Enmeshment refers to a dysfunctional relationship pattern lacking clear or healthy boundaries. The level of closeness often becomes constraining and detrimental. Over time, this pattern can result in mental health problems, developmental delays, and serious problems with codependency.
Many times, people in enmeshed relationships take on the issues or feelings of other people in their lives. They may base their decisions on what they think will make someone else happy.
As a result, people struggling with enmeshment may feel purposeless or directionless. Beyond their relationship with others, they may not know who they really are.
What Are the Signs of an Enmeshed Relationship?
Sometimes, enmeshment can be challenging to identify. This is especially true if you come from a close-knit family where people know everything about each other. What may seem normal to you might actually be problematic.
Common Symptoms of Enmeshed Children
- Believing your emotions are dependent on someone else’s mood (or vice versa).
- Feeling scared to embrace individual thinking or behavior.
- Assuming you have a specific role to fulfill in the family or relationship.
- Feeling as if your circumstances are highly dependent on other people.
- Feeling like you need to “keep the peace” in the system.
- Struggling to confront other people on problematic behavior.
- Feeling guilted into doing things a certain way for people.
- Knowing every detail about someone’s life or vice versa.
- Struggling with a sense of identity.
Common Symptoms of Enmeshed Parents
- Believing that your child is your close friend.
- Acting as if your competence or self-worth relies on your child’s accomplishments.
- Centering your entire life around your child.
- Discouraging or prohibiting your child from thinking independently.
- Snooping on your child or demanding they share all private information with you.
- Disregarding other relationships for the sake of your child’s happiness.
- Discouraging your child from reaching out for outside help or support.
- Expecting your child to follow your dreams for them.
Keep in mind that experiencing some of these symptoms doesn’t inherently mean you’re in an enmeshed relationship. It’s normal for people to struggle with setting boundaries or honoring their needs.
But if you notice many of these symptoms- and they seem to persist or worsen- it could be a sign of enmeshment.
You might also be able to detect enmeshment by how people react once you start setting boundaries or making a change to the relationship dynamic. In enmeshed systems, people often resist these changes.
What Causes Enmeshment?
It doesn’t appear that a single culprit causes enmeshment. Instead, a combination of several factors can contribute to this dynamic.
Typically, enmeshment starts within the family-of-origin. It often stems from severe trauma or adversity, like a mental illness, physical disease, or addiction. The family works hard to protect the struggling individual.
They might assume that person needs all their attention and resources. In some ways, that individual becomes enabled. They may no longer have responsibilities of their own, as people manage their tasks for them.
Additionally, some parents unknowingly pass on enmeshment to their children. If a parent struggles with codependency, they may rely on their child to fulfill their adult emotional needs. The child, who usually wants to please the parent, steps into this strange role. They often sacrifice their needs for the greater good of the family.
These patterns often pass on from generation to generation. People then replicate these ways of behavior because they feel so common and familiar. As a result, even if someone hasn’t lived with their families in many years, they might recreate the same patterns in their adult relationships.
It’s important to consider the primary differences between collectivistic and individualistic cultures when considering enmeshment. Collectivistic cultures emphasize the benefits of community, whereas individualistic cultures emphasize individual rights and happiness.
These societal constraints can affect family systems. For example, in some parts of the world, it’s standard for children to live at home until marriage. In other places, children might live on their own, date, and settle down several years later.
Additionally, parenting styles change over time. In some cultures, trends like ‘helicopter parenting’ are the norm. Others embrace a more laid-back approach.
What Can Result From Enmeshment?
Enmeshment can cause problems throughout the lifespan. It can affect your relationships and self-esteem. Other issues include:
- Lacking an identity or sense of self.
- Needing constant validation from others.
- Having a tremendous fear of abandonment.
- Experiencing generalized anxiety.
- Struggling to set or meet goals.
- Feeling an excess amount of responsibility for other people and their behavior.
- Struggling with self-care or other methods of self-soothing.
- Feeling scared to stand up for yourself or assert your needs.
- Having unrealistic expectations about other people.
- Struggling to respect other people’s boundaries.
- Feeling resentful towards your family.
Enmeshment patterns tend to repeat themselves. If you came from an enmeshed family, you might enter a relationship with someone with a similar dynamic.
If you find someone who doesn’t share that dynamic, tension could arise. You may feel angry if they confront you about the dysfunctional behavior. You may feel the need to become protective and defensive over your family.
Why Is Disrupting Enmeshed Patterns Important?
We all value having supportive and loving relationships. Ideally, these relationships can inspire us to be better people. In difficult times, we can and should lean on our loved ones for guidance and validation.
But if you don’t have boundaries in your relationships, it’s hard to know your responsibility apart from someone else’s. It’s also challenging to distinguish your needs and be accountable for them.
Children in enmeshed families often struggle to develop an autonomous identity. They may feel trapped by their family system. This feeling can lead them to rebel completely- or it can result in them continuously depending on their parents. Both outcomes can, of course, be problematic.
