By: Nichole Oliver LPC, NCC, DAAETS
Enmeshment refers to a dysfunctional pattern of relating within a family or close relationships, where boundaries between individuals become blurred or nonexistent. It was first introduced by Salvador Minuchin, a renowned family therapist, and one of the pioneers of structural family therapy in the 1970s. Enmeshment typically occurs when family members have overly diffuse boundaries and a lack of individual autonomy. Enmeshment often manifests as a high degree of emotional fusion, where individual identities become entangled and the needs and emotions of one family member are excessively enmeshed with those of others.
Enmeshed families tend to have limited privacy, autonomy, and personal boundaries, leading to a blurring of roles, emotions, and decision-making processes. Additionally, unhealthy attachment styles can develop and should be considered. Salvador purported the importance of subsystems within families. Subsystems are smaller units within the family that perform specific functions or have particular relationships, such as the parent-child subsystem or the sibling subsystem. Each subsystem has its own set of rules, roles, and boundaries. When subsystems are balanced and work together harmoniously, the family functions well. However, when subsystems become imbalanced or are characterized by enmeshment, it can lead to dysfunction and conflicts within many layers of a family unit.
The psychosocial ramifications of enmeshment on families and adult relationships can be significant, making it difficult to develop secure attachments and healthy relationships. Addressing enmeshment often requires therapeutic interventions, as it is complex and unique to each family and cultural component. Family therapy, in particular, can help family members understand and modify the enmeshed patterns of relating or trauma therapy for the individual for emotional and psychological safety. Therapists work towards establishing healthier boundaries, fostering individual autonomy, and promoting healthier communication and emotional expression within the family system. Additionally, individual therapy may be beneficial for addressing the personal effects of enmeshment and supporting individuals in developing their sense of self and healthy relationships outside of the enmeshed dynamic. Enmeshment between parents and children can manifest in various ways, and the examples provided here are common illustrations of enmeshed dynamics. It's important to note that these examples may vary in intensity and degree from one family to another.
Here are some primary examples: Here are some common effects:
- Lack of autonomy and individuality: Enmeshment can hinder the development of individual identities (core self), leading to a lack of autonomy and independence within the relationships, and one's own healthy development. Family members may struggle with asserting their own needs, preferences, and boundaries from a child rather than their partner would be a prime example. Children may experience pressure to conform to their parent's wishes, beliefs, or aspirations, resulting in a limited sense of personal identity and autonomy (not trusting self). Their own needs, desires, and goals may be subordinated to fulfilling their parents' expectations.
- Emotional fusion: occurs when there is a lack of emotional boundaries between parent and child. In enmeshed relationships, the emotions of one person are excessively intertwined with the other, leading to an inability to differentiate and regulate emotions independently (walking on eggshells, with no room to be or have your own feelings, emotions, or needs). For example, a parent may become excessively distressed or anxious when their child experiences any negative emotions, taking on their emotional burden as their own or vice versa burdening the child because the parent can not regulate, even perceiving negativity or emotions in others and interpreting it incorrectly outside of the enmeshed relationship.
- Limited differentiation: Enmeshment can hinder the process of differentiation, which involves developing a distinct sense of self (normal development) while maintaining an emotional connection with others. As a result, family members may have difficulty establishing and maintaining healthy relationships outside of the enmeshed dynamic or it repeats with friendships and romantic relationships through generations.
- Overinvolvement in Decision-making: Enmeshed parents may have difficulty allowing their children to make age-appropriate decisions and may excessively involve themselves in their children's choices. They may struggle to accept their child's autonomy and instead exert control over decision-making processes, even in areas where the child should be allowed to have their own preferences and independence (voice and choice) then the child grows up limiting this in other relationships despite it being an internalized and self-imposed belief from the enmeshment.
- Lack of Privacy and Boundaries: Enmeshed families often have blurred boundaries and limited privacy. Parents may intrude on their children's personal space, belongings, and private thoughts. There may be a lack of respect for individual privacy, resulting in a sense of being constantly watched or invaded, resulting in fight, flight, and freeze states in many individuals in their intimate and platonic relationships throughout their lifespan.
- Role Reversal: Enmeshment can lead to role reversal, where the child assumes responsibilities and roles typically associated with the parent. The child may become overly responsible for the parent's emotional well-being or take on caretaking roles beyond their developmental level. This can hinder the child's healthy development and sense of self causing lasting difficulties relationally.
- Dependency and lack of autonomy: Enmeshed individuals may struggle with making decisions and taking actions independently. They may rely heavily on others for validation, approval, and decision-making, which can hinder personal growth and self-confidence, goal setting, feeling safe, being ok just being.
- Impaired interpersonal relationships: Enmeshment can affect relationships outside the family as well. Individuals who grew up in enmeshed families may have difficulty forming healthy boundaries, maintaining healthy relationships, and asserting their needs and desires, attuning to their partner’s needs. They may experience challenges in establishing healthy intimacy and may be prone to becoming overly dependent, independent, or enmeshed with their partners, and attachment issues arise.
- Emotional and psychological difficulties: Enmeshment can contribute to emotional and psychological challenges, such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, identity issues, and shame. Individuals may experience a sense of confusion, resentment, or guilt when attempting to differentiate themselves or establish boundaries. They may have a difficult time connecting to others, cultivating and maintaining relationships, leaving them with a sense of not belonging.
- Emotional Manipulation: Enmeshed parents may use emotional manipulation to maintain control and dependency within the relationship. They may guilt trip their children, use emotional blackmail, manipulate their emotions, sunning, and harsh punishments to break their spirit and shame them to keep them close and dependent.
