Relationships

The Signs and Causes of Enmeshment

We all want to be close to our families, partners, and friends. But what happens when the boundaries become blurred to the point is it unhealthy? Here, we take a look at that fine balance and break down the signs, causes, and how to seek help with Grow Therapy.

By Alan Deibel, LPCP
Women take a photo in the mirror.

Updated on May 30, 2024

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Being part of a close family is something to be cherished. It can bring love, emotional support, and security. The same goes for relationships: closeness to a partner is undeniably special. However, there’s such a thing as too close, especially when personal boundaries are crossed or we start to lose our sense of individual identity, which can become something called enmeshment.

Here, we share what enmeshment looks like in different situations, ways to prevent it, and how to set boundaries with your loved ones.

What is Enmeshment?

“Enmeshment is a dysfunctional family or relational dynamic where boundaries between individuals are unclear or non-existent. It often involves excessive emotional closeness and a lack of autonomy among family members or in relationships,” says Kristian Wilson, a Grow Therapy Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC).

As well as families and relationships, enmeshment can also extend to friendships. It doesn’t only exist between two people but can exist within a friendship group or family group.

Here, we’ll explore what enmeshment looks like in different settings.

Enmeshment in Families

Salvador Minuchin, a well-known family therapist who developed structural family therapy, used the term enmeshment to describe “families or subsystems characterized by a high level of communication, lesser levels of distance, and differentiation.”

Family enmeshment tends to look like overly diluted and/or loose boundaries, resulting in family members becoming emotionally intertwined with one another.

“Enmeshment in families might manifest as a parent being overly controlling and intrusive in a child’s life, not allowing them to develop a sense of independence,” advises Wilson.

It can also show up in other ways. According to Melissa Galica, a Grow Therapy Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), enmeshment can appear as “parents or a caregiver living vicariously through their child’s life, and preventing kids from developing own interests, and as siblings relying too heavily on each other for self-worth.”

Enmeshment in Relationships

In enmeshed relationships, being close translates to trying to be the same as your partner, whether it’s through what they like or dislike, their opinions, goals, hobbies, habits, etc.

Galicia says an enmeshed relationship might involve partners making major life decisions without consulting each other, monitoring each other’s activities, and not having friends outside the relationship.

Enmeshed relationships can present a slippery slope to codependency if one partner’s happiness and sense of identity depend entirely on the other party. Codependent relationships can result in controlling behaviors, poor personal boundaries, a lack of self-care, and focusing on others’ needs instead of one’s own.

Enmeshment in Friendships

Enmeshment in friendships may involve excessive emotional reliance, where one friend feels responsible for the other’s emotions or decisions. Enmeshed friends might also feel uncomfortable spending time apart; they might know each other’s passwords and dictate clothing choices. They might also discourage other friendships or even romantic relationships.

In any kind of relationship, whether it’s familial, romantic, or platonic, it’s important to not confuse the type of behavior that manifests from enmeshment as emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy can be thought of as a deep connection between people who feel comfortable enough to express their true selves within the relationship and don’t feel the need to be the same on all levels.

Signs of Enmeshment

The signs of enmeshment can vary from relationship to relationship, family to family, but our Grow Therapy providers have shared some common manifestations for you to look for:

Why Does Enmeshment Happen?

“Enmeshment often develops as a coping mechanism to deal with anxiety, trauma, or a need for emotional security. It can also stem from cultural or familial expectations,” Wilson shares.

Galica adds that it can often start in childhood “when parents fail to cultivate child autonomy and secure attachments. It continues later to fill emotional needs.”

Consequences of Enmeshment

Unsurprisingly, many possible consequences can arise from enmeshment.

A study that examined two different types of family-level closeness — family cohesion and enmeshment — across 243 preschool children and their parents found that familial enmeshment in a child can lead to less engagement in classroom activities, higher rates of teacher-child conflict, and signs of internalizing symptoms such as asocial behavior and social withdrawal.

“Consequences may also include a lack of individual identity, difficulty in forming healthy relationships, emotional distress, and a sense of suffocation or resentment among those involved,” shares Wilson.

In addition, a person who’s experienced enmeshed family relationships might develop poor coping skills, anger, and difficulties with intimacy. In some cases, enmeshment can even lead to anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

How to Prevent Enmeshment

If you find yourself in an unhealthy relationship or a family dynamic that feels enmeshed, there are things you can do to prevent enmeshment from affecting your self-worth while also preserving your well-being and holding onto your own identity.

