Enmeshment Trauma - Setting Boundaries Within Enmeshed Families and Relationships

February 10, 2023   •  Posted in: 

“Boundaries are a prerequisite for compassion and empathy. We can’t connect with someone unless we’re clear about where we end and they begin. If there’s no autonomy between people, then there’s no compassion or empathy, just enmeshment.”

— Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart

What is enmeshment?

The concept of enmeshment was introduced in 1974 by an Argentinian family therapist named Salvador Minuchin (1921–2017) as a way to describe a particular type of dysfunction within family relationships. Enmeshment is most easily understood as families that are emotionally stuck together in various ways.

For example, enmeshment might be used to describe a family in which personal boundaries are diffused, overstepped, or absent. Or one in which individuals are “undifferentiated,” meaning they conform to the thoughts and ideas of others or rigidly try to force their views on others.

Enmeshed family members may also lose their sense of autonomy as they have been taught to focus on the emotions of other members of the family. In this dynamic, expressing empathy is disproportionally the work of one person. This leads to the flow of empathy becoming lopsided, or even reversed[1].

Children brought up in enmeshed families might find themselves overly involved in their parent’s needs, which can lead to them becoming the emotional parent or spouse to their parent(s).

Similarly, children from enmeshed families are not encouraged to have their own thoughts, feelings and beliefs, instead taking on those of the family, wholesale. They lose their distinctness. In this type of toxic enmeshment, children may only know their parent’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, which then outweigh and eclipse their own[2]. This is sometimes described as “psychic incest.”

Within adult to adult intimate relationships, enmeshment refers to unhealthy, codependent relationships that are notable for being out of balance, with much of the emotional work falling to one person.

 

Why do some families and relationships become enmeshed?

Enmeshment was a term that grew out of a type of therapy called Family Systems, which was developed by Dr Murray Bowen. Dr Bowen theorized that the emotional part of the human brain evolved as a way to manage the interpersonal relationships that were – and are – crucial to survival.

Within an enmeshed family, children are raised to be overly dependent on the family. This can mean some individuals take on all the emotional load for the whole family while others end up relinquishing personal responsibility. Either way, the family is out of balance, and the impact on the whole family is felt, albeit in different ways.

 

What is the impact of enmeshment?

Families with members who are comfortable in their differences have a well developed sense of self, whereas those who conform to the thoughts and ideas of others or who rigidly try to force their views on others have a poorly differentiated self.

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.

Within the family, this is not seen as dysfunctional. However, when children of enmeshed families grow up and lead lives and relationships of their own, their enmeshed traits can surface.

One study researched the impact of enmeshment on mental health and discovered that boys who experienced enmeshed family patterns more often developed symptoms of ADHD. Girls who experienced enmeshed family interactions however later showed symptoms of depression[3].

 

How do you know if your relationship is enmeshed?

While everyone is different and will respond to experiences of enmeshment in unique ways, the following list offers some of the indicators that commonly arise in enmeshed relationships:

  • You need an excessive amount of love, support, and reassurance from your partner
  • If your partner does not respond to your needs or requests immediately, you feel strong and/or negative feelings such as anger, jealousy, or insecurity
  • You find it intolerable when your partner is away or absent
  • You spend as much time as possible together, with others describing your relationship as ‘joined at the hip’
  • You may find yourself projecting negative aspects of one or other parent onto your partner
  • You put your partner “on a pedestal,” believing that they are more intelligent, capable, or worthy than you
  • You don’t expect emotional closeness from your partner or anyone else you’re in a relationship with
  • You don’t react when your partner is absent or unavailable, or you respond in ways that you recognise from childhood

You may notice that some of the above indicators seem to contradict each other. That’s because the impact of enmeshment can surface in different ways for different people.

If you do recognize some of these within your own relationship, it could mean that there is enmeshment. Working with a therapist, either individually or in couples therapy, can help you to determine what is happening within your own relationship, and can help you to work towards healthy individuality.

Likewise, being in a healthy, un-enmeshed relationship can be a very healing experience for those who come from an enmeshed family. One of the characteristics of functional, healthy relationships is having good boundaries.

Enmeshment Trauma, a Form of Dysfunctional Relationships

Delve into the topic of relationships with this podcast episode about enmeshment trauma, a form of dysfunctional relationships where one’s identity becomes entangled with another. In the episode, Dr. Jantz provides tips for navigating the recovery journey and avoiding future enmeshment. Discover the profound impact of potential relationship loss, the challenges of reclaiming a sense of self, and how to move forward.

Listen to Podcast

What are boundaries?

The most simple definition of boundaries is what’s okay and what’s not okay for you. Boundaries can be described as rigid or firm at one end of the continuum, or they can be described as porous or flexible at the other end. It’s important to find a style of boundary setting that feels healthy to you.

Everyone’s boundaries will be different as they’re a unique combination of experiences, culture, and life phases. Boundaries are learned within our families of origin and are often part of the unique system within each family that also includes hierarchies, rules, and patterns of communication.

Boundaries play an important role, with some families operating within strict boundaries while others happily exist with more porous boundaries. Issues arise when the members of the family go against ‘agreed’ (albeit often unspoken) boundaries, which is commonly felt when children become teenagers and naturally seek to test boundaries.

