What is… Enmeshment

Mental Health @ Home Insights into Psychology: Enmeshment

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term: 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 tends to be seen most often in families, although it can happen in the context of other relationships as well.

In an enmeshed pair, because 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 empathy, where there is some degree of awareness of the other person’s emotions, the emotional states of an enmeshed pair start to become one and the same.

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 normally be expected,.  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 dreams that they were unable to accomplish 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.

Enmeshment may begin after a parent initially steps in to address a problem that the child is facing, but then they establish a new pattern of being overly involved.   “Helicopter parenting,” which includes high levels of advice-giving, solving problems for the child, and being excessively involved in the child’s wellbeing, 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.

Acceptance and commitment therapy was suggested in a paper in Contemporary Family Therapy as a way to increase psychological flexibility in college students who had over-involved parents.  In general, though, family therapy is going to 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?

 

You can find the rest of my What Is series here.

Sources:

 

Mental Health @ Home Therapy Mini-ebook Collection: ACT Fundamentals, CBT Fundamentals, DBT for Mood Disorders, and PTSD Treatment Options

Share this:

23 thoughts on “What is… Enmeshment

  1. skinnyhobbit says:

    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.

  2. kachaiweb says:

    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.

  3. Michelle says:

    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

  4. Meg says:

    Huh. I’d say my relationships with my parents growing up were dysfunctional times a million, but not in this particular way. Whenever I’d approach them with a problem I was having–nightmares, worries, etc–they’d give me no coping strategies whatsoever, and my anxiety-loving mother would tell me my nightmares could come true in real life. Nice. [Rolling my eyes now.] With any real-life issue, though, Mother always knew how to handle it, or how to get ME to handle it. In eighth grade, Martha and I both were sharing the role of the scared patient in the dentist’s office of Little Shop of Horrors. There were three performances. Martha wanted to do both the eighth-grade performance, AND the parents’ performance, and stiff me with the 6th and 7th grade performance. This seemed unfair. Mother forced me to get on the phone with her and say, “You can either have first pick and I get the remaining two, or I can get first pick with you getting the remaining two. Your choice.” And it worked out, ’cause Martha knew my mom was peeved. I have to say I appreciated Mother’s input, which didn’t go over my head; and it fixed the problem! I guess that’s what parents should do, right? Let kids know how a problem can be fixed and then unleash them to let them do it?

  5. BeckiesMentalMess.wordpress.com says:

    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.

  6. Ooi Zao May says:

    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.

  7. Johnzelle Anderson says:

    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.

  8. drgettingsober says:

    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

Leave a Reply