Most people want to have close family relationships, if possible. However, family bonds can become too close, lacking boundaries and inhibiting individual identity development.
This is a phenomenon known as family enmeshment—a dysfunctional dynamic that occurs when there is there isn’t enough emotional separation among family members.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
- What is an enmeshed family?
- The origins of enmeshment.
- The difference between enmeshment and codependency.
- The effects of enmeshment.
- How to change enmeshed family dynamics and overcome the effects of family enmeshment.
This post contains an affiliate link, which means we may earn a small commission if you make a purchase through our links. There is no added cost for you.
Definition of Enmeshment
Enmeshment is often confused with closeness or intimacy, but it is actually quite different. Closeness and intimacy are healthy aspects of relationships, but enmeshment is characterized by a lack of boundaries. In an enmeshed family, the family members are so interconnected that they have difficulty separating themselves from each other.
Unlike healthy families that balance togetherness and autonomy, enmeshed families prioritize loyalty and emotional attachment above all else. These families may have difficulty separating from their adult children, insisting on maintaining constant contact and exerting control over their lives.
For example, enmeshment is at work when a parent calls their adult child multiple times a day, expects immediate attention regardless of their child’s commitments, or guilt-trips them into complying with their wishes. In such cases, the parent’s needs and emotional security take precedence over the adult child’s independence and personal needs or wants.
The Origins of Enmeshment
Enmeshment starts in childhood when a parent relies on their child for emotional support. This can happen if the parent is lonely, insecure, or has mental health or substance use issues.
In an enmeshed family, the child feels obligated to take care of the parent and may not be allowed to develop their own interests or relationships. Here are a few examples:
- The parent treats the child like their therapist or confidant, sharing personal problems or financial worries.
- The parent wants the child to be their best friend or prevents the child from having their own friends.
- The child is responsible for consoling or making the parent happy.
Enmeshment vs. Codependence
Enmeshment and codependency have a lot in common, but they aren’t the same.
According to Bacon and Conway (2022), enmeshment creates a “false self”, one that’s focused on other people’s needs and demands. And in order to meet other people’s needs and demands, we engage in codependent behaviors such as self-sacrifice, seeking external validation, perfectionism, and suppressing our emotions and needs. In other words, codependency is the result of enmeshment.
You can read a fuller list of codependent behaviors here: Codependency 101
The Effects of Enmeshment
In enmeshed families, the bond between family members becomes a contract based on obligatory guilt and loyalty rather than a foundation of freedom and mutual respect. This can lead to children feeling burdened by their parents’ emotional needs and unable to pursue their own interests or establish healthy boundaries and independence.
The result is a stifling atmosphere where separation is perceived as betrayal and independence is seen as a threat. Such families often have difficulty forming healthy relationships outside the family unit, as they prioritize family obligations and closeness over connections with others. For example, parent-adult child relationships may take precedence over marital relationships.
These are some of the problems that result from enmeshment:
- Parentification. Children in enmeshed families become parentified. This means they take on adult responsibilities (practical or emotional) that they aren’t prepared for. As a result, children feel responsible for their parents’ well-being, miss out on normal childhood experiences, and can become people-pleasers, perfectionists, or workaholics.
- A lack of individuality. Enmeshed family members have difficulty developing their own identities. Adult children function as an extension of their parents and feel like they have to live up to their family’s expectations. They often suppress their own thoughts and feelings and don’t feel they can express themselves authentically or pursue their interests.
- Fear of separation. Enmeshed family members may feel like they can’t function on their own, and they may become anxious or depressed when they are away from their families.
- Guilt. Enmeshed adult children often feel guilty or anxious when they spend time away from their parents. They may be reluctant to make their own decisions and fear disappointing or angering their parents.
- Controlling behavior. Enmeshed family members may try to control each other’s lives. They may make decisions for each other, or they may try to interfere in each other’s relationships.
- Communication problems. Enmeshed family members may have difficulty communicating with each other in a healthy way. They may be afraid to be honest with each other, and they may avoid conflict at all costs.
- Difficulty setting boundaries. Enmeshed families lack boundaries and enmeshed individuals may not see the value of boundaries or feel guilty when setting them.
- Problems in romantic relationships. Enmeshed adults may prioritize their parents over their partners, breeding resentment and neglect within their relationships. They may also develop an unhealthy dependence on their partners, leading to conflicts and a lack of effective communication.
Overcoming Enmeshment and Living Your Own Life
If you think you may be enmeshed with your family, here are some tips for changing and healing:
Set boundaries. This is the most important thing you can do to deal with enmeshment. It’s important to be clear with your family members about what you are and are not willing to do. For example, you might say “I can’t talk to you about your problems every day” or “I need some time to myself on the weekends.”
For more help with boundary-setting, get a copy of The Better Boundaries Workbook by Dr. Sharon Martin.
Work through feelings of guilt. Your parents will probably reject your boundaries but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to set them. Remember, it’s not your responsibility to make your parents happy and you do not need your parents’ permission to set boundaries and create a healthy separation. It’s healthy for enmeshed adults to consider their own needs and happiness rather than perpetually self-sacrificing.
Recognize your autonomy and take steps toward independence. This may include making your own decisions, not sharing all of your problems, spending time alone, developing friendships, or pursuing a new goal.
Communicate your needs. Let your family members know what you need from them in order to have a healthy relationship. For example, you might say “I need you to respect my decisions” or “I need you to give me some space.”
Develop your own identity. Adults who grew up in enmeshed families didn’t have opportunities to explore their identities. They needed to conform and be who their parents wanted them to be. As a result, you may not have a strong sense of who you are, what matters to you, what you like, or what you want or need. Discovering your true self is an ongoing process, not a task you can easily check off a to-do list. Intentionally commit time and energy to this process. The resources below can help you get started.
Sign-up for my free resource library. There you’ll find tools to help you identify your feelings, find hobbies, and create a self-care plan.
Couples need to work as a team. Partners of enmeshed adults also need to set boundaries with their in-laws and feel supported by their partner in doing so. This can help to protect the relationship and prevent resentment from building up.
Get support. Talking to a therapist or counselor can help you to understand enmeshment and develop healthy boundaries.
Be patient. It takes time and effort to overcome enmeshment. Don’t expect to change everything at once. Focus on making small changes one step at a time.
Enmeshment might be deeply ingrained in your family dynamics, but it’s possible to develop healthy boundaries with enmeshed parents and overcome feelings of guilt.
sentence. With self-awareness, determination, and support, you can break the cycle of enmeshment, build healthier relationships, and discover your true self.
©2023 Dr. Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.
Bacon, I., & Conway, J. (2022). Co-dependency and Enmeshment—a Fusion of Concepts. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1-10.