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Enmeshment: Meaning, Impact & Tips To Avoid

Enmeshment: Meaning, Impact & Tips To Avoid

Updated on Nov 15, 2023

Reviewed by Julianne Cantarella, MSW, LSW , Certified Relationship Coach

Enmeshment Meaning, Impact, 20 Signs & 10 Tips To Avoid It

Enmeshed relationships can be disastrous. This is because those involved have not set any boundaries. People involved in such a relationship feel compelled to constantly meet expectations.

They stop thinking about their emotional needs. They are always worried about exhibiting selfish behavior. However, that is not true.

A healthy relationship survives because partners choose to give each other space. Of course, they are available to support each other as and when the need arises.

Enmeshment Infographic

Enmeshment - Meaning, Impact, 20 Signs & 10 Tips To Avoid It
Enmeshment – Meaning, Impact, 20 Signs & 10 Tips To Avoid It

What is Enmeshment?

Enmeshed means to be entangled in something. It could be a situation or a relationship.

We all crave for healthy physical and emotional relationships that take us ahead in life. Each time we enter into a relationship, the one question that bothers us all is that will we get close to the person.

We crave for that closeness with the people in our life. But, how close is too close? Have you ever wondered?

Those who have close family dynamics grow up to be happier and healthier. However, most families don’t realize where to draw the line. This is where the closeness breeds enmeshment.

The one thing that enmeshed relationships guarantee is deep emotional pain. For those of you who feel overburdened by the familial bonds, be rest assured you are not the only one out there. Also, it’s never too late to make the change.

Enmeshment relationship patterns or family patterns are not biased. You can be in an enmeshed relationship with your parents, siblings, spouse or even friends.

Enmeshment creeps in when the healthy boundaries that differentiate one relationship from another disappear. In an unhealthy relationship, these boundaries are permeable. 

The concept of enmeshed is not limited to relationships. An individual can be in an enmeshed relationship. He or she could be enmeshed in a dreading routine. Enmeshment is a problem, irrespective of the situation.

For instance, imagine having daily arguments with your family. This means that you are not giving them the required time and space.

It could lead to enmeshment. These situations also arise when people are battling illness, trauma or significant loss.

To sustain the health of a relationship, you need to learn to set boundaries. These boundaries are permeable. But people should know where to draw the line.

Enmeshed Relationships: What does it mean?

What is an enmeshed relationship? A relationship is enmeshed when the personal boundaries are not clearly defined. This logic applies to any relationship.

If an individual is part of an enmeshed relationship, it takes a toll on his or her mental health. Unfortunately, few people realize the dangers of being in an enmeshed relationship. 

Boundaries in a relationship define the extent to which you will allow interference. It is important to understand that over-involvement can ruin the relationship.

In such cases, people will experience a strong urge to break free. They will constantly be anxious and depressed. 

20 Enmeshed Relationship Signs

Remember that if enmeshment has been around long enough, it is going to be very difficult to identify.

This is partly true because you are very used to the idea of enmeshment and somewhere nudge your mind into accepting this as the norm. Enmeshed parents expect children to put up with their rules and invasion of boundaries.

Consider an example. An individual who appears normal on the outside is actually struggling to move on. He wants to make a life in a new city but he is too scared to move out of his parent’s surroundings.

No, he does not live with his parents however they are his neighbors. Yet he feels compelled to live his life within their boundaries even though a new place can provide better opportunities.

It is only a matter of time before he realizes that he is enmeshed with his parents.

Signs of enmeshment start showing very early in life. However, sometimes the issue is so deep rooted that verbal therapy does not help. Psychiatric intervention mixed with therapies and meditation helps such patients to regain their individuality.

Here is a look at 20 signs that you are in an enmeshed relationship.

1. Inability to engage in other relationships

If you are in an enmeshed relationship, you will find it extremely difficult to move on or embrace another relationship.

