In healthy families, closeness is valuable. But in families who have trouble setting and maintaining boundaries, extreme closeness can become dysfunctional. It’s possible to become so entwined that the entire family dynamic turns concerning.
What is enmeshment?
Coined by Salvador Minuchin in his approach to family intervention called Structural Family Therapy, enmeshment is used to describe families in which boundaries have been erased. SFT seeks to address family issues by looking at patterns of behavior and how they affect family structures. An enmeshed family is highly communicative but is also too close, emotionally and physically.
This goes beyond normal familial intimacy and bonds. Family members will find they cannot establish independence or define themselves outside the context of the family. Also, familial roles can’t be clearly defined, as there are low levels of differentiation among family members. The children might experience parentification, where they have to take on the responsibility of the parents’ emotional and day-to-day needs, which robs them of their childhood.
In an enmeshed family, the parents will derive their self-worth from their children’s achievements. They might insert themselves into their child’s other relationships inappropriately and need to know everything going on in their lives. The children will feel responsible for their parents’ emotions and be unable to find their own interests without being told what to do. They might even be discouraged from following their own dreams.
This type of hyper-close boundary crossing creates issues for children who grow up in these homes later in life. People will find they have problems with understanding interpersonal boundaries in peer relationships, developing a strong identity and self-esteem, and emotional regulation. They might have issues with intimacy and control and struggle to feel independent.
What is codependency?
Codependency is a relationship dynamic in which you put the other person’s needs above your own and completely change your behavior based on their mood. It’s a term originally applied to those who enabled alcoholic and drug-addicted family members, but today we recognize that codependent relationships can happen in many different situations.
Codependent traits include self-sacrifice, focusing on others, difficulty expressing emotions honestly, a need for control, and a loss of identity and independence. The two people become entirely enmeshed in one another, so it’s hard to distinguish the roles in their relationship.
Enmeshed families are codependent. Someone who grew up in an enmeshed family also learned very unhealthy, dysfunctional approaches to conflict and communication. This will inevitably create issues in their adult relationship if their childhood goes unaddressed.
Shared signs you’re in an enmeshed family and/or in a codependent relationship:
You lack emotional and physical boundaries with others
Your self-worth depends on others
You feel responsible for other people’s emotions
You avoid conflict and minimize your desires
You feel guilty when asserting independence
You fear abandonment or leaving the family
You do things to make others happy, even if you don’t want to
You don’t have a sense of who you are outside the family/relationship
Seek therapy to address unhealthy behaviors
People in an enmeshed family can benefit from both family therapy and individual therapy. A therapist can help you learn how to set healthy boundaries and find a sense of identity. Growing up in an enmeshed family can be traumatic.
Unpacking that childhood trauma with a professional is the best way to address and overcome its impact in your life. Parents who grew up in enmeshed families, who want to break the generational cycle of emotional manipulation, would benefit from taking their children to family therapy.
If you feel you would benefit from breaking the patterns you learned in an enmeshed, codependent family, please reach out to me to find out how anxiety treatment can help you.