Enmeshment. Have you ever heard of that term? It’s a fairly common term used by therapists to describe the interaction between some family members where one or more of the family members has a substance use disorder.
Often those who are enmeshed are completely clueless that there may be a problem – they have no idea how this issue can actually be an obstacle to a healthy relationship with their loved one.
So what exactly is enmeshment?
It can be described as a relationship between two or more people where the personal boundaries are no longer clear. Most often it happens on an emotional level – for example, where a Mom can “feel” her son’s emotions or when her son gets angry, the mother finds herself getting upset for him. If he becomes extremely hurt or sad over something, Mom may find herself feeling his feelings to the point where she loses her own personal self. She may become overly involved in his life, thinking she needs to “save” him from a bad circumstance or emotional pain. And as his addiction becomes worse, her enmeshment only becomes stronger.
It can be especially hard for parents to recognize that there is enmeshment and that it is a problem because . . . well, they’re parents. As a parent they’re supposed to protect their children, right? That’s part of their job as a parent. The problem starts when they’re unable to step back enough to allow their children to experience life on their own and work through the hard knocks. Instead of helping them (which may be the intent), they’re robbing them of the opportunity to become independent and take responsibility for their own choices.
The concept of enmeshment was introduced by a family therapist, Salvador Minuchin https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/salvador-minuchin-psychiatrist-who-revolutionized-family-therapy-dies-at-96/2017/11/04/ed8a0e40-c15c-11e7-959c-fe2b598d8c00_story.html
and is commonly used to describe dysfunction within a family system. An example of enmeshment is provided by Brooke Shields in her description of her relationship with her alcoholic mother. In her memoir, “There Was A Little Girl; The Real Story of My Mother and Me,” she describes being a parentified child, responsible for keeping her mother happy and stable.
What causes enmeshment? It can be caused by events that occur within a family-like illness, trauma, addiction or social problems. A well-meaning parent may intervene on the behalf of their child that is maybe being bullied in school and then get stuck in continuing that behavior instead of re-adjusting and stepping back enough to allow their child the opportunity to handle life’s issues on their own.
Enmeshment can also happen within families as a result of generational family patterns. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/matter-personality/201704/intrapsychic-conflict-and-dysfunctional-family-patterns
This can be particularly true in families where there has been a lot of addiction in each generation. The family has developed a pattern or way of behaving with one another that is passed down from generation to generation.
It’s important to understand that two family members being close is NOT the same as enmeshment. Members can be close while still allowing one another to feel and work through one another’s own feelings and emotions. Enmeshment should not be confused with love. Love expressed in a healthy way allows the other person the dignity of feeling their own feelings and dealing with their own choices. Enmeshment can be a misdirected expression of love.
Enmeshment and emotional incest are essentially the same things. Emotional incest has nothing to do with sexual abuse. The term refers to the state of two people being psychologically “fused” with each other. Typically, there are no boundaries and if there are – they aren’t being honored. Enmeshment is sometimes used when describing engulfing codependent relationships where an unhealthy interaction between two people exists. Enmeshment may be occurring when the family members involved begin to lose their own emotional identity.
What are some signs of enmeshment?
You find yourself often trying to “rescue” someone from their emotions OR you need someone to “rescue” you from your own emotions.
If you and another person don’t allow one another any personal time or space.
If you find yourself basing how you feel each day on another’s mood or feelings.
If you find yourself overly involved in a loved one’s life, doing for him or her what they should be able to do for themselves . . . well, that may indicate enmeshment.
Enmeshment can happen between a parent and a child, between both parents and their children, between siblings – it can go any direction in relationships. In an enmeshed family, there is usually a lack of appropriate privacy between parents and children.
What to do about a dysfunctional enmeshed family?
Family members should work at having their own space. Finding a good therapist that can help the family members learn how to establish boundaries and detach with love from one another might be the first step.
Establish healthy boundaries https://psychcentral.com/lib/10-way-to-build-and-preserve-better-boundaries/ Start setting limits. Learn how to say “No” or “That won’t work for me.”
Adult children who live with their parents well into their 30’s might want to look at finding their own independent living quarters. They can rent a room in a shared house or rent an efficiency apartment or find a friend they can share an apartment or house with. Moving out provides more independence and an opportunity to set and hold personal boundaries.
If an addict/alcoholic has been living with one or both parents prior to going to residential treatment, then maybe plans should be made to establish some more independence upon discharge from treatment. This might be a good time to choose to enter into a sober living home. The benefits are two-fold – it’s a great step toward building a strong foundation for recovery AND it will help establish an independent relationship from other family members.
An adult child that has been living in a dysfunctional family system will benefit greatly from establishing their own life, independent of their parents. They will be amazed at what they are capable of once they have the courage to take the leap and discover who they really are by living their own life. This will also provide them an opportunity to make their own choices and accept the consequences of those choices – an effective learning process for every human being.
Healing Springs Ranch is here to help you start your new, whole life. Call us at 844.443.2577 to begin your journey.