2. No individuality

In such relationships, one ends up sacrificing their individuality completely. You or your identity has no existence, everything revolves around sustaining the relationship.

3. No healthy boundaries

Yes, we are all social animals but we all crave for some amount of personal space- a space where we can spend some alone time. If you are in an enmeshed relationship, no such boundary exists.

Expecting constant snooping around in your private space. It is more on the lines of a strong sense of compulsive codependency. These codependent relationships rarely have a bright future.

4. An unhealthy attachment

Another common sign of being in an enmeshed relationship is that individuals experience an unhealthy degree of emotional attachment with each other. And no this is very different from the usual dose of love and care.

You are so emotionally and physically dependent; it is almost like obsession. You are feeling responsible for everything that the other person experiences.

5. Your happiness depends on others

Whether or not you are in a relationship, you are responsible for your happiness. But if you are in an enmeshed relationship, your ability to be happy is defined by your partner.

If he or she is feeling depressed, you will find it challenging to look for reasons to be happy. You are likely to exhibit the same emotion without the cause impacting you.

6. A lingering feeling of guilt

For people in enmeshed relationships, any escapade involving self love ends with a feeling of guilt, shame and anxiety.

The constant feelings of guilt make it impossible to focus on the positive aspects of the relationship.

7. Fear of fight

Conflict is not something that goes down well with those who are experiencing enmeshment in relationships.

This is because they have never expressed their opinion and so don’t know how to fight for it.

8. Support is a constant

Enmeshed relationships leave little or no space for evolution of an individual’s personality. Therefore, they will constantly look for support. They will expect others to validate their thoughts and beliefs.

9. Low on self esteem

The lack of personal boundaries and self-belief inevitably leads to low self-esteem in the individual.

Enmeshed and codependent people prefer to stay away from conversations or platforms where they are asked to explicitly share their views.

10. Over involvement

Another common symptom of enmeshment in relationships is over involvement in the family member’s life.

For example, frequent enmeshment occurs when a parent is so involved in a child’s life that he/she is defining their routine, interactions and way to live. This is not a healthy sign.

11. Favorites first

Enmeshment in families also breeds favoritism. Parents are likely to have one favorite child whose achievements end up being the benchmark for the other siblings.

Unfortunately, this puts mental pressure on the other children and inhibits their natural growth.

12. Limited emotional support

In enmeshed families, the parents and children are so involved that they end up being each other’s only emotional support. This is unfair especially when the parent looks for the support in a little child.

13. No room for mistakes

Mistakes are not all that bad, they end up teaching us the path to avoid. However, in enmeshed relationships, there is little or no room to pursue the self-made path.

Children are compelled to live the life already defined by their parents. Therefore, in such families children always mature into adults that keep doubting their capabilities.

14. Mental health issues

Members of enmeshed families also show signs of mental illness like anxiety and depression. These issues are a result of the deteriorating emotional well being.

15. Always seeks permission

Since enmeshed relationships are all about following the rules set by parents/spouses/family/friends, those involved tend to seek approval for every move made.

16. Rigid boundaries

Children coming from enmeshed families will have rigid boundaries around them. Their parents feel the desire to constantly protect the child from the big bad world.

This leads to the development of such boundaries.

17. Unstable associations

People from enmeshed families will find it challenging to maintain stability in their professional and personal associations outside the family.

18. Self destructive behavior

Enmeshment also breeds self-destructive behavior in individuals. Therefore, the victims may indulge in substance abuse and other forms of self-destruction.

19. No acknowledgement of their needs

In an enmeshed relationship, individuals are always embarrassed to speak about their needs. So much so that they refrain from acknowledging their existence.

20. Difficulty to accept rejection

Children enmeshed with parents grow up to be adults who find it difficult to accept rejection or failure.

This is because their parents have always protected them from the harsh realities of the world outside.

Emotional Enmeshment Symptoms

Here is a look at common symptoms of enmeshment

1) Too much drama!