The other thing to remember about establishing your own healthy boundaries as an adult is that they are likely to grow and change as you do. It’s a good idea to reflect on your boundaries regularly, and to redraw the ones that no longer feel supportive, comfortable, or healthy.

 

Examples of boundaries

According to therapist Lindsay Braman, boundaries are both internal and external.

External boundaries are where we bump up against each other (like setting boundaries around our time or how we allow others to treat us). Internal boundaries are where we bump up against ourselves in ways that bring dissonance between competing desires (like wanting to take on a new project but knowing we don’t have the resources to complete it).

— Lindsay Braman

Examples of internal boundaries include:

  • Knowing and honoring our capacity
  • Taking responsibility for what’s ours
  • Cultivating self awareness
  • Being curious and not defensive
  • Honoring our limits

Examples of external boundaries include:

  • Communicating needs and expectations
  • Setting boundaries on our time
  • Choosing to be mindfully present
  • Acknowledging when we’ve messed up
  • Holding boundaries

What are unhealthy boundaries?

The essential thing to remember about unhealthy boundaries is that they disregard other people’s values, wants, needs, and limits.

This could look like not accepting someone else saying ‘no’ to you, feeling responsible for other people’s feelings or for “fixing” them.

Consent falls under the category of boundaries, so unhealthy boundaries in this context would be touching people without their permission.

Unhealthy boundaries could also mean the absence of action, for example, someone failing to speak up when someone does something without permission.

Permission is a very important aspect of boundaries. This can either be one person outlining clearly what permission other people need to seek from them, or the other person asking permission before acting.

 

Why do some people find boundaries difficult?

There are varying reasons why some people find boundary setting more difficult than others. Those from enmeshed families will not have experienced healthy boundary setting in their upbringing, and may actually find other people’s boundaries incredibly challenging as it is in such opposition to their own experiences.

You don’t need to have come from an enmeshed family to find boundaries difficult, however. Culturally, we are not used to setting boundaries, particularly when we are used to workplace environments where the culture is to stay beyond your working hours, or to spend on credit cards beyond our means.

Equally, boundaries can be more difficult to maintain when we’re feeling stressed or worried, but this is a time when our boundaries can contribute to our resilience and feelings of safety.

Continuing on without setting or maintaining boundaries often leads to resentment, however. So while it may be difficult to prioritize your boundaries, they do have a beneficial effect on relationships and interactions.

 

How to set healthy boundaries (without being controlling)

You need a clear and strong sense of your own self-worth and what feels right to you in order to set healthy boundaries. If you don’t know yourself well, take some time to gain self awareness and be curious about your values, beliefs, and – crucially – your limits.

See if you can identify the barriers you face in setting healthy boundaries. For example, ask yourself about the times when you have a hard time saying no. What about the times when you have a hard time saying yes? What comes up for you when you think about saying no to someone you’ve previously always said yes to? Can you tolerate any feelings of discomfort?

Make a list of your boundaries for the different areas of your life (for example, work, family, partner, friends etc), and communicate them. This is key. You cannot maintain a boundary unless the other person knows what your boundary is.

Ultimately, you are not responsible for how other people respond to your boundaries. As long as you set your boundaries with kindness, you deserve to have those boundaries respected by others. They may not like them, but they should be able to respect that you have the right to decide what is okay and what’s not okay for you.

Interestingly, Brené Brown’s research shows that the people with the most compassion are also the ones with the most well-defined and well-respected boundaries.
Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others. We can’t base our own worthiness on others’ approval. Only when we believe, deep down, that we are enough can we say “Enough!”

– Brené Brown

How to stick to your boundaries?

Sometimes, it can feel so uncomfortable to communicate and/or maintain your boundaries that it’s tempting to let them slide, for the sake of harmony. However, allowing others to disregard your boundaries almost always leads to resentment.

If the choice is between discomfort and resentment, sticking to your boundaries means choosing discomfort. There is kindness in this discomfort as being firm with your boundaries is in service of those in the relationship, not just you.

If/when a boundary violation happens, notice the impact on your wellbeing. Take time to consider how you might respond differently in the future, and focus on what is within your control.

Sticking to your boundaries takes practice. Once you begin, though, you’ll discover that healthy boundaries are well worth putting in place, as you begin to reap the benefits for you, your family, and all of your relationships.

Are you or a loved one struggling with relationships? Call The Center • A Place of HOPE today at 1-888-771-5166 to speak with a relationship specialist. It is a free, confidential call. We answer all of your questions and discuss what a trauma treatment program might look like that will support you towards healthier relationships, and a way of being that will improve your quality of life. If you would like to go through how you are feeling in detail, please take our trauma test.


[1] Chanler, A. (2017). Mindfulness meets enmeshment: Disentangling without detaching with embodied self-empathy as a guide. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 4(2), 145–151. https://doi.org/10.1037/scp0000130
[2] Terence Real, I Don’t Want to Talk About It (1997) pp. 206, 360.
[3] JACOBVITZ, D., HAZEN, N., CURRAN, M., & HITCHENS, K. (2004). Observations of early triadic family interactions: Boundary disturbances in the family predict symptoms of depression, anxiety, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in middle childhood. Development and Psychopathology, 16(3), 577-592. doi:10.1017/S0954579404004675

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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