spouse.” People feel as though they are not independent when raised in an enmeshed family. They feel that previous generations were loose with their family morals and are taught in the family relationship how to redirect love and attention to parents or gatekeepers of the family unit. Enmeshed families don’t allow for room to develop into yourself and your autonomy. 

Fixing enmeshment is complex. In order to have successful adult relationships, overcoming enmeshment trauma is imperative. However, experiencing enmeshment loses is a real thing. This means that people feel a sense of loss when their life-long family unit is picked apart in a mental health care setting. With proper therapy, particularly through support group sessions, those who suffer from enmeshment trauma and heal. While they may always have a desire to go back to an enmeshment structure, they need to understand that enmeshed families are not normal, and that they are damaging and unhealthy. Family counseling can also help a family who has become aware that they are currently in an enmeshed family system. If you’re a child of an enmeshed parent or enmeshed parenting and are healing, it may be hard to spend time with your parents as an adult due to the potential of all patterns returning, or thoughts of them. Make sure that you have support in place so that if you see an enmeshed parent, you will have someone to come to afterward. Since enmeshment is a dysfunctional and unhealthy pattern that can come with varying levels of other issues, which may include trauma and often do, you get to decide how often you see family. Enmeshment creates trouble with setting healthy boundaries, but once you’re able to do so, utilize the skill, and know that it is indeed what is healthy.

In time, someone raised in an enmeshed family can develop healthy boundaries and start to feel free. Enmeshment is a dysfunctional system that’s hard to break. Whether you’re someone who grew up with an enmeshed parent or notice signs and want to avoid enmeshed parenting yourself, counseling can help. Studies have been conducted on being raised by an enmeshed parent or undergoing enmeshed parenting as a child that show how an enmeshed family system can impact a person over time. A study titled “Family cohesion and enmeshment moderate associations between maternal relationship instability and children’s externalizing problems,” for example, looked at the link between externalizing problems and an enmeshed parent. It is known that enmeshment can cause a host of problems. 

Due to the fact that enmeshed parenting, an enmeshed parent, or an enmeshed family system can pair with abuse in some cases, make it hard to form relationships or set healthy boundaries, cause guilt and difficulty in one’s decision making, impact one’s sense of self, make someone feel trapped, and more, a person may struggle with signs and symptoms of depression or anxiety after being raised in an enmeshed family system. Don’t let fear stop the desire to seek depression treatment or talk to a therapist or counselor for any reason. Coping with the effects of living with an enmeshed family system or enmeshed parent isn’t easy, but you can have healthy relationships and heal. 


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