There is a growing body of research indicating a correlation between certain mental health diagnoses and enmeshment. However, it's important to note that correlation does not imply causation, and the relationship between enmeshment and mental health is complex and multifaceted. Here are some mental health diagnoses that have been associated with enmeshment:
- Dependent Personality Disorder: Enmeshment can contribute to the development of dependent traits, which are characteristic of Dependent Personality Disorder. Individuals with this disorder often struggle with making decisions, initiating activities independently, and relying excessively on others for emotional support and guidance.
- Avoidant Personality Disorder: is a mental health condition characterized by a pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation. Individuals with an avoidant personality disorder often have a deep-seated fear of rejection, criticism, or embarrassment, which can lead to significant impairment in various areas of life. In some cases, individuals with (AvPD) may seek safety and validation within enmeshed family dynamics. By becoming enmeshed in these relationships, they may feel a sense of security and protection from potential rejection or criticism from the outside world. Enmeshed families often exhibit overinvolvement, overprotectiveness, and difficulties in establishing healthy boundaries.
- Borderline Personality Disorder/Trauma: Enmeshment patterns can be observed in individuals with (BPD). Enmeshment may contribute to difficulties in establishing and maintaining emotional regulation, and an unstable sense of self. The individual with BPD may struggle with a strong fear of abandonment real or imagined and may seek excessive emotional closeness or dependence on their partner or children. This can lead to a loss of individuality, limited autonomy, and difficulty establishing healthy boundaries within the relationship. Both the individual with BPD and their partners or children may find it challenging to set and enforce boundaries due to fear of rejection or abandonment- walking on eggshells.
- Manipulation: Manipulation can occur in relationships affected by BPD as individuals with the disorder may struggle with regulating their emotions and fear abandonment. They may engage in manipulative behaviors such as guilt-tripping, emotional blackmail, or dramatic outbursts to maintain control or secure emotional validation from their partner or children. This manipulation can erode trust and create a toxic dynamic within the relationship.
- Anxiety Disorders: Enmeshment has been linked to increased levels of anxiety and various anxiety disorders. The lack of personal boundaries and emotional fusion in enmeshed relationships can lead to heightened levels of stress, worry, and fear.
- Eating Disorders: Enmeshment may be associated with the development or maintenance of eating disorders. In some cases, enmeshment can contribute to a lack of autonomy and independence, leading to difficulties in establishing a healthy relationship with food and body image.
- Depression: Enmeshment has been found to be related to higher levels of depressive symptoms. The emotional entanglement, lack of individuation, and limited autonomy within enmeshed relationships can contribute to feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, and low self-esteem.
To shift and break apart enmeshment patterns, it can be helpful to focus on the following skills and strategies:
- Boundaries: Developing and maintaining healthy boundaries is crucial. Encourage family members to establish clear boundaries and respect each other's boundaries. This includes fostering autonomy, allowing individuals to make their own decisions, and honoring their personal space and privacy.
- Communication skills: Promote open and honest communication within the family. Encourage family members to express their thoughts, feelings, and needs while actively listening to others. Teach effective communication skills such as assertiveness, active listening, and validation.
- Self-awareness and individuation: Encourage family members to develop a strong sense of self and personal identity. Support their exploration of interests, values, and goals outside of the family system. Foster self-reflection and self-awareness to help individuals understand their emotions, needs, and boundaries.
- Emotional regulation: Teach family members healthy ways to regulate their emotions and manage stress. This includes identifying and expressing emotions appropriately, developing coping mechanisms, and engaging in self-care practices.
- Support network: Encourage family members to seek support outside of the enmeshed family system. This can include friendships, community groups, or therapy. Having external support can provide alternative perspectives and help individuals establish healthier relationship dynamics.
- Family therapy: Consider seeking the help of a qualified family therapist who specializes in enmeshment. Family therapy can provide a safe space for open communication, exploration of family dynamics, and the development of healthier relationship patterns.
- Relational Coaching: Relational coaching focuses on improving and enhancing relationships, whether it be with partners, family members, friends, or colleagues. The coach works with individuals to explore and understand their relational patterns, communication styles, and dynamics. They help clients develop self-awareness, empathy, and effective communication skills to foster healthier and more fulfilling relationships. Relational coaching may address topics such as conflict resolution, setting boundaries, building trust, and enhancing emotional intelligence.
- Trauma Coaching/Therapy: Trauma coaching/counseling is specifically designed to support individuals who have experienced trauma and are seeking to heal and recover. The coach provides a safe and supportive environment for clients to process their traumatic experiences, explore the impact on their lives, and develop coping mechanisms. Trauma coaching aims to help individuals gain a deeper understanding of their trauma, manage triggers and symptoms, build resilience, and work toward post-traumatic growth. The coach/counselor may incorporate various techniques and approaches, such as grounding exercises, mindfulness practices, and trauma-informed interventions.
It's important to note that coaching is distinct from therapy or counseling. While coaching focuses on personal growth, goal-setting, and developing practical strategies, therapy, and counseling delve deeper into addressing mental health concerns and diagnosable conditions. If an individual has significant trauma-related symptoms or mental health issues, it is advisable to seek the support of a qualified mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor, who can provide appropriate therapeutic interventions primarily modeling healthy boundaries attachment, and attuning. Breaking the cycle of enmeshment requires ongoing effort, self-reflection, and commitment from all family members. It's important to approach the process with patience, compassion, and a willingness to change.