A close bond in familial or romantic relationships is often assumed to be a good thing, but sometimes, it can cross the line into enmeshment. Recognizing the signs of an enmeshed relationship can help identify trouble spots and can ultimately lead to a healthier relationship.
What is enmeshment?
The term enmeshment describes relationships, which have become so intertwined that boundaries are undifferentiated or diffused, licensed professional counselor Alicia Muñoz, LPC, says. These blurred boundaries become accepted and even seen as a sign of love, loyalty, or safety, she adds.
"Over-concern for another person, excessive need, excessive worry, excessive guilt, all of these things can lead to a thwarting of our own sense of autonomy," psychotherapist Ken Page, LCSW, tells mbg. "Sometimes we can't even identify our own feelings because we're so used to focusing on the needs of another."
For example, parents who develop an extreme overinvolvement in their child's life may create an enmeshed family relationship. "This is a situation in which the ego boundaries among individuals are so poorly defined that they cannot separate or individuate from one another without experiencing tremendous anxiety, anger, or other forms of emotional distress," one study explains.
Signs of enmeshment.
Recognizing whether you're in an enmeshed relationship can be difficult, particularly if it's all you've ever known, like in the case of a parent-child relationship. These signs and signals, shared by Muñoz and psychotherapist Daryl Appleton, Ed.D., may help you determine if you're experiencing enmeshment:
- You feel anxious when spending time alone or apart from the other person in the relationship.
- You have a hard time feeling happy if the other person is unhappy.
- You prioritize their needs and erase your own. Or you subconsciously assume they need the same things you need.
- It's difficult to distinguish your feelings from their feelings.
- You find it comforting that the other person thinks and acts like you or shares the same interests and worldviews as you.
- You find it difficult to engage in healthy debates or conflict without feeling like you've personally offended the other person.
- You feel guilt or shame when advocating for yourself.
- You find it difficult to have alone time, including both mental and physical space.
- You are isolated from people outside of the relationship or family.
- You are threatened by the other person's dreams, desires, or wishes, especially if they don't involve you.
- You enjoy the other person's closeness or dependency on you.
- One or both of you does not acknowledge the other's boundaries or your own. Someone's boundaries are regularly overstepped, ridiculed, or shut down.
Why does enmeshment happen?
According to Page, enmeshment occurs most often in families, but it can also manifest other relationships. In the case of a parent-child relationship, the parent may be overly worried, concerned, or involved in their child's life. While the desire is to be close, this type of dependency and control can actually push the child away, Page says.
Other examples from Muñoz include:
- A parent who tells their children they never need to worry, and they'll always be taken care of financially.
- A marriage where one partner idealizes or puts the other on a pedestal, leading them to continuously swallow their disappointment, frustration, or anger and blame themselves for the relationship's troubles.
- Parents who subtly (or overtly) emphasize the negative consequences of their child's independence and autonomy, beyond simple safety. That might sound like: "Be careful. You might fall from that swing." "Are you sure you want to go to that college? It's pretty far away." "Just continue to live with us. It will save you a lot of money."
In certain cases, a deep generational trauma (i.e., the Holocaust or Irish Potato Famine) might play a role in enmeshment, Page says. When families feel afraid or suspicious of outsiders, they can shut them out and choose to focus exclusively on one another's needs. "For children in this situation, it's hard to differentiate and develop lives of their own because of the sense of guilt and enmeshment," he says.
Why is it bad?
Ultimately, enmeshment is a form of control that can dissolve a person's own emotional identity and individuality. It can often be mistaken for a healthy, tight-knit family, friendship, or romantic relationship, Appleton says, until one member of the relationship tries to create space or develop their own identity. Though it's difficult to set boundaries in these types of relationships, it is possible, and healing can occur.
Enmeshment vs. codependency.
Enmeshment is similar to codependency. In fact, in therapeutic settings, the terms may be used interchangeably, Appleton says.
"Codependency tends to describe a relationship between one person who rescues or enables and another person who acts out through emotional, physical, or substance abuse," Muñoz says. Enmeshment generally describes the behaviors, communications styles, and actions taken within a codependent friendship or relationship.
How to heal from enmeshment.
In order to heal from enmeshment, a person first has to recognize how they are affected by it. "For example, if you recognize that you have trouble being alone without a partner or feel threatened by your partner's autonomy, you can practice soothing yourself in those moments," Muñoz says. Self-soothing tactics could include breathwork, self-talk, or meditation.
"You can also begin to cultivate your own autonomy by seeking out activities that are purely about you and having nothing to do with what anyone else around you likes or approves of," she adds.
Finding your own voice and ideas is a critical part of the healing journey. To help with this process, Appleton recommends journaling, seeking out a therapist, or talking to a trusted mentor. "Take responsibility for your feelings, and your feelings alone," she says. "Work on consciously naming and normalizing the feelings that come up for you day to day or moment to moment."
Setting and keeping boundaries is a healthy way to care for yourself and your needs, without being influenced by others. Remember, you should only be there for another person some of the time, Muñoz says. "Enmeshed relationships, and codependent relationships, operate on the implicit expectation that one or both partners need to be there all of the time."
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Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.