“Preventing enmeshment involves setting clear boundaries, pursuing outside interests, cultivating personal identity, and improving communication and conflict resolution skills,” advises Galica. Here are some ways you can do just that.

Get to Know Yourself

It’s still possible to be part of a close family with healthy emotional bonds while also maintaining a firm sense of self, minus the enmeshment.

The important thing to do if you’ve been part of an enmeshed family or relationship is to strengthen the contact with yourself. Invest some time in getting to know yourself again and paying more attention to what’s inside you. Learn to identify your goals and take the first steps to achieve them.

You may choose mindfulness as a route to discovering yourself and listening to your own inner voice. Mindfulness can incorporate accepting yourself, living in the moment, and really paying attention to your environment.

People tend to reach for meditation when thinking of mindfulness, and this practice certainly has numerous benefits. However, in addition to meditation, mindfulness can also be incorporated in your life in other ways. One of the many advantages of mindfulness is the positive impact it can have on your self-esteem, which could help set better boundaries with the people in your life.

Set and Respect Boundaries

Boundaries are important in almost all aspects of life: family, friendships, relationships, and work. Boundaries serve as the limits, both emotional and physical, between us and the people dwelling in our many life facets. Here’s a summary of the different kinds of boundaries:

Emotional Boundaries

If you want people to respect your emotional well-being and internal comfort level, setting emotional boundaries is essential. They can include letting people know what you do and don’t want to talk about, and preventing yourself from feeling bulldozed by other people’s feelings.

Physical Boundaries

Physical boundaries serve to keep you feeling comfortable and safe, whether you’re dealing with a stranger or a loved one. How you want to be touched or comforted, how much space someone gives you, and the limitations you have on your physical space (rooms or belongings, for example) — you can set all of these according to your exact preferences.

Time Boundaries

For your work life and your personal life plus everything in between, time boundaries are important for focusing on the things you want to do and when, without worrying about the wants and needs of other people. This could look like setting a limit on how long you’ll spend at a party, or how much overtime you agree to do — everything is on your clock.

Regarding families, friendships, and relationships, “healthy boundaries involve respecting each other’s privacy, giving each other space, and spending time apart pursuing individual friendships and hobbies,” explains Galica.

Therapy

In some cases, “enmeshment can be traumatic and lead to lifelong struggles, so therapeutic intervention is recommended,” advises Galica. “Therapies like individual counseling, family therapy, and group therapy can help people differentiate and set boundaries. Assertiveness training can also help,” she adds.

To understand better what it means for a person to “differentiate,” we can look at the work of Dr. Murray Bowen, an American psychiatrist and one of the pioneers of family therapy. In one of The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, named Differentiation of Self, Bowen said that “people with a poorly differentiated ‘self’ depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that they either quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others or they dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform.”

Bowen’s theory is that a person’s family relationships during childhood and adolescence fundamentally determine how much “self” they develop. Once established, the level of “self” seldom changes unless a person makes a structured, long-term effort to change it — and this is where professional help in the form of therapy comes in.

Some other types of therapy that can be effective in addressing underlying issues, improving communication, and teaching healthy boundary-setting include family systems therapy (FST), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

Therapy Can Help You Heal and Set Boundaries

If you’ve spent significant time in an enmeshed family or relationship, establishing boundaries, focusing on your own emotions, and finding yourself again isn’t easy, but it’s a journey worth taking.

While being part of a family and in a relationship can be fulfilling and offer feelings of validation, learning how to be OK alone is also important.

Not only can therapy help with any anxiety you may have around familial or romantic relationships, but it can also help you establish boundaries with the people in your life who may want too much from you. It can also help you maintain optimum mental health.

Visit our Grow Therapy marketplace and find the right therapist to help you find yourself again.

FAQs

  • “Enmeshment often involves blurred boundaries and excessive emotional closeness within a family or relationship,” shares Kristian Wilson, a Grow Therapy Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). “Codependency refers to a specific type of enmeshment where one person excessively relies on another for emotional or psychological support.”

  • “Enmeshment itself is not a trauma,” says Wilson, “but it can lead to emotional and psychological distress, which may be traumatic for individuals involved, especially if it's accompanied by abusive or dysfunctional behaviors.”

  • Our Grow Therapy providers recommend the following types of therapy to help with enmeshment: family systems therapy (FST), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and group therapy.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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