Family dynamics can be extremely complicated, and many times they can be harmful. One such situation is enmeshment within a family unit. To an outsider, it may just appear that the family is close-knit, but enmeshment can be toxic in a variety of ways and leave lasting trauma. 

Enmeshed families lack boundaries to the point where roles are often confused, and expectations are blurry. In many cases, a parent is reliant on their young child for emotional support, and the child is not allowed to become emotionally independent of the parent. This is called parentification and is a reversal of roles where the child tends to their parent’s emotional and physical needs.

Signs of enmeshment

The typical enmeshed relationship is that of the parent and child, but it could be any family member in reality. Several signs may indicate that you or someone you care about may be in an enmeshed family situation.

  • You are feeling responsible for the other family member’s happiness at the expense of your own.
  • You are emotionally blackmailed for doing anything that does not involve the family member.
  • The family member’s self-worth seems to hinge on your accomplishments or failures. 
  • The family member’s life centers around your own, even well into adulthood.
  • Any aspirations or goals that may take you away from the family member are discouraged.
  • Privacy and autonomy are non-existent, as the family member wants access to all aspects of your life.

Enmeshed parents often regard their child as a friend and rely on them for emotional support, confiding in them about personal experiences in a way that creates confusion and unrealistic expectations. Instead of raising a child to form and foster healthy relationships and pursue their dreams and goals, an enmeshed parent will often try to suppress any attempt by the child to explore who they are or what they want to become. 


Effects of enmeshment

There are long-lasting emotional effects tied to enmeshment. Since it’s usually rooted in trauma or mental illness, it can become easy to unwittingly pass down these unhealthy dynamics to a new generation or bring them into new relationships.

Effects of being in an enmeshed relationship can include:

  • Mental health issues, such as personality disorders.
  • Self-esteem issues due to a lack of identity and years of being cut down by a possessive family member.
  • Boundary issues, because no one ever modeled healthy boundaries. 
  • Unstable relationships due to family instability during childhood.
  • Victim mentality; when an enmeshed parent refuses to take responsibility for themselves, they teach their child to do the same.

Recovery 

Since an enmeshed family member usually violates any sense of autonomy, recovery involves discovering or re-discovering your sense of self and learning to set and assert some healthy boundaries. Boundaries are the limits we set with others, which signal what type of behavior we are willing to accept. Boundaries are often tied to self-worth, and since people dealing with enmeshment can have a diminished sense of self-worth, it takes some time to realize that setting boundaries are not selfish. 

Recovery can also involve dealing with some core attachment issues. It includes focusing on yourself and realizing that you are entitled to your own opinions, your aspirations, and your own life apart from someone else’s. It entails understanding that you are not responsible for the other person’s emotional well-being. Recovery will not happen overnight, and it does take a lot of work and effort.

There are different types of therapy to deal with the effects of enmeshment, and finding a good therapist who can help guide you through the steps of recovery is the key to begin healing. If you find yourself in an enmeshed relationship and need someone to reach out to, contact Maria Droste Counseling Center at 303-867-4600 or email intake@mariadroste.org.

Written By Jennifer Arnold, M.A.

Need Help?

If you would like to speak to a therapist about this subject or about any other issue you may be experiencing, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.

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