What is enmeshment? It’s generally considered a good thing when a family is close. However, it is possible for family relationships to be too close, or enmeshed. When that happens, the way the family operates can become problematic and impede on each family member’s personal and relational boundaries, emotional state, and identity. An enmeshed family system is one that lacks boundaries and places inappropriate reliance and emotional dependence on a child or children to meet the emotional needs of at least one of the parents or caregivers.
Understanding Enmeshed Family Dynamics
Enmeshment is a concept that was originally coined in 1970 by Salvador Minuchin, who specialized in analyzing family systems. A system is another way to say group of people. Enmeshment is also commonly referred to as covert incest or emotional incest. When enmeshment is present in a family, the boundaries between a parent and child are often blurred. The child typically struggles to develop an independent sense of identity outside of the emotional support they provide for one or both of their primary caregivers.
When enmeshment occurs between a parent and child can feel confusing for the child because it can seem as if they are really close with their parent is a way that feels special or privileged, compared to other siblings. They may believe their parent is their best friend, or be told that directly. While closeness is something many families value, the often suffocating closeness of an enmeshed family system I can impede a child’s developing identity, mental health, social and (later in life) romantic relationships.
Children in enmeshed family systems often experience role confusion, in which they feel unsure of who they are as a person, independent of the role they have been given in the family (i.e., their parent’s surrogate spouse, a friend, or confidant). In families where emotional incest is present, the child might find themselves taking care of the parent more often than the parent attunes to the child’s need. This is not generally explicit, and generally happens outside both the child and parent’s conscious awareness, making it a difficult syndic to name or remedy without professional help.
Seven Signs of Enmeshment
Lack of emotional and physical boundaries.
A dearth of emotional and physical boundaries might look like a parent barging into a child’s room without knocking. If the child asks the parent to knock, instead of respecting the child’s boundary, the parent might claim that it’s okay to violate their physical space and emotional needs because they are their parent, insinuating they have special privileges over their child’s physical space and autonomy.
Feeling responsible for a parent’s needs and feelings.
Someone struggling with enmeshment often feels responsible for their family member’s emotional state of mind. They might feel guilty if their parent or caregiver is upset, and believe they are to blame, even if they did nothing wrong. Enmeshed children frequently feel especially guilty or ashamed if their parent becomes upset when they attempt to set boundaries, to the extent that those feelings can be so debilitating that they deter the child from setting boundaries or expressing an opinion.
Lack of privacy around your personal life.
A child who was raised with an enmeshing parent will likely experience little regard for their personal boundaries. If your parent was enmeshed, they might demand intimate details about your friendships and relationships, your inner thoughts, and makes demands to know where you are constantly (beyond what is age-appropriate concern).
Pressure to match your achievements with your parent’s plans for your future.
Adult children in enmeshed family relationships are more likely to choose a lifestyle or career that suit the needs of their caregivers. For example, if a child wants to be a fashion designer, but their parent is more set on their child working in the medical field, the child might choose the career path that makes their parent happy, as opposed to what will make them happy. This foreclosure on a child’s identity can perpetuate a loyalty bind; choose the path dictated by family, or suffer a loss of security in those relationships.
It’s often extremely difficult and painful for a child to say no, or express their thoughts and feelings in the presence of enmeshed family dynamics. Enmeshed children tend to surrender to their parent, to avoid conflict or feelings of guilt, in lieu of asserting their authentic desire to set a boundary or let their parent know they are unhappy.
Lack of identity.
Many adult children, who experience enmeshed relationships, emerge without a strong sense of who they are as a person. They may see themselves solely as their parent’s support network or the glue holding their parent together. When there is so much responsibility to provide emotionally for the parent, the emotionally enmeshed child often doesn’t have the time, energy, or implicit permission to develop a unique identity. Remaining in the role cast for them, unaddressed enmeshment can thwart the development of an authentic sense of self.
Complicated relationships outside the family dynamic.
Those who experience enmeshed relationships with a parent often struggle to thrive in friendships and romantic relationships as they grow up. It can be hard for one to identify appropriate needs and boundaries, when they’ve spent so many years attuning to the needs of their parent. As adults, they may experience difficulty with trust, struggle to ask for what they need from their friends and romantic partners, and may find themselves in the role of caregiver with partners or friends.
Breaking the Enmeshment Cycle
Enmeshment is usually repeated intergenerationally. In families with unprocessed trauma or enmeshed roles, children who served as their parent’s surrogate partner, my find themselves repeating the cycle with their children. Though processing enmeshed relationships can be hard work and often painful, many recover, learn to set boundaries, finally get the opportunity to meet themselves and provide themselves with the attainment they did not receive as a child, and cultivate happy and healthy relationships. Individual or family therapy, with a therapist who is trained to understand enmeshed family dynamics, can help you individuate and redefine your relationships with family, preserving the parts of the relationships that are healthy and rewarding. To set up a free 30-minute consultation, click here.