In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is enmeshment.
Enmeshment was first described by family therapist Salvador Minuchin. It occurs when there is an extreme lack of boundaries, which prevents healthy differentiation into autonomous individuals. It occurs most often in families, although it can happen in the context of other relationships as well.
In an enmeshed pair, the boundaries are so greatly reduced that one person may adopt the feelings of the other person as their own, without distinguishing that they came from the other person. Unlike empathetic awareness of another person’s emotions, the emotional states of an enmeshed pair start to become one and the same.
Enmeshed parent-child relationships
Parent-child relationships are probably the most likely to become enmeshed. This leads to a blurring of roles. There can be a comingling of emotions, with each relying on the other. The child may have difficulty tolerating distress and rely on the parent to manage the difficult emotions, but the parent also starts to lean on the child for emotional support.
Enmeshed relationships make it harder for the child to develop good self-esteem and a sense of their own identity, as their identity becomes so caught up with the enmeshed parent’s expectations of them. They may not learn the skills to be able to maintain healthy relationships with others.
An enmeshed parent/child pair may not keep some things private as would typically be the case. The parent may share secrets with the child, and the child may identify the parent as their best friend. The child may receive special treatment compared to other children in the family.
The parent may end up trying to live out their own unfulfilled dreams through the child. The child may feel guilty for trying to do things separately from the parent.
High levels of enmeshment can lead to anxiety and decreased psychological flexibility. This decreased flexibility makes it difficult for the individual to manage distress and problem-solve.
How enmeshment begins
Enmeshment may begin after a parent initially steps in to address a problem the child is facing, but then a new pattern of over-involvement is established.
“Helicopter parenting” includes high levels of advice-giving, solving problems for the child, and being excessively involved in the child’s wellbeing. It can lead to enmeshment and decrease the child’s ability to function autonomously.
While at first glance enmeshment may look like emotional closeness, it’s quite different. If you consider a spectrum where one end is enmeshment and the other extreme in uninvolved or neglectful, emotional closeness is somewhere in the healthy middle ground. People who are emotionally close can still be well-differentiated individuals.
A paper in Contemporary Family Therapy suggested acceptance and commitment therapy as a way to increase psychological flexibility in college students who had over-involved parents. In general, though, family therapy will be the best strategy to deal with enmeshed patterns and promote differentiation of each individual involved.
Have you encountered enmeshment, either in your own family or other people you know?
- Berryhill et al. (2019). Chaotic-Enmeshment and Anxiety: The Mediating Role of Psychological Flexibility and Self-Compassion. Contemporary Family Therapy, 40(4), 326-337.
- GoodTherapy. (2016). Enmeshment.
- New Haven Residential Treatment Center. (n.d.). Understanding enmeshment.
- Wikipedia: Enmeshment
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.
21 thoughts on “What Is… Enmeshment”
I’ve always felt my relationship with my mother is enmeshed, but I don’t know if it’s “textbook”. She is invasive and want to bulldoze past my boundaries to know my secrets, but I resist. I don’t see the invasion as “emotional closeness” but she does and feels rejected by my boundaries. I definitely was told things I shouldn’t have known as a child, but I wouldn’t call them secrets…It was more like I was her “therapist” and her “parent” and so I was told a lot of highly personal and Not-Age-Appropriate Stuff.
It’s great that you’ve actually been able to resist in spite of her behaviour.
😀 ^_^ Me and my sister shared a laugh some time back about how I pretend I don’t understand Mum (who hints a lot and goes about things in a passive aggressive guilt trippy way) until she’s direct about what she wants and expects me to answer. If it’s really none of her business, I’ve learned to be bland and go “what a strange question to ask me, why do you want to know?.” xD
My mom is very intrusive and doesn’t recognize boundaries. She was not emotionally involved but the symbiotic relation is a difficult one for me to deal with.
I would imagine so.
I was the kind of child who wanted my own from my parents. I never let them in or allowed them to get involved. Even though I was dealing with what I was dealing with at the time, I never told them about it. I was secretive. They never leaned on me either. There were a lot of boundaries.
This was an interesting post. I didn’t know being close could be a bad thing
I suspect that with a lot of things in relationships, extremes in either direction can cause problems, yet balance can be hard to find.
After reading this, I think my mother and I fall under this term and I don’t mean just recently, I mean since as far back as I can remember. 9 years old and I was spoken to like one of her friends. I mean, marital problems, my father being an alcoholic, other faily secrets… this has just been the norm, between my mother an I.
There are several times where I feel the roles are reversed, again… basically since I was a child. I knew it was wrong for my mom to share such details with me, but we were always told to keep secrets.
My family was as dysfunctional as they come… But, I know I was not the a only one that had a strange family life.
That is very true.
I never knew their was a term for this before… I simply thought it was a form of enabling.
Is this similar to peer pressure? When we do something we won’t do on our own just to accompany our friend or make him or her happy. I mean things that violate our very early moral values. And we are doing it unconsciously despite some uneasiness.
Peer pressure can certainly have significant effects, but enmeshment is more a lack of boundaries on both sides of the relationship, so two people basically operate as one person.
Ic, now it’s clearer for me. Thanks for sharing, Ashleyleia:)
Great post! I’ve seen a lot of enmeshment in my work as a therapist. I agree, outcomes are poor when you’re only dealing with an individual instead of the whole system.
Yes it’s a complex issue that requires a complex approach.
Yes enmeshment was very much with my father and myself…
I didn’t know what the right term was for it, so thanks for this post.
Thanks Ashley. This is interesting for me as I’ve felt for a while my relationship with my younger daughter has some enmeshment; on the back of divorce and her sister going to uni, angry with her dad and got ill on the back of all that stress which has never fully resolved (health or relationship), plus a shared hobby which means we spend a lot of time together but that has also been an emotional rollercoaster (a whole other story!) I’m trying really hard to not feel her emotions as if they’re my own, to not get caught in my worry for her and to be patient. Not succeeding as much as I want to! I am trying to see it as us needing to rework an earlier stage of development rather than her failing to separate fully when she ‘should have’, or me being a crap mum for visiting all that stuff on her at once. I’ll check out that therapy – Ive heard good things about it before
That idea of reworking an earlier stage of development sounds like a great way of reframing that’s very forward-looking.
CaseKeepers.com would be a great tool for your work in CBT. It’s journal capabilities using tags and popup questions to track moods, anxiety and sleep improve therapeutic efficiency.