All families aspire to be close-knit so that they can grow together and support one another. A supportive family ensures that you have a safe space where you can bloom into a unique person and thrive in your endeavours. However, at times, families may become so close that they no longer have any personal boundaries, independence, or autonomy. Such an attachment in a relationship is referred to as enmeshment. Enmeshment can lead to difficulty in developing a sense of self, engaging in peer relationships, and maintaining emotional stability.
What Is an Enmeshed Relationship?
The term ‘enmeshment’ was coined by Salvador Minuchin, a family therapist. An enmeshed family is one where there are blurred or no personal boundaries, and the family becomes overbearing, influencing one’s thoughts, actions, and feelings. It hinders one from forming an individual identity and makes them incapable of exercising any autonomous will. It binds one to the wills and wishes of one’s family and curbs independence. An enmeshed family pattern is indicated by the lack of clearly defined boundaries, control by the family over one’s personal thoughts and emotions, and excessive reliance on one’s family for emotional support.
Causes of Enmeshment
An enmeshed relationship can make you focus on your family members’ thoughts and feelings rather than your own and make you lose your individual identity. Such a relationship can be a result of the following:
- Generational – Enmeshment can be passed down the generations because every new generation will tend to mimic the same familial dynamic that they have grown up with and are familiar with.
- Overprotectiveness – Enmeshment can also result from certain negative and difficult occurrences in one’s life that can cause a family member, usually a parent, to become overprotective of their child. For instance, if the child was ill or faced bullying at their young age and the parent intervened to care for the child, sometimes, that intervention may continue to persist throughout the life of the child. Other such instances are trauma, mental illness, or addiction.
- Excessive Gratefulness – Sometimes, a partner in a relationship may feel so grateful and lucky to be with their partner/spouse that they may go out of their way to please them.
Signs of Enmeshment In a Family
The behaviour of parents in an enmeshed family may indicate an overreliance on their children, and the behaviour of children in an enmeshed family may indicate that they are unable to form identities independent from that of their parents.
The following signs of an enmeshed family may also be visible with an enmeshed relationship spouse:
- Parents may expect their children to follow their beliefs and values.
- Parents discourage their children from following their dreams.
- The self-worth of the parent depends on the achievements of their children.
- The parents believe that they can give their child all the support they need, and there is no need to reach out for support from anyone outside the family.
- The parents may feel the need to know every single detail of their child’s life.
- The life of the parent will be centred around their child’s life.
- Enmeshed parents believe that they are their children’s friends, and their children must therefore support them emotionally.
- Parents will share personal information with their children that would ordinarily have remained private.
- Parents will not allow their children to individuate and form their own identity.
- Enmeshed children don’t have a strong sense of self.
- Children will tend to focus on others’ needs rather than their own.
- Children will align their goals with what their parents want for them and expect from them rather than their own wills and wishes.
- Children may tend to feel guilty if they want space. They will not have any personal time or space as their family will expect them to spend their time together.
- Children will try to avoid conflict and are always reluctant to stand up for themselves and say “no”.
- Children will feel obligated to solve the problems and challenges that their family members are facing.
How Enmeshed Family Is Different From Closed Family
A tight-knit family that supports you is important and something we all wish for. Excessive closeness or disengagement from one’s family can be detrimental to your mental health and personal growth, and striking the perfect balance of closeness is important.
Certain characteristics make an enmeshed family different from one that is closely knit. In a close but not enmeshed family, the emotional bonds will allow the children in the family, or spouses, as the case may be, to venture out into the world and form their individual identities and become unique selves. Family members will not use one another to meet their emotional needs, and they will give each other personal space and time so that there is no codependency and enmeshment.
In such families, the children are encouraged to be a part of the household by contributing to the running of the household without it affecting their physical or emotional health. Such contributions should not interfere with their study time or time they will spend with their peers. They can do chores, as it shows that they understand their responsibility and respect for their parents, and participate in various activities that can help build their self-esteem and give them a strong sense of satisfaction and productivity.
Effects of Enmeshment
The effects of enmeshment will vary slightly, depending upon the relationship. Mother-daughter enmeshed relationships or parental enmeshment may be different from enmeshment in marriage or enmeshment in romantic relationships. The common effects of enmeshment are:
- Mental Health – Enmeshment can result in mental health problems or personality disorders. A person in an enmeshed family may suffer from issues with their self-esteem. They may lack individuality, an identity, and a good sense of self. In children, especially, there may be fear, anxiety, and self-doubt.
- Relationships with Others – A person from an enmeshed family can have problems with their other relationships as well. They may have trouble forming and respecting boundaries as they never learned to do so as children. As a result of being too codependent or controlled, they may lash out or be completely withdrawn from other people. They may have very unstable relationships due to their dysfunctional family dynamics that they have grown up seeing since childhood. There is a fear of being left alone, an inability to express true feelings, a feeling that they are deserving of ill-treatment, guilt for needing personal space, inability to have confrontations, all of which can result in an inability to have a healthy and meaningful relationship.
- Physical Health – A person from an enmeshed family can face mental health issues that can manifest in the form of physical health concerns as well. They may suffer from eating disorders as a result of their need to control someone’s life. They may also engage in substance abuse and self-destructive behaviours like addiction to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to relieve themselves of their emotional struggles and pain. They may also face other problems like fatigue, headaches, uneven sleep patterns or difficulty sleeping, chronic pain, etc.
How to Overcome From Enmeshment
Enmeshment can prevent you from having a healthy and normal state of being. The first step in overcoming enmeshment is to identify and accept that you are in an enmeshed relationship. Once you are aware of the nature of your relationship, you can begin to take steps to become less enmeshed.
Start setting personal boundaries with your family, which can be difficult if you have been in an enmeshed relationship since childhood. Start being more mindful and aware of how you feel and react to situations. If you find yourself emotionally affected by someone else’s actions and not your own, try to control it and understand that you have to allow people to deal with their own actions, and you cannot be affected by them.
Start focusing on yourself and building a personal connection with yourself. Spend some alone time, address your emotions and feelings, even if they make you uncomfortable. Confronting your feelings will help you understand yourself and resolve any unresolved issues you may have that are impacting your life negatively. Start taking responsibility for your feelings, don’t be in denial or blame them on others. You can also start spending some peaceful time with nature, meditate and start being aware of yourself and be present in the moment. This helps you build your sense of self.
Stop feeling guilty or selfish if you do something for yourself. It is important to love yourself and spend time with yourself to nurture and better your mental and physical health. Identify your bad habits and start breaking them. You can also seek out some professional help because making such changes may not always be sufficient in cases where a person is conditioned to live and behave in a certain manner. A qualified therapist can help you make these changes to make your life better. Cognitive-behavioural therapy or dialectical behavioural therapy are some known ways of dealing with the effects of an enmeshed family.
You can also ensure that the enmeshed relationship does not pass onto the next generation by seeing to it that your children are not brought up in the manner that you were brought up in. Let them explore their dreams and form their unique and individual identity. Give them space to grow, and you can also set an example for them by engaging in activities outside the family, like working or volunteering.
While families are meant to be close and supportive, an excess of such closeness can be detrimental to each individual member’s personal growth. At the same time, complete disengagement with one’s family can be just as problematic. It is important to maintain a healthy balance so that you can maintain your own and your family’s mental and physical health and well-being.