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 the executive director of Sunrise RTC, a treatment program for adolescent girls known for its effective work with enmeshed family relationships.
In this interview, Prior discusses the symptoms and causes of enmeshment.
Q: First of all, can you describe a balanced relationship in which boundaries are intact and enmeshment is absent?
A: 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.
Q: Now describe “enmeshment;” what is it and what does it look like?
A: 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 others 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 others lives so that it makes it hard for the child to become developmentally independent and responsible for her choices.
A: Is enmeshment really a bad thing or is it just when two people are very close?
B: 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.
A: Is it possible to love your child too much?
B: 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.
Q: What’s the opposite of enmeshment? Is that just as problematic?
A: 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.
Q: How can I know if I am in an enmeshed relationship?
A: 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 cannot 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.
Q: If a parent suspects that their family relationships may be impacted by enmeshment, what can they do?
A: First of all, parents with the insight and humility to detect a possible problem should be commended. That’s hard to do. These parents should engage the services of a good, experienced family therapist who can help identify patterns that might impede family functioning. Over time, a good process of family systems therapy can yield tremendous results. There is always hope!