An Enmeshed Family – or – Too Much Family

By Paul Dunion | March 4, 2020

An enmeshed family diminishes the value of individual members while prioritizing the wellbeing of the group. The enmeshed imperative is: Are you giving enough to others? Weak boundaries do not successfully separate and honor individual preferences and needs. There is a way to be, and individual family members are encouraged to figure that out and make It happen. Before taking a closer look at the prevailing characteristics of an enmeshed family and recommended strategies for healing, it may be helpful to stress the importance of understanding the imperfect nature of families.

Families members and the parents leading them are imperfect human beings. A six-year-old’s idealization of his or her parents is completely appropriate. The parent’s alleged flawlessness reassures the child about the parent’s ability to supply safety, love and reassurance that all will be well. This idyllic version of family life provides the child with a sense of stability and security. There’s nothing wrong regarding the child’s propensity to see the parents as exemplary humans. However, part of a child transitioning into adulthood involves being able to see the strengths and weaknesses of the parents.

Any lingering idyllic tendencies will skew how we view where we come from and how it contributed to who we are now. Such utopian considerations are also a violation of the parents’ humanity. Hence, we are condemned, if you will, to be reared in an imperfect family, with an enmeshed condition being one expression of family imperfection.

      Characteristics of an Enmeshed Family

Weak Boundaries – Boundaries in an enmeshed family can be extremely permeable. Permeability inhibits how family members distinguish themselves from others in the family. Members get effective at reading what others in the family expect. It becomes only too easy for family members to feel entitled to influence and control others. Hence, enmeshed families typically experience a higher incidence of both emotional and sexual incest.

Externally referenced – Family members are encouraged to read the needs and dispositions of other in lieu of their own. 

Diminished support for autonomy and individuation – Being self-focused is frowned upon. Getting clear about one’s own values, needs and desires can be seriously compromised.

Love means being self-sacrificing – Efforts to support oneself can be viewed as unloving. Consistent self-sacrifice typically yields resentment as one’s needs go unmet.

Conflict avoidant – Family members are encouraged to remain conflict avoidant since conflict may have an unfavorable impact upon others. Consequently, family members do not learn how to reach conflict resolution.

Learn to become caretakers – Family members learn that they are responsible for the well- being of others and are willing to remain self-neglectful in order to meet the family imperative of caring for others.

Tendency for the children to be Parentified – Parentification of children happens as they are encouraged to either parent themselves, parent siblings or reversal roles and parent one of the parents. Because of the weak boundaries coupled with the heartening to become caretakers, parentified children in an enmeshed family often experience early role reversal, parenting one of their parents.

Fear of abandonment – Because members have a compromised relationship with themselves, their greatest fear is to be rejected or abandoned by others. They don’t experience self-neglect as an important issue. They easily reproduce this family dynamic with others as they relate from a strong need to please and be liked. 

Encouraged to feel guilt, shame and anxiety – These feelings are encouraged as a member strays from the family mandate to remain focused on supporting the comfort and happiness of others.

Compromised personal agency – Once family members have internalized the family imperative to serve the collective and not oneself, they are prone to becoming excessively passive when it comes to knowing their desire and acting toward its satisfaction. They are more comfortable waiting for others to care for them.

Deluded about genuine emotional intimacy. Members of enmeshed families are usually convinced that enmeshment is synonymous with emotional intimacy. If we define emotional intimacy as the unity of two separate and unique individuals, it becomes clear that enmeshment is masquerading for authentic unity. When the denial of the self is seen as loving, it can be extremely difficult to learn what it means to choose oneself, an essential building block of real intimacy.

Guidance for Healing

It is critical that folks who come from an enmeshed family, understand that there are no perfect families. Enmeshment was simply the system’s way of attempting to coalesce and cope with the tension of generating unity with unique individuals. It is helpful to introduce the notion that the only option is to come from an imperfect family. It doesn’t mean that someone having been reared in such imperfection is damaged goods. It only means that life is a great deal about understanding where you come from, as well as what healing and learning your past is asking for. Let’s look at some of the healings and learnings an enmeshed beginning might ask for:

*Permission to grieve – As you explore the losses that naturally accompany being raised in an imperfect and enmeshed family, it is healing to access the sadness and anger associated with these losses. Losses may be as practical as no door to your bedroom or no lock on the bathroom door, depriving privacy. You may have felt shamed because you were called to a spiritual path not compatible with that of the family.

*Betrayal of the family mandate – Simply exploring how your enmeshed family did not reach some idyllic status can feel like a violation of loyalty. The key is to not make your parents bad because they were instrumental in creating an imperfect family. They too came from an imperfect family. Betrayal might simply mean that you are entitled to grow out of an attachment to dysfunctional patterns, an entitlement that can serve your children and their children.

*Permission to be internally referenced – This simply means that a healthy relationship can begin because we are acquainted with the person we bring to the relationship. We can know our preferences, our beliefs and feelings. Our interior world is what we can know and have some measure of control over. We can be internally referenced while being empathic, understanding and negotiable.

*Boundary education – Members of enmeshed families live with excessively permeable boundaries. It is important to broaden your understanding of both non-permeable and semi-permeable boundaries. The former is needed when there is an actual imminent threat to safety. However, it is semi-permeable boundaries that support a higher level of relational functioning. These boundaries have a dual purpose. They support our safety or uniqueness while allowing us to be accessible to others.

*Redefining love and intimacy – Members of enmeshed families need help to let go of understanding love and emotional intimacy as characterized by persistent self-sacrifice and caretaking of others. They need to add the act of receiving to their understanding of love, as well as making requests of others. They need to be introduced to their responsibility to support their own self-love. They also need to understand that when self-love is compromised, they run the risk of passively waiting for others to love them in lieu of loving themselves. Gaining clarity about necessary vs. unnecessary self-sacrifice becomes an essential relational competency.

*Managing conflict – Because avoidance was the pattern for dealing with conflict, they will need to learn to interrupt catastrophizing the presence of conflict. They can acquire conflict resolution skills and come to accept conflict as a natural phenomenon in healthy relationships.

*Permission to live from desire – They will need to be encouraged to be curious about their desire, feel it and pursue it as an essential way to engage life. They will need to be reminded that living from their desire is not unloving. It is simply the most natural way to welcome oneself into life. It can be helpful to remember that as you live your desire, you can be curious about the desire of others.

It is important to accept enmeshment as one way to cope with the tension of remaining connected to the group while connected to ourselves. Those connections are not static, but rather organic and ever shifting. Members of the family are changing as well as you, calling for reparative ways to support connections to self and others. Enmeshment is a strong way to attempt to secure connection to others. Of course, if a family member does not experience his or her uniqueness welcomed by the group, connection to the group will be weakened. Hence, enmeshment is a bad imitation for real intimacy.

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