Enmeshment is a word that frequently comes up in family therapy – a word that bears especially significant meaning when it comes to the family members of those suffering from addiction. While this term is commonly employed by members of the therapeutic community, it is often misunderstood and habitually misused (similarly to ‘codependency’, which is further expounded upon in this article). What is enmeshment, really, and why is breaking this detrimental interpersonal pattern crucial to comprehensive recovery?
What is Enmeshment?
Enmeshment refers to a relationship between two or more individuals in which healthy personal boundaries are exceedingly unclear and frequently penetrable. Essentially, those that are enmeshed’ with one another will begin to feel and experience the emotions and sentiments of the other. For example, if a teenage drug addict is depressed and despondent, his mother may concurrently become depressed and despondent – unable to successfully separate his feelings from her own. Enmeshment between parents and their children is extremely common, and will often result in such a significant over-involvement in the life of the other that it will become exceptionally difficult for the child to become developmentally responsible for his or her own choices. The crucial sense of independence that children cultivate during late adolescence will be severely compromised, resulting in an unhealthy interdependency.
What Causes Enmeshment?
While the causes of enmeshment vary significantly, it is very common for parents and children who suffer from drug addiction or alcoholism to become thoroughly enmeshed. Addiction will typically necessitate feelings of obligation on the part of the parent – the parent will (usually) innately feel the need to intervene and protect. Of course, this intervention is often necessary and appropriate. It is expected that when a parent sees his or her child suffering at the hands of a devastating chemical dependency, some form of drastic action is taken. However, some parents will become stuck in the same futile behavioral patterns, repeatedly attempting the same approach in innumerable settings, and in doing so, becoming overly involved in the day-to-day life of their child.
Enmeshment – A Family Affair
It is also common for patterns of enmeshment to be passed down in families through the generations. Over time, personal boundaries become less and less clear and more and more permeable, and it becomes the familial norm to be heavily involved in the lives of other members. Family members that are enmeshed begin to lose their own emotional identities. It is important to keep in mind that there is a momentous difference between being ‘close’ and being enmeshed – families that lack advantageous personal boundaries will unintentionally facilitate an inability for children to become emotionally independent, resulting in harsh developmental hindrance and a lack of autonomy. Children will grow up depending on their parents emotionally, and will not be equipped to function independently. However, in many cases, children who grow up in such households will make an effort to separate from their parents in early adulthood. They will run exceedingly far in the opposite direction, attempting to break free from the patterns of enmeshment and in doing so, making injurious choices in their struggle to gain independence.
Developing Healthy Relationships
Breaking long-term patterns of enmeshment can be difficult – but it absolutely can be done. It is not uncommon for those involved in such relationships to be the last to notice or acknowledge that healthy interpersonal functioning is lacking completely. If you believe you may be in an enmeshed relationship, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can I differentiate between my own emotions and the emotional state of my son or daughter?
For example – if you are sad, can you pinpoint what it is you are sad about? Or are you simply sad because your son or daughter is emotionally distressed? If you find that your emotional well-being revolves around the emotional well-being of your child, you may be involved in an enmeshed relationship. In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent will be able to enjoy his or her own personal achievements and successes while offering emotional support and encouragement – but not becoming overly involved.
- Do I often feel as if I need to rescue my son or daughter from his or her emotions?
If your child is experiencing a state of emotional discomfort, do you allow him or her to experience the emotions (which are likely a direct result of his or her actions), or do you do your very best to alter the emotions in any way you know how? More often than not, attempting to reverse the negative feelings an addict is experiencing will only hinder his or her potential of eventual recovery. Hitting an emotional bottom is often necessary to the cultivation of the very desperation and willingness that prompts addicts to seek recovery.
- Do I often feel as if I need someone to rescue me from my own emotions?
Do you feel an inability to regulate your own feelings and emotions, and look to others for excessive guidance and support? Emotional regulation is an essential component of healthy emotional functioning. It is important to be able to recognize your own feelings, claim them, and work through them independently. Seeking some support is often beneficial, but placing unrealistic expectations on others (expecting others to ‘make you feel better’ when you are sad or distressed) is not conducive to underlying happiness.
- Do me and my son or daughter seem to lack any personal emotional space?
Do you call your son and daughter frequently to see where they are and how they are feeling? Do you look to your child for emotional support whenever you are feeling off-kilter? Personal emotional time and space are crucial to healthy emotional functioning. Allowing your child the space necessary to solve his or her own problems is essential – as is recognizing the difference between offering support and taking on the problems as your own.
If you believe you may be involved in an enmeshed relationship, there is help available. We at Next Chapter have extensive experience in helping parents and their children set healthy emotional boundaries and learn to successfully cope with uncomfortable emotions independently and successfully. If you feel as if your personal emotional well-being rests heavily on the current emotional state of your child, we are here to help you learn to function independently – obtaining and maintaining the fulfillment and happiness you deserve. For more information, please call today.