Close bonds in family or romantic relationships are normally a good thing, yet there are times when it can cross the line into enmeshment.
The ability to recognize signs of enmeshment can help people identify trouble spots and can ultimately lead to healthier relationships.
Let’s dive right into it.
What Is Enmeshment Trauma?
The term enmeshment describes relationships which have become so intertwined that boundaries are undifferentiated or diffused. Blurred boundaries become accepted and even seen as a sign of love, loyalty, or safety.
The energy of emotions can often be felt by others, however, it can become dysfunctional when a family member becomes emotionally escalated and the other does as well.
A good example of this is when a teenage daughter gets anxious and depressed and her mother, in turn, gets anxious and depressed. They’re enmeshed when the mother isn’t able to recognize her own emotional experience from that of her daughter.
Enmeshment between parents and children can result in over involvement in each other’s lives. This makes it hard for the child to become developmentally independent and responsible for their own choices.
There is no real recognition of “self” in the family or relationship when enmeshed with one another. Having personal identity is an important part of physical existence for someone within any social group.
In healthy families, members recognize they have different emotions and can make independent decisions and set boundaries. At the same time, they recognize their decisions will affect others.
With this family dynamic, the parent can see their daughter is upset and anxious and can empathize with her without getting into an aroused emotional state. The parent knows it’s not their role to fix their daughter’s emotion or whatever caused the emotion.
Instead, they have concern for their daughter while allowing her the emotional space to solve her own problems with their support.
What Causes Enmeshment?
Enmeshment can also manifest in other relationships. While the desire is to be close, this type of dependency and control can also push the other person away.
An event or series of events in a family’s history necessitating a parent becoming protective in their child’s life, such as an illness, trauma, or significant social problems in elementary school is totally appropriate for the parent to intervene and help.
Yet, sometimes they get stuck using the same approach in other settings and soon the help becomes overly involved in the day to day interactions of their children.
Enmeshment can also occur as a result of family patterns being passed down through generations. If personal boundaries were encroached on generationally, each generation learns to do the same.
An Enmeshed Relationship
These examples of enmeshed relationships are offered by Teal Swan. She also shares information in this video.
Imagine a father who has always wanted significance and status. He imagines he will get that significance by making sure his child goes to an ivy league school and becomes a doctor.
He puts pressure on his child all her life relative to academic achievement and as an adult, she finally becomes a doctor to please him. She’s ignored her own passions and drives and isn’t sure whether she ever really wanted to be a doctor.
Another example is when a woman’s husband is absent emotionally and physically. Subconsciously, she makes her son her surrogate husband. She leans on him emotionally and tells all of her secrets to him and calls him her ‘best friend’.
The son feels torn because he finds himself in a situation filling a role that’s both threatening and all wrong for him, only he feels he has no way out of it. Yet, he also loves the specialness and importance being in that role guarantees him.
How Do You Know If You Are Enmeshed?
Creating a strong identity and sense of self is a fundamental part of our mental, emotional, and spiritual development growing up.
Babies have a natural attachment to their parents. As children grow, they begin to disconnect from their parents during toddlerhood through to adolescence in order to be independent adults.
This process of detaching from our parents is essential to function in a healthy and mature way in the world as an adult.
However, often unconsciously, children are not allowed to develop an individual identity. This is when enmeshed relationships occur. We are undifferentiated from our parents, just as a baby is.
For example, the entire family might support the idea of a wonderful father as a great leader, even though he is physically abusive.
Here are some symptoms:
- When you can’t tell the difference between your own emotions and the emotions of another.
- When you feel like you need to rescue someone from their emotions.
- When you feel like you need someone else to rescue you from your own emotions.
- When you and another person don’t have any personal emotional time and space.
If you have trouble with human connection and relationships, you might have experienced a toxic family dynamic growing up.
When Family Relationships Become Toxic: The Trauma of Enmeshment
Enmeshment does not always lead to abuse, but it is a potent tool for shielding abusers from the consequences of their actions in a dysfunctional family system.
The trauma of enmeshment occurs when:
- Each family member’s role can enable dysfunctional behavior from other family members. For example, the family peacemaker may smooth over conflicts the family abuser creates or might make family members feel guilty for setting healthy boundaries.
- A mental health condition or substance abuse issue can begin the trauma by normalizing harmful behavior and avoiding treatment.
- Enmeshed families often view saying no to the parent or abuser as betrayal and then guilt or shame the child.
- Enmeshed families may demand an unusual level of closeness even from an adult child. For instance, an adult child with a family of their own might be expected to spend every holiday with the enmeshed family. If they spend a holiday with in-laws or with their own family, the enmeshed family may shun or otherwise punish them.
- Emotions are tied together within the family members. It can be difficult to discern where one person’s emotions begin and another’s end.
