A word that frequently comes up in family therapy is “enmeshment.” It’s a therapeutic term that is sometimes misused and often misunderstood. Just what is enmeshment and how can a family recover from this dysfunctional relational pattern? To find out, we asked New Haven therapists to help us understand this common relational dynamic.
Enmeshment is a description of a relationship between two or more people in which personal boundaries are permeable and unclear. This often happens on an emotional level in which two people “feel” each other’s emotions, or when one person becomes emotionally escalated and the other family member does as well. A good example of this is when a teenage daughter gets anxious and depressed and her mom, in turn, gets anxious and depressed. When they are enmeshed the mom is not able to separate her emotional experience from that of her daughter even though they both may state that they have clear personal boundaries with each other. Enmeshment between a parent and child will often result in over involvement in each other’s lives so that it makes it hard for the child to become developmentally independent and responsible for her choices.
The causes of enmeshment can vary. Sometimes there is an event or series of occurrences in a family’s history that necessitates a parent becoming protective in their child’s life, such as an illness, trauma, or significant social problems in elementary school. At this time the parent steps in to intervene. While this intervention may have been appropriate at the time, some parents get stuck using that same approach in new settings and become overly involved in the day to day interactions of their children.
Other times, and perhaps more frequently, enmeshment occurs as a result of family patterns being passed down through the generations. It is a result of family and personal boundaries becoming more and more permeable, undifferentiated, and fluid. This may be because previous generations were loose in their personal boundaries and so it was learned by the next generation to do the same. Or it may be a conscious decision to stay away from family patterns of a previous generation that felt overly rigid in its personal boundaries.
The Other Relationship Extreme
The opposite of enmeshment is disengagement, in which personal and relational boundaries are overly rigid and family members come and go without any apparent knowledge of what each other is going through. This can be just as problematic as enmeshment. In fact, in its extremes, disengagement can be more difficult to work with because it’s easier to teach an engaged relationship how to redirect some of their energy than it is to get a disengaged relationship to engage.
A good relational balance involves family members recognizing that they have different emotions and can make independent decisions, while also recognizing that their decisions affect others. In these relationships, a parent can see that their daughter is upset and anxious and can even empathize with her, but this does not get the parent into an aroused emotional state in which they feel like they have to fix the emotion (or that which caused the emotion) of their daughter. They empathize and show nurturing concern for their daughter but allow her the emotional space to solve her own problems with their support.
Signs You May Need Help:
Those in enmeshed relationships are often the last to see it. But with awareness, you can start to recognize some of the signs:
- If you cannot tell the difference between your own emotions and those of a person with whom you have a relationship.
- If you feel like you need to rescue someone from their emotions.
- If you feel like you need someone else to rescue you from your own emotions.
- If you and another person do not have any personal emotional time and space.
These symptoms indicate that your relationship might benefit from the help of a qualified family therapist.