Finally, enmeshment can lead to role confusion. Children may act like makeshift friends, therapists, or teachers to their parents. They may feel “mature” for their age, but this maturity comes at a hefty cost.
Subsequently, parents struggle to respect their child’s need for a unique identity. They may resent them for growing up and hold onto a sense of toxic nostalgia for their childhoods. Even in their adult lives, parents may assume they will play a significant role in decision-making.
Enmeshment tends to be confusing, which is why it can feel so difficult to break these patterns. Many times, people confuse enmeshment with love. They assume the closer a system is, the happier they are. But closeness should be voluntary- once it starts feeling forced, it can become unhealthy.
What Can You Do if You’re in a Relationship?
If you have recognized that you’re in an enmeshed relationship, congratulations! This awareness is the first step towards change. Furthermore, this awareness can be painful, so it’s okay to honor that discomfort.
Reflect on Your Needs
What non-negotiable priorities do you want to set in your relationships? How do you want other people to treat you? What do you value the most in life?
People in enmeshed relationships rarely take time to focus on their needs. Often, they believe having individual needs is selfish. Over time, they may suppress or deny these desires so often that they start to assume they don’t have any needs at all.
Take some time to write down what matters most to you. Don’t worry about sharing this reflection with anyone else. This is simply an exercise designed to increase your insight into your own identity.
Consider New Boundaries
Now that you’ve identified your needs, what has to change in your life? Chances are, the change comes down to boundaries. You probably need to start saying “no” to things you don’t want to do and “yes” to things you do want to do.
Although boundaries can feel challenging, the premise is simple: boundaries act as the limits between you and others. They also convey how you wish to be treated.
With that in mind, start thinking about which boundaries you need to prioritize. Some common examples include:
- Keeping some sensitive information private.
- Setting time limits for how long you spend visiting certain people.
- Avoiding lending money to family or friends.
- Turning down offers to events that don’t interest you.
- Requiring that people treat you with respect.
- Refusing to tolerate toxic behavior that compromises your well-being.
Boundaries don’t have to be overly rigid to be effective. Likewise, they shouldn’t feel punitive. Instead, boundaries can be flexible and adaptive. They should honor your integrity, but they can also honor the relationship you share with your loved ones.
Reestablish Your Identity
Breaking free from enmeshment means reclaiming your sense of self. This process can feel both frightening and exciting.
To begin, you might want to start with a journal entry or vision board. Write (or create) all the words or images that remind you of yourself. How would you describe yourself to a stranger? What are your core values? What do you hope to achieve one day?
Now think about how you can start living a life that feels more congruent with your authentic self. Maybe you will sign up for that class you always wanted to try. Perhaps you will travel more. Whatever you decide to do, try to honor your needs in the process.
Embrace Other People’s Identities
It takes two to make an enmeshed relationship. If you want to improve the dynamic, you must be willing to allow the other person to individuate.
If you’re a parent in an enmeshed relationship, this reality can feel challenging. After all, you might assume you know what’s best for your child. Likewise, you may feel afraid of them falling and getting hurt along the way.
But untangling enmeshment requires sitting with some of that discomfort. Children need to find their identities. They need to come into themselves, and they need your support and love along the way.
If you want to have meaningful relationships, you need to accept people for who they are. Acceptance doesn’t mean you will always like or condone certain behavior. It just means that you release the need to try to control or change it.
Consider Seeking Therapy
Therapy can help with patterns of enmeshment. Therapists have extensive training in understanding relationship dynamics. They can teach you about your habits and support you in developing new ways to behave.
You may benefit from individual therapy if you struggle with trauma, low self-esteem, impulsive behavior, depression, or anxiety. These symptoms can result from enmeshment, and they can make boundary work particularly challenging.
If you struggle with excess guilt, shame, or anger after setting a boundary, therapy can also be productive. Therapy provides a safe, nonjudgmental space for you to explore this discomfort. The more you learn to sit with it, the less distressing it will feel.
Family therapists teach families how to support one another without enabling. They draw attention to problematic relationship dynamics and offer suggestions for change.
In this therapy, parents learn how to relate to their children better. Children typically receive the much-needed permission to be children rather than pseudo adults.
Family therapy can be helpful for enmeshed families struggling with:
- Poor communication.
- Constant conflict between parents and children.
- Mental illness within one or more family members.
- Significant life transitions (a child going to college, divorce, relocation, etc.)
Couples therapy can support couples struggling with enmeshment. Often, the enmeshment stems from the fear of abandonment or rejection. Therapy can help couples process this uncomfortable fear and develop healthier ways to connect.
Enmeshment can create excess strain, tension, and resentment within interpersonal systems. But this pattern doesn’t need to be your fate. You can decide how you wish to interact with loved ones, and you aren’t doomed to one way of behavior.
If you continue struggling with this issue, it might be worth seeking professional support.