When enmeshment is present within a family unit, over-concern for others often leads to a complete loss of autonomy and personal development, boundaries are constantly overlooked or diffused, and sub-systems remain undifferentiated. A child who is trapped in an enmeshed relationship with his or her parent will either be used to satiate emotional needs, or remain stuck in a discrepant role function, acting as a scapegoat. While in enmeshed parental relationships, it is not uncommon for children to lose their capacity for individuality and self-direction. Like other dysfunctional relational patterns, enmeshment will very often inhibit the ability of an individual to develop and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships later on in life. Fortunately, lifelong patterns of enmeshment can be treated and reversed through the creation of emotional differentiation. The ultimate goal is to help individuals who are involved in dysfunctional relationships to begin developing a strong sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency, teaching them to thrive individually and in other relationships.
What Is Enmeshment?
While the concept of enmeshment comes up quite frequently in therapeutic family sessions, it is a word that is frequently misunderstood and very often misused. The concept of “enmeshed” families was first introduced by Salvador Minuchen in his family systems theory in the mid-1970s. In short, enmeshment describes a relationship between two people in which personal boundaries are unclear and permeable. In many instances, this will occur on an emotional level – two individuals will begin to adopt and feel one another’s feelings. For example, if a son becomes agitated and emotionally escalated, his mother does as well – despite the fact that her personal life remains free of potentially agitating scenarios. The mother is unable to separate her emotional experience from that of her son. When enmeshment occurs between a parent and a child, as it so frequently does, the child will inevitably have a difficult time becoming emotionally and developmentally independent, and he may have a difficult time taking full responsibility for his own choices and behaviors.
What Causes Enmeshment?
In many cases, enmeshment is the direct result of damaging relational patterns being passed down through generations. In some families, as time passes, personal boundaries become more and more blurred, undifferentiated, and permeable. This may be because previous generations did not uphold healthy personal boundaries, or because previous generations were so strict and rigid in their boundaries that a conscious decision was made to stay away from this harsh inelasticity. Enmeshment may also be caused by a series of experiences that occur throughout a single family history, necessitating the child to become more protective than normal over the life of a child. For example, an enmeshed relationship may stem from a traumatic physical illness during childhood, or from significant social problems throughout elementary school. While intervention on the behalf of the parent may have been appropriate at the time, if it persists after the issue has been resolved, the parent may get stuck in a detrimental pattern of over-involvement.
Consequences of Familial Enmeshment
When one grows up in an enmeshed family, he or she will likely experience a strong sense of shame. It is not uncommon for the family unit to subconsciously appoint one family member to experience the brunt of this shame by making him the scapegoat. When a family unwittingly appoints a scapegoat, they will point to this particular family member as the root cause of all familial dysfunction (rather than focusing on shifting the family dynamics as a whole). In many cases, the scapegoat will be the one family member who actually strives to be an individual – he or she will often be the healthiest family member, and his or her lack of inherent dysfunction will threaten the enmeshed family unit. This person will grow up bearing a significant amount of shame, feeling out of place, inadequate, and downright defective. The shame that enmeshment causes frequently leads to a host of related disorders, ranging from depression and anxiety to addictive disorders such as alcoholism, compulsive gambling, and sex and love addiction.
Treatment for Enmeshed Families
Most families will not recognize the severity of their dysfunction until serious problems begin to arise, and they are forced to take an honest look at their interpersonal and relational patterns. Because most family units strive to keep dysfunction behind closed doors while upholding outward appearances, problems are often entirely overlooked. Because of this, the feelings of shame and inadequacy that go hand-in-hand with enmeshment will not be addressed, and interpersonal problems will arise in the lives of the scapegoat long after he or she has left the household. It can be hard for individuals to seek help on their own after years of actively playing along with the family dynamic. They may feel they are being disloyal, or will be shunned by the rest of their family members. However, in order for related issues to be properly treated, enmeshed histories must be thoroughly addressed. We at Next Chapter have extensive experience dealing with men who have grown up in enmeshed households, and we utilize numerous therapeutic methods in order the help our patients overcome detrimental relational patterns. For more information on our program of addiction and trauma recovery, please contact us today.