What is an enmeshed family
Enmeshment refers to the lack of self-other differentiation. An enmeshed family sometimes referred to as a chaotic family, is characterized by a lack of a clear family boundary between the parent and the child3. The relational boundaries between them are fused and blurred. There is usually no tolerance for individuality or separateness in individual family members4. In extreme cases, this is akin to emotional incest. An enmeshed family system is usually passed from previous generations to the next generation.
What is enmeshment?
In the 1970s, family therapist Salvador Minuchin developed a framework for categorizing family structures1. A family unit is comprised of invisible subsets of different functions. These subsystems determine how members of a family interact with one another2. Subsystems are separated by boundaries that determine who participates and how. Such boundaries separate physical and emotional spaces between family members. Enmeshment occurs when boundaries between family subsystems become diffused.
In a typical family, there is the spouse subsystem, the parental subsystem, and the sibling subsystem. These subsystems form a family hierarchy. They are expected to exhibit the following five typical behaviors:
- Parents do more nurturing of children than vice-versa.
- Parents are more in control of children than vice-versa.
- Parents are more in alliance with each other than with their children.
- A parent does not ally with their child against the other parent.
- Spouses and siblings relate more to each other in the same generations than across different generations.
Enmeshment family results when family members deviate from these five patterns of behavior and when heightened emotions make each member unable to make their own decisions.
Psychologists believe that clear boundaries create functional family patterns, while enmeshment (diffuse boundaries) and disengagement (rigid boundaries), at opposite ends of the continuum, lead to dysfunctional patterns and family instability.
Cohesion and closeness in an enmeshed family
Enmeshment is not the same as cohesion.
Family cohesion refers to the degree of family closeness and caring among family members. A close-knit family has strong family bonds that include emotional closeness and support. A close family is associated with higher life satisfaction and lower depressive symptoms.
On the other hand, an enmeshed parenting style creates a dysfunctional relationship pattern that inhibits psychological differences in individual members. Despite the nonexistent boundaries (enmeshed boundaries), enmeshed families have a low level of cohesion and only moderate levels of warmth in the familial relationship. The level of closeness is often constraining and hinders individual autonomy.
In addition, enmeshed parents show high levels of hostility and negative emotions. Enmeshed parents are intrusive and competitive5. Their psychological control over the child often leads to codependent unhealthy relationships6.
Enmeshment in the family can also mean rigid boundaries to the outside world. Enmeshed children are constrained to sustain their own needs and find gratification only within the family. When they deviate from the expectation, they develop strong feelings of guilt and a fear of abandonment.
Thus, the enmeshed family systems comprise both weakly defined boundaries in the entire family and a highly rigid boundary between families and the outside world.
Causes of enmeshment
Emotional enmeshment often coexists with the emotional distance between couples, intrusive over-involvement from the parents, and alienation from one parent.
Parents with long-standing or high-conflict marital discord can engage in enmeshed parenting.
Usually, the child is forced to choose between two warring parents. One parent and child then became enmeshed in a coalition of over-involvement that excludes the other parent, who is less involved.
Sometimes, it can even develop into parental alienation7 or malicious parent syndrome. Emotionally pulling or coaxing children into family problems like this may amplify the impact on children’s sense of security8.
Enmeshment patterns are also found in families where one parent uses harsh punishment or physical abuse on the child. The child tends to align with and form an enmeshed relationship with the non-abusive parent9.
Signs of enmeshment in family
Enmeshed parents often appear as loving and exceptional parents, and the children often seem to do well.
Here are some signs and patterns of enmeshment in families10.
- “We” is often used to describe feelings, opinion, or emotional experience.
- Lack of psychological boundaries often manifests in lack of physical boundaries, e.g. the child sitting on the lap of and entwining with the preferred parent.
- The child has developmentally inappropriate difficulties separating from the parent and attending school.
- The child’s inability to establish peer relationships because of clinginess to the preferred parent.
- The child cannot function in an age-appropriate, independent manner, such as attending camp or having sleepovers with peers.
- The child is highly attuned to the enmeshed parent’s neediness and dependence.
- The child assumes responsibility for protecting the parent.
- Role reversal and unhealthy family dynamics in which the child assumes a caretaking role for the parent.
Effects of enmeshment on children
When boundaries are diffused excessively between parent and child, the child will have difficulty individuating appropriately. A child with an enmeshed parent often feels unable to separate from them and has low self-esteem. They can be indecisive about their career path and reluctant to take healthy risks to reach their potential.
When enmeshment results from parental conflicts, children’s insecurity is prolonged. These children are at risk for maladjustment, including internalizing and externalizing mental health issues.
Children who are expected to take care of their parents may experience role confusion.
Psychosocial and developmental research has shown that family differentiation also influences many aspects of a child’s developing psychological sense of self, including individuality, individuation, and individual identity11.
When there are no boundaries with family members, children cannot attain psychosocial maturity through individuation. Children from poorly differentiated families tend to have a weak sense of identity.
The threats to emotional identity are evident when these children face important life transactions, such as going to college.
Attending college is not just an educational transition. This transition usually involves considerable changes in the structure of daily life, relationships, and education. A young adult from such families may have a hard time setting clear personal boundaries.
Enmeshed children suffer from a lack of independence and are associated with more mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. They tend to have more feelings of distress and powerlessness, and less life satisfaction in their adult lives.
How to heal from family enmeshment trauma
The lack of healthy relationships in childhood can have long-lasting impacts on adult children. To heal from the traumatic experience, adult children first need to learn to establish healthy boundaries while maintaining flexible boundaries at the same time.
Balanced levels of cohesion and flexibility can lead to healthy families, while unbalanced levels may lead to maladaptive family functioning.
Getting professional help is the best way to deal with enmeshment trauma. Family therapy, such as Family Systems Therapy, may help reduce the levels of parental enmeshment and boundary issues in a dysfunctional family. Family counseling can assist the family in eliminating dysfunctional behavior and developing healthier relationships.
Individual therapy can provide you with emotional support and help you establish healthy personal boundaries. If you are currently in an abusive relationship, mental health providers can help you recognize the enmeshed family characteristics and break the abusive family cycle so this parenting style will not pass down to your own child. Learning sound relational patterns with the help of a family therapist can lead to healthy, intimate relationships.
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