Enmeshed relationships are all about drama in the relationships. People overact in certain situations and create drama to hide something.

You are likely to come across people complaining about ‘drama’ in their extended family or relationships. These are usually situations where people feel it is mandatory to react to every issue.

Opinions expressed in the family should be considered equally. Any member should feel free to speak their mind without the fear of being judged.

Being involved is good. But being there for everyone and everything can be stressful. In any relationship, the goal should always be to remain available for each other.

Do not be intrusive or demanding. If someone is too concerned, it is a sign of enmeshment in the relationship. 

2) Always picking sides

Enmeshed relationships are always about choosing sides. The constant stress of picking a side is difficult to digest.

Enmeshment in a relationship can be identified by the way people react to each other’s decisions. It is like an unhealthy relationship thus it is difficult to sustain.

For instance, two people are arguing in a group of friends.

Now, everyone else is asked to pick aside. This is a sign that the relationship is enmeshed. In a healthy relationship, people respect each other’s decisions.

Interestingly, enmeshment occurs in family relationships as well as romantic relationships. 

3) You are not able to define boundaries?

Where do you draw the line when it comes to your personal space in a relationship.

Sometimes one enjoys the extra attention and love from family, friends, or partners. But if it continues, the overdose can be suffocating! Everybody loves to have company but not when it invades their personal space.

If you see someone struggling with an issue, give them time to resolve it. Do not smother them with concern.

Respecting each other’s emotional state is a sign of a healthy relationship. For example, if the husband is battling anxiety issues, the wife should empathize with him, give him emotional support.

Yes! Empathizing is normal but trying to experience the same emotion is wrong. It adversely impacts the mental health of the husband and the wife.

Enmeshed Parenting

Parenting is all about being involved with your kids as they embrace the outside world and gradually adulthood. But, there is a very thin line of difference between being involved and being enmeshed.

Salvador Minuchin was the first to coin this term, maybe before that not many people acknowledged the existence of this phenomena or the concept of enmeshment.

Today, leading psychotherapist, educator, expert witness and author Ross Rossenberg and many others carry forward his work. Involved parenting talks about being with your child as they face their share of problems.

It focuses on building their confidence and self-identification in the process. Enmeshed parenting, on the other hand, has no room for this.

In this case, the parent is so involved with the child that the extra protectiveness prevents the child from making his / her own decisions or mistakes. The boundary between the parent and the child is almost nonexistent.

This leads to enmeshment between a parent and child. The start of enmeshed parenting is often non-suspicious because the parent is involved and the intent is not to cause harm.

Enmeshed mother-daughter relationships

Research on Hispanic people associates enmeshment with a long life. Even in a parent and child relationship, you need to give each other independence.

If you experience enmeshed behavior, it is time to sound the alarm. Close relationships or close-knit family, are well provided those involved understand where to draw the line.

You need to set boundaries in every relationship so that it gets the space to grow. This applies to enmeshed mother-daughter relationships as well. 

In her effort to be protective, a mother often ends up smothering her daughter with affection. She becomes extremely protective of the children.

The mother fails to differentiate her emotional experience from her children. Gradually, this overprotectiveness hampers their mental development.

Instead, the mother must teach her daughter to be independent and responsible. The idea is to be there for your children yet teach them to manage things on their own.

The effects of enmeshed parenting

As the boundary needed to define healthy relationships disappears, enmeshed parenting leads to a scenario where the parent starts to rely on the child for emotional support. This puts way too much pressure on the child.

Interestingly, in toxically enmeshed relationships, parents define the self-worth of the child, depending on how much or how well does the child behave according to their wishes.

Gradually the child also learns to define his identity and self-worth, in line with the parents’ expectations.

As the child’s life progresses, he/she embraces adulthood, this leads to various issues like low self-confidence, poor decision making and the constant need to seek parental approval for everything.

