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 Salavador 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, because 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.
I’ve seen enmeshment in my work as a nurse, mostly with adult children and their older parents. It can be quite the sight to behold, and the immediate reaction tends to be something along the lines of wow, this is messed up (not the people themselves, but the relationship). I’ve never worked anywhere that family therapy was among the services offered, so it was a matter of trying to help the one individual who was our patient, which made it pretty hard to gain any traction.
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.
- GoodTherapy: Enmeshment
- New Haven Residential Treatment Center: 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.