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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 David Prior, LMFT.  Prior is a family therapist for InnerChange, a family of treatment programs for adolescent girls and young women.

In this first of two installments, Prior discusses the symptoms and causes of enmeshment.

What is “enmeshment?”

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.

What causes two people to become enmeshed?

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.

Is enmeshment really a bad thing or is it just when two people are very close?

Enmeshment is different than two people being very close.  Close relationships are a wonderful part of life and often allow for appropriate independence within the relationship.  Enmeshment, however, becomes a problem because the individuals involved start to lose their own emotional identity.  They lack a certain level of autonomy that they need in order to grow emotionally and relationally.  In a parent-child relationship this creates a dynamic in which teenagers who need to develop appropriate autonomy become developmentally stymied.  They are either too afraid to venture into increased autonomy and become dependent on their parents, or they become reactive to the enmeshment and run too far in the other direction, sometimes making poor choices in their effort to be independent.

Is it possible to love your child too much?

No.  I don’t think it’s possible to love your child too much.  Love and enmeshment are two different things.  However, enmeshment can be a misdirected expression of love.

Do fathers or mothers tend to be more enmeshed with daughters or is there not a clear trend one way or the other?

You can definitely have enmeshment that goes in any direction in relationships.  You can have enmeshment between one parent and a child, between both parents and numerous children, and between siblings.  Probably the most common dyad we see with enmeshment in is between a mom and daughter, but we see it all over the place.

What’s the opposite of enmeshment?  Is that just as problematic?

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.

What’s the right relational balance between these unhealthy extremes?

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.

How can I know if I am in an enmeshed relationship?

Those in enmeshed relationships are often the last to see it.  But with awareness, you can start to recognize some of the signs:  1. If you can not tell the difference between your own emotions and those of a person with whom you have a relationship.  2. If you feel like you need to rescue someone from their emotions. 3. If you feel like you need someone else to rescue you from your own emotions.  4. If you and another person do not have any personal emotional time and space.