Enmeshed parent child relationships can become quite suffocating for the adult. It impacts their career, friendships and all their relationships in the future.

This also leads to isolation and further increases the problems in adulthood.

Enmeshed parenting creates:

1. Frustration

2. Anger

3. Inability to take decisions

4. Excessive dependence

5. Complete isolation

Some examples of enmeshed parenting and its effects:

1. A guy working for his family business tries to adapt to his father’s vision of success. He struggles to work according to his parent’s wishes hoping to find his happiness in the process.

Sadly, that does not happen and this guy ends up being an extremely dissatisfied as well as frustrated individual.

2. A teenage girl is struggling with the conversations in her peer group. An involved parent will approach her with love and trust gradually coaxing her to establish her identity.

But an enmeshed parent will never give a chance to the child’s inner voice. This parent will jump to take matters in their own hands.

3. A child is struggling to make friends. The involved parent will continue to help the child take efforts and not be depressed.

The enmeshed parent, on the other hand, will ask the child to drop the idea completely because it involves a certain amount of emotional suffering.

Enmeshed Family

Family members are always there to help each other. Relying on them in times of stress is the perfect family therapy to get rid of stress.

There are various types of equations in a family. Some families believe in giving everyone’s thoughts and feelings equal space. Others do not give such liberty.

But at the end of the day, it is all about what keeps the family comfortable. There are two ends to the family behavior spectrum. 

One end is where families are estranged. Members of such families do not talk to each other very often.

Over a period of time, the situation becomes depressing. The other end is enmeshed, families.

A family member of an enmeshed family is made to feel guilty for never doing enough. The healthy family lies somewhere in the middle.

Symptoms of Being in Enmeshed Family

  1. Members are unable to give each other any emotional space. 
  2. They feel the constant need to fulfill the emotional needs of other people almost always. 
  3. They will not be able to differentiate their emotions from others. This is because of the inability to separate from the emotional experience of others.  
  4. They suffer constant emotional turmoil. This makes it difficult for them to focus on personal and professional development.
  5. Fighting and arguing will be a routine in such families. 
  6. If you notice such symptoms in yourself or in the people around you, seek professional help. Just remember that it is important to ask for help and give the relationship a chance to heal.

Marrying into an Enmeshed Family

Healthy relationships take more than just time. They need effort, understanding, and compassion from everyone involved.

If you are not willing to invest the effort, the relationship is headed towards a disaster. 

For instance, if your partner comes from an enmeshed family. You are likely to find them more loving and caring. This also attracts you to your partner.

However, marrying into an enmeshed family can get quite uncomfortable. If you are not used to the constant interference, it can end up breaking the relationship.

Enmeshment: What actually happens?

An enmeshed parent child relationship is very different from normal parenting. For instance, in normal parenting, when the child is in pain, the parent will empathize.

He or she will guide the child on the possible way to get rid of it. However, in case of enmeshment, the parent experiences the exact same intent of suffering like the child.

They will respond with anxiousness, fear and will experience an urgent need to step in to help the child. As a result, the child will lose an opportunity to develop the ability to act independently. 

What causes enmeshment?

Enmeshment can be due to various reasons. It is a weird family dynamic that often travels from one generation to another until the damage it causes becomes serious and noticeable.

Our first interaction with the world is in the form of our family. Before we delve deeper into the causes, it is important to remember to understand that the way we interact with them defines the way we interact with the world.

Here is a look at 10 causes of enmeshment

1. A tightly knit family

Being born and brought up in an enmeshed family. This is because the interaction with the family shapes our behavior.

2. Sexual abuse

Those who experience sexual abuse as children are also likely to end up in enmeshed relationships.

3. A childhood with very tight boundaries

Children who are forced to abide by the rules that their parents set. It is always the parents who are setting personal and relational boundaries for these kids.

They feel burdened by these rules and are pressurized to modify all their relationships according to the rules set by parents.

