Why can’t I just deal with my family’s disapproval? Why does my mom get so angry when I keep talking to my sister when they’re arguing with each other? Why can’t I make a single decision without feeling like I have to explain it to my dad? How do I usually end up feeling like it’s my fault when it was my sister’s words that were so hurtful and I only confronted her about her behavior?
If you’ve ever thought along these lines in regard to your relationships, or even just one relationship you have, then its likely that you’ve dealt with enmeshment. Enmeshment is a term used to describe the blurring of boundaries between people. Although enmeshment most frequently occurs in families, it can happen in any relationship. Enmeshment eventually leads to a feeling of loss of personal freedom and can cause problems in relationships and in families.
Families often value closeness, but enmeshment goes beyond the normal family closeness we might desire or aim for. When there is enmeshment a parent may center their action or emotion on his or her children and their mistakes, choices, and even successes. The enmeshed parent may try to know and direct their child’s thoughts and feelings, and they’ll usually rely on the child for emotional support.
The issue with enmeshment is that it causes those involved difficulty in developing a sense of self, engaging in relationships with healthy boundaries, and sometimes regulating emotions. Another common side effect of enmeshment is an inability to be assertive later in life when it may be necessary.
Signs of Enmeshment
- Lack of appropriate privacy between parties
- Being “best friends” with a parent
- A parent telling secrets or adult problems to a child
- A parent giving special privileges to a particular child
- Overinvolvement in decisions, other friendships, activities
These signs can be present in relationships outside the parent-child relationship, however. For example, a friend that insists you must be angry with a mutual friend just because she is, is enmeshed with you. Someone who insists you consult them about decisions you make, or insists you explain decisions you make (outside the bonds of marriage and joint decision making, of course) is likely enmeshed with you. Someone who dictates (or tries to) how you spend your time and who you spend it with is likely enmeshed with you.
If you grew up in an enmeshed family, the impacts can be harmful. In enmeshed families, members can fail to develop full individual senses of identity and self. Members of these families may avoid trying new things, and this is a vital part of building self-identity during youth. You may also feel responsible for the emotions of members of the family, extreme guilt when acknowledging your own needs or feelings, and a sense of being controlled by family.
Enmeshment can impact future relationships as it can affect what is viewed as healthy or normal in relationships. It can cause difficulty in trusting people outside the enmeshed relationship or relationships. Research has also shown that people who are in enmeshed relationships or grew up in them have difficulty regulating their own emotions or tolerating distress in life.
Therapy + Treatment
If an entire family wants to address and understand how it may be enmeshed and how this is affecting their members, a family therapist is the way to go. In family therapy members can learn to set boundaries and express thoughts and feelings with one another in a healthy way. However, enmeshed families are often locked in a pattern of behavior and when there’s a pattern, it means something is working – it may not be working for everyone involved in a fair or healthy way, but it’s working. This means that many times it’s difficult to get an entire family to come in and address issues of enmeshment.
Individual therapy is very helpful for people who want to understand their family’s enmeshment and how it may have affected them. People from enmeshed families or in enmeshed relationships may feel controlled or trapped between expectations of self, other relationships, and the enmeshed relationship. Individual therapy can help that person understand the enmeshment and create healthy boundaries that are more in line with what their own needs and wishes are.
If you’re dealing with enmeshment in your relationships, it’s a good idea to learn about boundaries, and to practice setting some. A therapist can be really helpful as a supportive party and someone to provide feedback while you do so.