Family enmeshment is when clear roles and boundaries are lacking within the family unit. Those in enmeshed families typically have low levels of differentiation, which is the process of defining one’s self outside of their family of origin.
Enmeshment is an idea that comes from family therapy and analyzing family systems. It is a concept from Salvador Minuchin’s structural family therapy theory, which emphasizes the examination of how family relationships contribute to individuals’ function or dysfunction.
In his book Families and Family Therapy, Minuchin explains that family enmeshment involves having high levels of communication but low levels of distance, both physically and emotionally. While most people hope to have a close family, there can still be too much of a “good” thing, potentially leading to enmeshment trauma.
Cultural Norms Determine What Enmeshment Looks Like
It is important to note that the United States is a much more individualistic society than many cultures around the world. What looks like enmeshment in the U.S. may be the norm in a more collectivist society like Japan or Italy, where people emphasize the needs of the group over individuals’ needs.
Feminist critiques say that these family system concepts represent patriarchal and male-centered family structures and that the concept of enmeshment pathologizes mothers’ natures to build relationships. So if your background is in a more collectivist culture where individuals are more interconnected, this type of family structure may be preferable to you.
What Is Enmeshment Trauma?
When you think of childhood emotional trauma, you might think of neglect, but the opposite, being “too” close can lead to enmeshment trauma.
For example, a child may be emotionally “parentified,” which can mean the child takes on caring for the parent’s emotional needs. This may look like a mother telling her teenage daughter about her issues with her husband, expecting the daughter to take her side.
Signs of Enmeshment Trauma
Some signs you might see in others or yourself dealing with enmeshment:
- Low levels of privacy between parents and children, either physically or emotionally
- Assumptions that children will be their parents’ best friend
- Parents being “helicopter parents” or excessively involved in their children’s lives to the point of not allowing them to develop on their own
- Parents presuming that their children will be the ones to give them emotional support
- Children being rewarded for not resisting the enmeshment
What Is The Impact of Enmeshment Trauma?
Enmeshment trauma can lead to some long-term mental health effects, which are discussed below.
Being Afraid of Conflict
Those who grew up in an enmeshed family may be incredibly conflict-averse. It wasn’t emotionally safe for them to disagree with their parents growing up, and so they expect that disagreeing with someone as an adult will not be safe either.
Difficulty In Relationships
It is not unusual for someone dealing with enmeshment trauma to have difficulty forming and sustaining friendships or romantic relationships.
After feeling smothered by one or both of their parents, they may expect that their partner or friend will have those types of emotional demands as well. Or, the other extreme, they seek out relationships where they can be the caregiver again, repeating the role that they learned in childhood and perpetuating the cycle.
Many of those who come from enmeshed families may experience low self-esteem. Because they so deeply relied on approval from their parents, often this manifests in adulthood as a lack of confidence in one’s self and decisions for fear of judgment.
Lack of Self Identity
Part of enmeshment is doing everything one can to keep others happy, and so someone suffering from enmeshment trauma may know how to do all the right things to please other people but have no idea what is actually helpful to them.
If you have chosen a career, partner, place to live, or all of the above based on what your parents think is right, it may be hard to know who you really are without them.
How to Heal from Enmeshment Trauma
The good news is that it is never too late to recover from enmeshment trauma. In fact, while it may sound scary at first, it will ultimately be worth it. Here’s how to find your own way after growing up in an enmeshed family.
Boundaries are your new best friend. One of the key characteristics of an enmeshed family is a lack of boundaries.
Take stock of when you are feeling upset with something a family member has done. Is your mother calling you 10 times a day, for example, making you angry every time you see your phone ringing?
This means you either might want to have a discussion with her about calling less, or you might want to just stop answering your phone as much. If you have an enmeshed dynamic, this will likely upset her, and it may make things harder at first, but you will know it is the right boundary for you if it leaves you feeling a little lighter in some way.
Enmeshment may also become comfortable in some ways, because you are making less decisions on your own. But as a result, you may not have a solid sense of self or know yourself very well.
Date yourself, like you would a new partner. Take yourself on outings or trips, inquire with yourself about what makes you happy and sad, pick out clothing your parents might not approve of.
Seek Professional Help
It can be a lot to grapple with coming to terms with some unhealthy dynamics you might have grown up with while also trying to change them.
It took a lifetime to create your current thought and behavior patterns. It won’t take a lifetime to undo them, but it won’t be overnight either.
Likely, your parents were trying to care for you the best they knew how. If you realize some of those dynamics didn’t work for you, it doesn’t necessarily make them bad people or mean that you had a terrible childhood. It just means that you want to do things differently for yourself, and you should be proud of wanting to take care of yourself in that way.