4. Emotional trauma

Often children who are burdened with emotional trauma end up getting into enmeshed relationships.

They are constantly worried about losing their emotional support. An illness trauma or significant loss leads to the start of enmeshment.

5. Mental illness

Another leading cause of enmeshment is an underlying mental health ailment that prohibits an individual from building healthy relationships.

6. A series of events

Sometimes a series of events where the individual witnesses a failure because of his or her decisions, they tend to lose faith in their abilities and start falling back on the next of kin for support.

7. Codependency

People suffering from codependency often tend to put their needs on lesser priority. This often leads to them getting into enmeshed relationships.

8. Protective parents

Children end up with enmeshed relationships if the parents are too protective and intervene in every decision that they try to make.

9. Lack of emotional space

People who do not get the required emotional space to let out their inner stress often end up with enmeshment in their associations.

10. Problems in school

Children who experience bullying or similar problems during their schooling tend to build a wall around them as adults. This wall further fuels enmeshment.

Enmeshment trauma

Enmeshment is a traumatic experience especially when it is integrated into normal behavior. For instance, in an enmeshed family, the father may blame his drunken behavior on a mistake made by the son.

The trauma begins when this blame is also followed by ignoring the drunken abuse. There is a high possibility that such abuse or behavior will become a norm if the enmeshment pursues.

The main cause for enmeshment trauma is the replacement of individual emotions with collective judgment, every single time.

In enmeshed relationships, people dismiss or ignore any signs of trauma justifying it as a reaction.

Therefore, such enmeshed systems are incapable of understanding the emotions and experiences of the others involved. The piled-up stress and emotions only add to the mental health issues of the people involved. Over a period of time, individual emotions end up being sidelined.

The interesting contrast is that while experiencing a trauma, the people tend to bond better.

However, in their search for support, they forget to define the boundaries for this bonding. This tends to breed enmeshment trauma.

Codependency and enmeshment

A key characteristic of enmeshed relationships is that they breed codependency. So you may be wondering, what is codependency and why is it bad?

Well, codependency in a relationship happens when it becomes one-sided. Simply put, one person’s emotional and physical needs are top priorities while everyone else is conveniently ignored.

Unlike a healthy relationship, the partners stop supporting each other’s mutual growth.

Closeness vs enmeshment

It is good to be close to someone but anything literally anything in excess is bad. Too much closeness breeds enmeshment.

In enmeshed relationships, those involved have no individual existence or independence. Here is a look at the stark differences between close relationships and enmeshed ones:

1. Close relationships have no room for guilt or shame. Each partner respects the other person’s independence.

2. Symbiotic emotions often make it difficult for enmeshed individuals to express their emotions.

3. The constant urge to step in and rescue the other person is a challenge exclusive to enmeshed relationships.

4. Enmeshed relationships will also have one authoritative personality who will try to control the way the association progresses.

5. Unnecessary burden of expectations is again a characteristic of relationships struggling with enmeshment.

How to Stop Enmeshment: 9 tips

Enmeshed families will need therapy to wean off the habit. This applies to enmeshed behavior exhibited in any type of relationship. The purpose of individual therapy is to help the person identify his or her emotional needs.

It helps to reduce the reliance on the other person to fulfill these needs. Gradually, this independence heals the relationship.

The focus should be on maintaining a healthy relationship. That too, without being completely dependent on each other.

Here are a few simple tips that can help you untangle the chain in an enmeshed relationship:

1) Start drawing a boundary

The issue of enmeshment arises because people do not set boundaries. So the first thing to do is to establish clear boundaries.

Taking care of the other person’s emotional needs is good but ignoring yours in the process is dangerous. It can affect your mental health adversely.

Spare some time for yourself. Focus on understanding and fulfilling your expectations from the relationship.

In a family, this could mean something as simple as spending a weekend away from your relatives. But if you feel like, ensure that you make the effort to do it. 

