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

By Kelly Spears|Updated June 22, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By EmeliaThygesen, LCMHC, LMHC

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.

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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 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.

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.

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:

  • An unhealthy emotional attachment to a loved one that seems out of your control.
  • Shared emotions- when it feels that you have difficulty distinguishing your feelings and emotions from those of your partner or family member.
  • Lack of healthy family gathering and events.
  • Inability to have or greatly difficulty in having engaged relationships with others outside of your immediate family.
  • An unclear identity or sense of self outside of the family setting.
  • Lack of alone time and space while at home, or while spending time with family.
  • Relational boundaries with family members feel unstable.
  • The desire to be rescued from difficult emotions, or the expectation that you'll rescue your loved one from their 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 to or great difficulty in setting boundaries that are healthy.
  • The inability to feel "up" when your loved one is feeling "down," or feeling that your emotional state is always governed by those with whom you have a close personal relationship.

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 their favorite, or exhibits favoritism through their actions, including special privileges.
  • Lack of boundaries regarding privacy between the parent and child.
  • Over involvement in the child's relationships, activities, accomplishments, and problems.
  • The pressure to remain in the same location as the parent even as an adult. 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:

  • 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 their child safe from further physical or emotional harm, even after the illness or traumatic event has passed.

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 disorders.
  • Self-esteem problems often due to a lack of identity and sense of self.
  • Difficulty setting boundaries as healthy boundaries, were not modeled during childhood.
  • Difficulty maintaining healthy personal 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 and regain control by turning to alcohol, drugs, and other addictive behaviors.

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.

Need To Overcome Family Enmeshment And Difficult Relationship Dynamics?

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:

  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 individual thoughts and feelings. Pay close attention to your breath and tap into any body sensations you may be experiencing. By allowing yourself to be present, you'll learn that thoughts and feelings pass organically. You can also try practicing mindfulness by writing about your feelings in a journal or finding a creative outlet that feels good for you. By taking time to think about your own thoughts, feelings, goals and ambitions, you can foster security in your independence.
  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. Some people who come from enmeshed family environments will put up emotional "walls" as a coping mechanism. It's important for you to continue to allow yourself to be emotionally vulnerable. When we repress our feelings, they can fester and become more dangerous to our mental and emotional wellbeing long term.
  3. Take Responsibility For Your Feelings (And Nobody Else's). Many of us often experience a plethora of emotions daily and taking on others' emotions can be downright exhausting as we're already experiencing our own. 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. We are each only in control of ourselves and our own emotions; no one else's.  You can be available to offer empathy for the people you care about without allowing their feelings to affect yours. If you find your emotions mirroring those around you, you may have to learn when to take space from a stressful situation. Doing so protects your emotional wellbeing and prevents you from feeling drained.
  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.
  2. Explore Your Interests. Look for a club, group, or class in your area. Meetup.com is an excellent place to connect with others in your community.

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.”

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