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What Is Enmeshment, and How Do You Set Boundaries?

Enmeshment happens when people, particularly parents and their children, lack boundaries and emotional autonomy. Here’s how it manifests. Each family is connected, bonded, and supportive in different ways. Some family dynamics are considered healthy and others are more concerning. Enmeshment occurs when family members are emotionally reactive to one another and completely intertwined

  • Posted on 17th May, 2022 09:35 AM
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Each family is connected, bonded, and supportive in different ways. Some family dynamics are considered healthy and others are more concerning. Enmeshment occurs when family members are emotionally reactive to one another and completely intertwined in an unhealthy way.

This article will define enmeshment, provide examples, present the ways enmeshment can occur and its mental health impacts, and offer ways to overcome relationship issues caused by enmeshment.

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Definition of Enmeshment

Each family is made up of different relationships and different emotional connections within those relationships. Within a family system, the bonds that form between family members will affect children's emotional development.

In an enmeshed relationship, there is no emotional independence or separation between the parent and child. This can lead to a child's inability to form individual thoughts and behaviors that are separate from the parent.

Disengagement vs. Enmeshment

With enmeshment, the emotional bond between family members is intertwined and without separation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, disengagement occurs when family members are completely emotionally separate from one another.

Both are considered unhealthy and can have concerning implications on a child's development and well-being.

Typical Characteristics

In healthy parent-child relationships, there is a balance between having a supportive connection and encouraging the child's autonomy. There is also a healthy separation between parents' relationship with each other from their relationship with their children.

With enmeshed relationships, parents rely on their children for emotional support. They also foster an environment in which their children have excessive dependence on them. In doing so, they don't help their children develop a level of independence as they grow. Children who are raised to be reliant on their parents for all of their emotional needs will struggle to handle basic adversity and form their own identity.

Subsystems Within A Family

Each family is made up of multiple subsystems, including a spousal system, a parent-child system, and a sibling subsystem.

When family relationships are enmeshed, there is no separation between these systems, which should have a level of independence for healthy functioning. This means parents might rely on their children for emotional support or siblings are made to rely on parents for everything rather than being encouraged to form a relationship that functions separately from their parents.

Examples

A person who may have enmeshed relationships would include someone who:

  • Does not have a strong sense of self
  • Depends on others to provide validation and self-esteem
  • Cannot function well alone
  • Has difficulty acting alone and having a healthy level of independence within a relationship
  • Is unable to act and think separately from their family without feeling that the family was betrayed
  • Does not engage in activities for their own enjoyment but looks to do what others want most of the time

Here are some examples of enmeshment:

  • A mother who calls her son's ex-girlfriend to ask why she broke up with him
  • A person who cannot make simple life decisions without consulting her parents first
  • A family member who takes it personally when someone else in the family moves away to take a job
  • A parent who relies on her child for support through her divorce
  • A person who has no understanding of activities he enjoys and instead takes on the interests of his closest friends

Enmeshment Can Be a Generational Pattern

Given that we learn how to function as adults and in relationships from our experiences growing up, coming from an enmeshed family often leads to the children in those families developing unhealthy relationships once they leave home.

A child who has not learned to become autonomous (independent) but is taught that they must rely on others for every decision, for the entirety of their happiness, and for their ability to be emotionally stable, will likely find a relationship that is controlling or even emotionally abusive. This is because the person has never experienced what it's like to make their own decisions without consulting others or to find happiness without the validation from another person.

When a person in an enmeshed spousal relationship has children, they are likely to blur the lines between parent and child and fill their emotional needs through their children. This is how the generational pattern continues. The new parent is looking to fill the unmet needs from their own childhood. They raise their children the only way they know how, which is without boundaries or independence among family members.

Recognizing an Enmeshed Relationship

Two key aspects of healthy functioning in a relationship are based on cohesion (togetherness) and flexibility (ability to change or compromise). Those who may be in an enmeshed relationship will likely struggle to find a healthy balance between time together and time apart. It may bring feelings of stress, anxiety, frustration, fear, or other emotions when there is any form of separation.

Flexibility refers to a person's or couple's ability to handle challenges and change. In enmeshed relationships, the ability to handle change is often difficult and disruptive. Without the ability to manage one's own emotions in tough times, times of challenge often throw the person or couple off and create significant stress within the relationship.

People in enmeshed relationships also may have difficulty supporting each other and celebrating their individual differences. They are likely to make decisions based on what they think the other person wants rather than on their own needs.