2) Get some support

Breaking the chains of an enmeshed relationship is not an overnight process. Don’t hesitate to talk to experts and seek help

We have already talked about the dangers of being in an enmeshed relationship. If you notice symptoms of being in such a relationship, it is best advised to seek help from experts.

They will also guide you on the efforts that you can take to gradually break the chains.

3) Connect with yourself

Have you been involved in an enmeshed relationship? Does the thought of being alone scare you? If the answer to these questions is yes, it’s time to man-up and face your fears!

People take time to come out of enmeshed relationships. This is because they are afraid of being alone. They are scared to feel left out. But that is not the case.

You need to understand that everyone needs to spend some time alone. This is the only time when you get a chance to connect with your inner self.

You can start by making new friends, cultivating new hobbies. You could even spend time to identify a new passion to pursue.

4) Set one goal at a time

There is a fine line of difference between a normal and an enmeshed relationship. So crossing over on the healthy side will take time.

We have shared simple tips that can help you maintain healthy relationships. But don’t try to implement it altogether.

The idea should be to set small goals and celebrate their achievements. For instance, start setting small boundaries.

Be clear about the level of intrusiveness that you are willing to tolerate in a relationship.

5) Move on

If the person on the other side is not willing to change, you need to accept that the relationship is toxic. It is bad for your mental well being so just move on!

Reducing the effects of enmeshment in a relationship will have implications on all involved. When you change your behavior, others in the relationship will notice.

In most cases, they accept you and your decision to change. But there are extreme situations when they may not accept this change.

There is a possibility that they may start pressuring you to get back to your old self. If that happens, you need to draw the line and pull yourself out of such toxic relationships.

6) This is not your identity, you can change it

Remember enmeshment is usually a phase, you need to motivate yourself to overcome it. Do not let it become your identity.

Enmeshment is usually a coping strategy when you are going through a rough patch. However, when you get too comfortable with this coping mechanism, it tends to inhibit the evolution of your identity.

In such cases, you need to remind yourself that this is just a phase. This phase does not define you, you can still change yourself.

7) Identify your triggers

Spend time to understand what triggers enmeshed behaviors in your case.

When you witness enmeshment, don’t just go with the flow! Take a pause and ask yourself what triggered this enmeshment? Was it an individual or the surrounding environment?

Spare some thought to evaluate the triggers so that the next time they jump into action, you can nip it in the bud before it escalates into a full blown problem.

8) Develop your needs and interests

Do not sacrifice your interests and preferences to sustain a relationship.

It is extremely important to declare your independence early in the relationship. The best way to do so is to make it a rule to set time aside to develop and cultivate your interests.

For instance, if you like painting but your partner does not, you do not have to give up on the activity. Similarly, allow your partner also to maintain the same independence.

9) Embrace your natural self

Don’t complain about your abilities and behavior, instead appreciate what you have and make the most of it.

None of us are perfect. Accept this fact that you are good the way you are. Don’t strive for unnecessary perfection, make the most of what you have.

This will stop you from developing hateful behaviors, impulses and thoughts.

10) Don’t give up

Stopping enmeshment requires effort and takes some time.

It is not easy to avoid enmeshment. At each stage of the relationship, you need to evaluate. This takes time and considerable effort.

So, at no point in time should you give up on the cause of finding your happiness in any relationship.

Watch a video where Jerry Wise gives you important keys to overcome enmeshment –

Important Tips to overcome Enmeshment

Parting words from “ThePlesantRelationship”

Those in an enmeshed relationship are often the last people to realize it. But, you need to keep your eyes open and identify the symptoms. If you feel suffocated in a relationship, you are headed for disaster.

Do not neglect your emotional well-being. In such situations, do not hesitate to seek help. You need to work on resolving the issue rather than ignoring it and choosing to suffer.

To understand how to untangle the ties in enmeshed relationships, it is important to be able to identify such situations.

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