The Enmeshed Family: 14 Signs Of Enmeshment And How To Overcome Difficult Relationship Dynamics
By: Kelly Spears
Updated August 03, 2021
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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
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“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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