In family therapy, the term enmeshment refers to when family members become caught up in repeating unhealthy patterns and assuming rigid roles, leading to a state of dysfunction. Each individual in the family becomes enmeshed with the others, enabling toxic behaviors and relationships, and suppressing individuality.
- In family therapy, the family is viewed as a closed system in which certain behaviors and roles are implicitly expected and encouraged
- Enmeshment occurs when one or more family member needs something from the others to maintain their own dysfunctional patterns
- In an enmeshed family, individuals find it difficult to separate their emotions from those of other family members and see any drive for individuality as a betrayal of the system
- While enmeshment is often a dysfunction passed down generationally, it is also commonly the result of one member of the family having substance use disorder or a narcissistic personality disorder
- Family systems therapists use a number of helpful approaches to reframe family relationships and roles
What is Enmeshment?
Enmeshment refers to a blurring of the boundaries between two or more people, leading to dysfunctional coping mechanisms, codependence, and even a loss of individuality. The concept of enmeshment was introduced by family therapist Salvador Minuchin and is most commonly used to describe dysfunction within a family system.
People in an enmeshed system may not be aware that their relationships are unhealthy. On the contrary, they may be conditioned to think that their role in the system designates their personal responsibilities and that when they do not uphold their part, they are failing or betraying the others. One person may feel responsible for providing emotional support for another, believing that they are doing the right thing while neglecting their own experience.
Individuals in an enmeshed family will struggle to break free of their learned behaviors while the system remains the same.
What Does Enmeshment Look Like in a Family?
Enmeshment in a family often looks, on the surface, like intimacy. Family members are heavily involved in each other’s lives, taking responsibility for each other’s feelings. Each family member has a role that, while not explicitly designated, everyone in the family recognizes and upholds.
For example, one family member may be known as the vulnerable one, and everyone else’s feelings will be put aside to tend to that individual. Children may fear the unhappiness of a mother who self-harms or threatens suicide and will therefore always put her happiness first.
Another family member may strive for individuality, and be seen as looking down on their family, spending too much time away from the system, and ultimately betraying them. The rest of the family makes them feel guilty for living their own life, and that individual becomes an easy scapegoat for the family’s problems.
Yet another family member may be the “rock” of the family, who is expected to always be strong and carry the burdens of the more vulnerable members. They become averse to tending to their own needs, believing that the family will not survive if they are emotionally vulnerable or unavailable.
Example of Enmeshment
A good example of an enmeshed relationship is Brooke Shield’s description of her relationship with her alcoholic mother. In her memoir, There was a Little Girl: The Real Story of My Mother and Me, she describes becoming a parentified child. She was responsible for keeping her mother happy and stable, with the threat of her mother’s self-destruction restricting her own happiness. She became afraid to live her own life, fearing that her mother would see it as abandonment and betrayal.
In an enmeshed family, there is usually a lack of appropriate privacy between parents and children. A parent may confide in a child and lean on them for support, telling them how good and helpful they are. They may see the child as a better companion than their spouse, with whom they often conflict.
Signs of Enmeshment
There are common signs of enmeshment that can serve as red flags in a family or any other relational system.
Parental Alienation Syndrome
Parental alienation syndrome refers to the attempts of one parent to turn children against the other. They attempt to alienate the other parent, getting the children “on their side” by confiding in them, sharing negative opinions and characteristics of the other parent. This often happens in enmeshed families, when a parent relies on their children for support and validation.
Emotional enmeshment refers to the experience of one member of a family sharing the emotions of another family member. For example, a parent may see their child struggling with anxiety and depression, and consequently become anxious and depressed themselves. This leads to guilt on the part of the child, as well as an attempt by the parent to fix their problems.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Enmeshment commonly happens in families or relationships in which one person is suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissists are excessively self-absorbed, believing everything is – or should be – about them, and leaving very little space for others. This causes the system to revolve around them and their dysfunction.
Codependency refers to a relationship in which the needs of two or more people are interconnected in an unhealthy way. Usually, one person’s needs dominate the relationship, with self-expression being seen as a betrayal. It is often used synonymously with enmeshment, particularly in the context of addiction.
Common Symptoms of Enmeshment
If the following symptoms apply to you, you may be in an enmeshed family:
- you feel guilty for a family member’s unhappiness
- you are unable to express your own feelings and needs
- one person takes up much of the space in the family
- privacy is disregarded or even considered inappropriate
- the boundaries between parents and children are blurred
- children are expected to take care of parents
- each family member has a role that is implicitly understood and upheld by everyone else
- you struggle to act in a way that does not cohere to your given role
- individuality is seen as a betrayal
- one of your parents has made you or a sibling responsible for their needs or has tried to get your support by deriding of the other parent
What to Do if You Have an Enmeshed Family
Family therapy is the most direct way to treat enmeshment in a family. In family therapy, the whole family is treated as a system, with interventions designed to change the system, rather than simply addressing the symptoms.
In the family therapy setting, therapists may take a number of approaches. Structural family therapy, designed by Salvadore Minuchin (who first defined the term enmeshment), focuses specifically on roles and behaviors within the structure of the family system.
Alternatively, individual therapy can help those whose families are not willing or ready to attend family therapy. While it is difficult to treat enmeshment on an individual basis when the person is still living in the family home, with solid boundary setting skills, they can learn to extract themselves from the enmeshment.
Within individual therapy, therapists can recommend bringing in members of the family for one or more sessions to discuss setting boundaries and what the individual needs. These will not be family therapy sessions, but will rather focus on setting expectations.
Al-Anon and other 12-Step programs are designed to help with enmeshment and codependency, especially in cases where a member of the family is struggling with addiction.
Enmeshment: Healing From a Toxic Family
Growing up or living in an enmeshed family can lead to serious emotional consequences that will only be resolved with proper treatment. However, within a therapy context, you can begin to heal from the wounds of a toxic family.
Healing from a toxic family should not necessarily mean the dissolution of a family. On the contrary, the ideal resolution is a functional family structured in a healthy way. However, individuals may find it helpful to leave the family home or take other measures to set stronger boundaries between them and their family members.