In healthy families, the members often have common values, and they are loyal to each other. However, in an enmeshed family, common values and loyalty come at a price: individual well-being and autonomy.
When going through a divorce, separating parents are often more emotional and vulnerable, which makes it harder to maintain normal boundaries with their children. These conditions can lead to enmeshment trauma.
What Is Enmeshment?
Enmeshment (sometimes referred to as emotional incest) involves family relationships that lack boundaries and expectations. In this kind of family, a person’s role becomes blurry and confusing.
Parents may become inappropriately and overly reliant on their child(ren) for support, and the child may not be allowed to be emotionally independent from the parents. All of the members of the family are joined together in a way that is extremely unhealthy.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Enmeshment?
Here are some of the most common signs and symptoms of enmeshment:
- The family lacks physical and emotional boundaries.
- Everything revolves around pleasing others, not about what is best for you (the child).
- You feel responsible for other people’s well-being and happiness.
- You are made to feel shame or guilt if you want less contact with your family or make a choice that is in your own best interest.
- Your parents make you feel like their self-worth is based on your happiness or success.
- Your parents want to know every detail of your life.
- Your parents’ lives center around yours.
- Your family members overshare their personal experiences and feelings in a way that creates unhealthy dependence and unrealistic expectations.
- Your parents do not tell you to follow your dreams. Instead, they tell you what you should do.
- If possible, you avoid conflict, and you do not know how to say no.
- You do not have a strong sense of self.
- You feel like you always need to fix other people’s problems.
What Are the Characteristics of Enmeshment?
The most common characteristics of an enmeshed family include:
- Every family member has a specific role, and these roles are used by other family members to enable dysfunctional behavior.
- Often, enmeshment begins when one member of the family has a mental health issue or abuses drugs and/or alcohol.
- Enmeshment makes abnormal behaviors seem normal.
- The family often views dissent as betrayal.
- The family demands a high level of closeness, even if you are an adult child.
- All the members of the family’s emotions are linked together.
- Unspoken norms exist, which all family members take for granted.
How Does Enmeshment Enable Abuse?
It is important to note that enmeshment does not always lead to abuse. Rather, it is a tool abusers use to shield themselves from the consequences of their actions.
Enmeshed family members will often defend each other, and they may view harmful behavior as being good and normal. It may be difficult to form relationships outside the family. Without having outside relationships, it is hard for a member of an enmeshed family to know they are not healthy.
Even if you do form relationships outside the family, your family members may try to intrude in these relationships. Alternatively, you may see a lack of outside relationships as normal.
What Is the Trauma of an Enmeshed Family?
The experience of being in an enmeshed family can be traumatic on its own, especially when abuse is considered to be normal. In other cases of enmeshment, this trauma is the result of an outside trauma, such as a sudden loss, serious illness, or natural disaster. This trauma may cause you and your family to become extremely close, in order to try to protect yourselves. If this pattern continues well beyond the trauma that caused it, enmeshment loses its protectiveness, and it can undermine your personal autonomy.
Additionally, an enmeshed family often dismisses trauma. For example, one of your parents may dismiss a night of drunken abuse as a reaction to your bad grades or something else they perceive as wrongdoing.
When you become an adult, your siblings may defend a parent’s abuse by saying they were under stress or that the abuse was your fault. By dismissing the trauma as being normal, the enmeshed family makes it hard for you and your other family members to understand their own emotions and/or experiences.
Enmeshment and Divorce
During a divorce, a child may become involved in an enmeshment relationship with one of their parents.
For example, if a male child lives with his mother after a divorce, she may be filling the void of not having a man around. In this situation, the mother could look to the male child to meet her emotional needs. She wants her son to step up and take the “man’s place” in the house. This situation will cause an unhealthy enmeshment between the mother and son, which the son will carry into adulthood.
Similarly, a daughter who has become an emotional replacement for her mother will grow up suppressing her own needs over the needs of other people. This situation could lead to her raging or having an affair.
If you turn your child into an equal or expect them to take the place of your ex-spouse, you will hurt your child—both now and well into the future. You do not want to leave this legacy for your child.
What Are the Consequences of Enmeshment on My Adult Relationships?
Here are some of the most common consequences of enmeshment on your adult relationships:
- You are subconsciously attracted to women who are like your mother, such as controlling, needy, and/or possessive women.
- If you are male, you will not fully mature into a man. Instead, you will stay emotionally undeveloped.
- If you are in an intimate relationship, you may feel trapped or smothered.
- In an intimate relationship, you have trouble voicing your needs or getting them met.
- You have trouble letting your partner in, and you feel guilt or shame.
- You have a hard time making decisions.
- You feel pressured and burdened by your partner’s needs in your relationship, which leads to a fear of commitment.
- You have difficulties with sexual and gender identity.
- You are passive-aggressive.
- You show ambivalence toward your partner, and you may be in a love/hate relationship.
- You have a hard time setting boundaries, and you tend to attract codependent people.
- You have an addiction to casual sex.
What Is the Legacy of Enmeshment?
Enmeshment can cause a wide variety of problems in your life, especially when you reach adulthood. Here are some of the issues you may face:
- You have low self-worth, and you are always seeking approval.
- You have a fear of being abandoned.
- You have frequent anxiety.
- You are not in touch with your feelings, beliefs, and/or interests.
- You do not pursue your goals.
- You feel inappropriate senses of guilt and responsibility.
- You do not speak up for yourself.
- You tend to gravitate toward codependent relationships.
- You do not know how to calm yourself when you are upset.
- You feel responsible for people who may have mistreated you or will not take responsibility for themselves.
How Can I Recover From Enmeshment?
If you were raised in an enmeshed family, you have probably replicated this enmeshment in other relationships. Have faith: You are not doomed to living a life of dysfunctional relationships. You can take steps to reverse enmeshment and become healthier. These steps include:
- Set Boundaries: If you are going to live a healthy life, you need to learn to set boundaries for yourself. When you have boundaries, you create a healthy separation between yourself and other people. You also need to have physical boundaries, such as privacy and personal space. Emotional boundaries include the rights to feel the way you feel, say no, be treated with dignity and respect, and not answer a phone call from someone you consider to be toxic.
- Find Out Who You Are: Because enmeshment prevents you from having a strong sense of self (including what matters to you and what you want to accomplish in life), you may feel obligated to try to please other people. You need to figure out what you want, who you are, what your goals are, and how you feel about certain things. This process can be uncomfortable for you, and you may feel guilty or like you are betraying your family. However, it is not wrong to voice your own opinions and preferences and act on them.
- Do Not Feel Guilty: It is very important for you to learn how to stop feeling guilty when you set boundaries and do what is right for you. Guilt can be used to manipulate people, and it is important to understand that guilt is unhelpful. Usually, guilt does not come close to reflecting reality.
- Find Support: It is hard to free yourself from enmeshment. The individuals that benefit from your enmeshment are going to give you a lot of pushback, which can make it hard for you to change. However, you can get help from a therapist or support group. This assistance is an invaluable way to learn new ways to handle guilt.
It is okay to be close to your family. But when things get too close, it can turn into enmeshment. All families need boundaries, so you need to establish appropriate roles in your family.
It is only natural to grow up and become an emotionally healthy and mature adult; that is what children are supposed to do. You have to become your own individual and separate yourself—emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually.
Experiment with your own style, and clarify your own values, interests, and beliefs. Then act on them. You have to make decisions for yourself. Part of that process involves understanding who you are.