Mental Health Effects

It's common for people who are in enmeshed relationships to experience mental health issues. These include:

  • Depression is a common experience for those in enmeshed families, especially mothers. This is because mothers with depression are likely to have unfulfilled emotional needs and seek to fill those needs through their children.
  • Anxiety, or overwhelming fear and worry, can occur—especially when a person has to function alone.
  • Substance misuse is sometimes used as an attempt to alleviate emotional discomfort.
  • Eating disorders are especially common in adolescents with overly involved parents.

Overcoming Enmeshment Trauma

There are multiple methods used to help someone overcome trauma from enmeshment, including learning how to set appropriate boundaries, practicing mindfulness, and attending therapy.

Boundary Setting

Enmeshment is a form of emotional control that is achieved through manipulation. This makes it difficult to form boundaries, and, in fact, boundaries are mostly nonexistent in enmeshed relationships. Since family members are made to feel as though they must depend on each other for their sense of self, there is no room for functioning independently.

When learning to set boundaries, it can help to start slowly. It might feel uncomfortable saying no or pursuing something without permission or validation from others, but this is an important part of setting healthy boundaries. It can help to take some time to think through the things that make you happy regardless of how they affect others.

Tip for Boundary Setting

Part of setting boundaries includes talking about them with those you are closest with. Make your boundaries clearly known and stick to them even when you get pushback.

Mindfulness

Coming from an enmeshed family might make it difficult to recognize when you are in an enmeshed relationship as an adult because it's all you've ever known. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment and noticing both your external environment and your internal responses.

Practicing mindfulness can help bring attention to the interactions you have with others and the way you feel about them. Noticing these patterns will allow you to recognize whether you are in an enmeshed relationship or need to set boundaries.

For example, you might realize that every time you are with a certain friend, you give in to what you think they want and cannot express your own needs and interests. This could be a sign of an enmeshed relationship.

Therapy

It can be difficult to recognize the impact of growing up in an enmeshed family. Setting boundaries can be hard, as can saying no and finding a sense of self and identity. Talking with a mental health professional can help break the cycle of enmeshment and provide support and tools as you learn to function autonomously and understand your own needs.

Therapy can be especially helpful for parents who are concerned about continuing the pattern of enmeshment in their own families. You can find a mental health therapist by asking for a referral from a medical professional, using an online therapist-finding tool, or getting a referral from your healthcare provider.

Summary

There are different types of family attachment that move from disengagement on one end and enmeshment on the other.

In enmeshed families, there are very few, if any, emotional boundaries between family members. Each family member is expected to and taught to become dependent on the other at the expense of developing a sense of self and individual identity. Parents rely on their children for their emotional well-being, children require their parents for every decision, and a decision that someone makes for themself is considered in the context of how it impacts the entire family.

Those who come from enmeshed families might experience mental health problems like depression, anxiety, substance misuse, and eating disorders. If you have difficulty saying no or setting boundaries with others, or if you have concerns about repeating the generational pattern with your own children, it can be helpful to try techniques like mindfulness or to speak to a mental health professional.

A Word From Verywell

It can be difficult to realize that you are in an enmeshed family and even more difficult to figure out how to make healthy changes to become independent and set boundaries within your relationships. Know that you are not alone. Many people experience relationships that foster dependence and need to learn to set boundaries, and there are ways to start becoming more independent.

Through boundary setting, mindfulness, and practice, you can become more autonomous and develop a sense of self that is separate from others' opinions. Talking to a mental health professional can also give you the tools you need to form healthy relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How similar are enmeshed relationships and codependency?

    Enmeshment and codependency are very closely related. People who come from enmeshed families learn that they need to rely on others for their self-worth. They also are taught that their emotional reactions are not separate from others' emotional responses.

    Coming from enmeshed families teaches codependency. It becomes difficult to have your own thoughts and feelings, and you might take on others' needs, wants, and responses as your own. You might also excuse negative or unhealthy behaviors because it's too difficult to set boundaries.

  • Is enmeshment linked to mental health issues?

    Enmeshment is a form of emotional abuse. Living through any kind of abuse can lead to mental health issues. Some common mental illnesses that are connected to enmeshment include depression, anxiety, substance misuse, and eating disorders.

  • Can people in enmeshed relationships change?

    When you come from an enmeshed family, it can be very difficult to change on your own. Learning to change will take hard work and time. Utilizing skills like meditation and mindfulness and working with a mental health professional can provide the tools and emotional support needed to take steps toward setting boundaries, saying no, and developing an internally derived sense of self.

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