Enmeshment is a psychological term that describes a blurring of boundaries between people, typically family members. Enmeshment often contributes to dysfunction in families and may lead to a lack of autonomy and independence that can become problematic.
The concept of enmeshment was introduced by family therapist Salvador Minuchin in the 1970s. Typically, boundaries that help determine how close family members are to each other, as well as who participates in specific family matters, exist within a family system. When these boundaries blur or are not clearly defined, the result may be enmeshment, a situation in which family members are close to an extent that it becomes difficult for each member to establish the level of independence considered healthy by most mental health and family therapy experts.
While many families value closeness and intimacy, enmeshment goes beyond the bonds of a close family. Enmeshment may mean a parent centers their actions or emotions on the child(ren) and their successes or mistakes, attempts to know and direct all of the child’s thoughts or feelings, and relies heavily on the child(ren) for emotional support.
Enmeshment can be problematic because it can prevent people from developing a sense of self, engaging in peer relationships, and learning to self-regulate emotions. Children of enmeshed families may also experience diminished distress tolerance and find it difficult to assert themselves later in life.
In enmeshed families, children may be brought up with the expectation that they will accede to their parents’ wishes and develop the same belief system and ideals. Some children may become a parent’s sole source of emotional support or become the vehicle through which a parent lives out their own unrealized dreams.
Most often, enmeshment occurs between a child and parent and may include the following signs:
- Lack of appropriate privacy between parent and child
- A child being “best friends” with a parent
- A parent confiding secrets to a child
- A parent telling one child that they are the favorite
- One child receiving special privileges from a parent
- A parent being overly involved in their child’s activities or achievements
Children affected by enmeshment may feel like they have to take care of the parent, rather than the other way around. People from enmeshed families may also feel guilty if they spend time away from their family members, and they may face pressure to remain physically close to home and to engage in typical family activities regularly instead of pursuing their own interests.
The Effects of Enmeshment
While enmeshment in families can increase one’s sense of belonging, it can also have a harmful impact. Members of enmeshed families often fail to adequately develop an individual sense of identity and self-esteem. They may avoid taking healthy risks and trying new things, both of which are typically believed to be important aspects of the developmental process. Some individuals affected by enmeshment may feel controlled, which might lead to resistance of parental influence or complete withdrawal. Others may feel overly responsible for the emotions of others and guilty when they tend to, or even acknowledge, their own needs.
Research shows that enmeshment often leads to difficulty regulating one’s own emotions, but enmeshment can also negatively affect future relationships. Those who have grown up in enmeshed families may have difficulty developing appropriate and balanced frienships with peers and trusting people outside of their immediate family. They may guard themselves in intimate relationships, fearing that engaging in a relationship will be overly draining, which may result in a lack of intimacy. Alternatively, they may find themselves seeking out relationships in which they are responsible for caring for a partner, repeating what was learned in childhood.
Addressing Enmeshment in Therapy
Because enmeshment typically involves a long-standing pattern within a family, family therapy may be a particularly useful way to address it, especially if all family members acknowledge the issue and agree to work in counseling to alter the pattern. Family systems therapy, for example, is considered a good approach for addressing enmeshment. A family therapist can help members of a family learn to set boundaries and appropriately express their thoughts and feelings to each other.
Individual therapy may also be helpful for people seeking to understand how an enmeshed family has impacted them and/or for those who are working to address the effects of enmeshment on their lives. Some individuals from enmeshed families may feel trapped between the wishes and expectations of their family members and choices that are more aligned with their own needs and desires. In such a case, a therapist can help them to explore their options and offer support as the individual works to set boundaries and make changes, determine the course of action that best suits their needs, and communicate effectively with members of their family.
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