Recognizing and Recovering from Enmeshed Relationships

Family closeness and togetherness are vitally important. However, there is such a thing as too much togetherness. If two or more people are so close that they cannot tell where they end and the other begins, that can be a problem. Relationships with blurry boundaries between an individual’s self and others can inhibit the emotional growth of everyone involved and contribute to dysfunction. 

What is enmeshment?

A key contributor to family dysfunction is enmeshment. Enmeshment describes the blurring of emotional and social boundaries between people, typically family members. 

Relationships characterized by enmeshment may lead to a lack of autonomy and independence. In enmeshed relationships, the people involved may not be able to develop a distinct sense of self. 

The lack of a clear sense of self can cause problems such as learning to self-regulate emotions and engaging in age-appropriate peer relationships. 

In some enmeshed families, children become their parent’s source of emotional support. Children may also be treated as a means for a parent to fulfill the parent’s unrealized aspirations. 

What are the signs of enmeshment?

In parent and child relationships where enmeshment is an issue, there is often a lack of privacy between the parent and the child. The child may even be the parent’s confidant, the person that the parent shares secrets with. 

Having a parent excessively involved in a child’s accomplishments is another indication of enmeshment. 

Children from enmeshed families may feel responsible for taking care of their parents. They may also feel unable to develop beliefs and values in any way distinct from their family of origin’s beliefs and values. Children may even feel guilty when spending time apart from their families. 

The pressure to remain physically close to their family can prevent children from participating in outside activities that would let them develop their own interests. 

What are the consequences of enmeshment?

People from enmeshed families may struggle to develop their own sense of identity. They may not be able to take risks or try new things, further inhibiting their developmental process. 

Moreover, enmeshment in families can make it difficult for family members to trust people outside of the family. They may struggle to develop healthy friendships or intimate relationships. 

Some people from enmeshed families may avoid intimate relationships. Alternatively, they may pursue relationships that allow them to continue unhealthy patterns in their family relationships.  

What can you do if you are in an enmeshed relationship?

In most cases, enmeshment is characterized by a persistent pattern of unhealthy behavior within a family. If you have one or more relationships that you believe are characterized by enmeshment, you can attempt to set personal boundaries. 

First, develop a clear idea of what you would like your personal boundaries to be and why they are necessary. Share these boundaries with your loved ones. Express yourself firmly but compassionately. 

Be prepared for pushback from your loved ones. They may not be accepting, even if you believe changes are necessary for your well-being. 
Because enmeshment can be such a deeply ingrained part of relationships, you may need the help of a professional for these relationships to improve. Individual and family therapy may play a vital role in helping you, and your loved ones develop a healthy relationship.