- There may be unspoken family norms that each member takes for granted which outsiders could see as unusual or dysfunctional. For example, an enmeshed family may have a norm of never calling the police on a family member who abuses their partner.
- Enmeshment could refer to covert, or emotional incest where a parent or other caregiver treats a child as a partner or equal. The parent may rely on the child for support and unconditional love rather than filling these basic needs for the child.
What You Need To Know About Enmeshment Trauma
Enmeshment itself can be traumatic, especially when it normalizes physical and emotional abuse. This is where enmeshment is the byproduct of trauma.
A serious illness, natural disaster, or sudden loss may cause a family to become unusually close in an attempt to protect themselves. When this pattern persists beyond the initial trauma, enmeshment loses its protective value and can undermine each family member’s personal autonomy.
An enmeshed family can often be dismissive of trauma. A parent might dismiss their drunken night of abuse as a normal reaction to a child’s bad grades. In adulthood, siblings may defend a parent’s abuse by insisting that the parent was under immense stress or the abuse was actually the children’s fault.
By dismissing trauma as normal or deserved, the enmeshed family might consistently substitute their collective judgment for an individual’s feelings, making it difficult for members to understand their own emotions and experiences.
Over time, the family member may feel a struggle to distinguish their own emotions from the emotions the family insists they should have.
Enmeshment Trauma Symptoms
Enmeshment usually begins in childhood within families. Think about your upbringing for a few moments.
Some symptoms of enmeshment are:
- Doing your own thing or making unique choices may have been seen as a sign of betrayal
- People in the family were overly involved in each other’s lives and there was little privacy
- You felt like you were shamed or rejected for saying “no” to any of your family members
- One or both of your parents were controlling and strict
- You felt you had to be who your parents wanted you to be – rather than being your authentic self
- Your family made decisions as an entity (groupthink), instead of individuals coming together sharing their opinions
- It’s common for emotional energy to be felt by others, however, not if everyone in the family absorbs another member’s emotions or takes them on for themselves frequently
- A need to caretake your mother or father and/or you felt the need to parent your mother or father (also known as parentification)
- Achievements or failures defined your family’s sense of worthiness
- Family was built on the foundation of power and submission, rather than equality and respect
Enmeshment Trauma In Relationships
Recognizing if you’re in an enmeshed relationship can be difficult.
Some of the signs are:
- Feeling anxious whenever spending time alone or apart from the other person
- Having a hard time feeling happy if the other person is unhappy
- Prioritizing their needs and erasing your own or assuming they need the same things you need
- Difficulty distinguishing your own feelings from theirs
- Finding it comforting the other person thinks and acts like you or shares the same interests and worldviews as you
- Difficulty engaging in healthy debates or conflict without feeling like you’ve personally offended the other person
- Feeling guilty or ashamed when advocating for yourself
- Difficulty having alone time, including both mental and physical space
- Feeling isolated from people outside of the relationship
- Feeling threatened by the other person’s dreams, desires, or wishes, especially if they don’t involve you
- Enjoying the other person’s closeness or dependency on you
- One or both of you doesn’t acknowledge each other’s personal boundaries
- Boundaries are regularly overstepped, ridiculed, or shut down
Codependency And Enmeshment
Signs of codependency are similar to enmeshment, although they can vary. It can include people in unstable relationships that are often emotionally destructive or abusive.
Codependent relationships are often characterized as one person in the relationship relying on the other to fulfill all of their emotional needs, as in a fusion of identity.
Here are some signs:
- Difficulty making decisions in a relationship
- Difficulty identifying your own feelings
- Difficulty communicating in a relationship
- Valuing the approval of others more than valuing yourself
- Lacking trust in yourself and poor self-esteem
Healing Enmeshment Trauma
The first step to healing from enmeshment is to recognize how you’re affected by it.
For example, be aware if you have trouble being alone without a partner or feel threatened by your partner’s autonomy. Having a strong sense of your own voice and ideas is a critical part of the healing journey.
You can begin to:
- Identify and feel your own emotions using breathwork, self-talk, or meditation in your personal space
- Setting boundaries for yourself
- Seek out activities purely for you without the need for others’ approval
- Determine your own personal values
- Seek out a family therapist
- Talk to a trusted mentor
- Take responsibility for your own feelings and normalize them moment by moment
- Set and keep personal boundaries without influence from others
If you suspect you may be in an enmeshed relationship, an experienced family therapist can help you establish boundaries in a healthy way, keeping your rights reserved. If you feel a support group could help, they could recommend one.
Healthy relationships with family members, friends, and romantic partners are necessary and a wonderful part of life.
All parties maintain their identity and sense of self outside the relationship. Independence and intimacy are equally important.
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