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Enmeshment: Dysfunctional Relational Pattern

Published: 2011-07-18 - Updated: 2015-02-27
Author: Sunrise Residential Treatment Center | Contact: WWW.SUNRISERTC.COM

Synopsis: Enmeshment is a therapeutic term often misunderstood this article covers what is enmeshment and how can a family recover from this dysfunctional relational pattern.

Main Digest

A word that frequently comes up in family therapy is "enmeshment." It's a therapeutic term that is sometimes misused and often misunderstood.

In Other News:

Defined as the concept of enmeshment to describe families where personal boundaries were diffuse, sub-systems undifferentiated, and over-concern for others led to a loss of autonomous development. Enmeshed in parental needs, trapped in a discrepant role function, a child may lose his or her capacity for self-direction; his/her own distinctiveness, and, if family pressures increase, may end up becoming the identified patient or family scapegoat.


Defined as a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (typically narcissism or drug addiction); and in broader terms, it refers to the dependence on the needs of or control of another.

Just what is enmeshment and how can a family recover from this dysfunctional relational pattern? To find out, we asked David Prior, LMFT. Prior is the executive director of Sunrise RTC, a treatment program for adolescent girls known for its effective work with enmeshed family relationships.

What is "enmeshment"

Enmeshment is a description of a relationship between two or more people in which personal boundaries are permeable and unclear. This often happens on an emotional level in which two people "feel" each other's emotions, or when one person becomes emotionally escalated and the other family member does as well. A good example of this is when a teenage daughter gets anxious and depressed and her mom, in turn, gets anxious and depressed. When they are enmeshed the mom is not able to separate her emotional experience from that of her daughter even though they both may state that they have clear personal boundaries with each other. Enmeshment between a parent and child will often result in over involvement in each other's lives so that it makes it hard for the child to become developmentally independent and responsible for her choices.

What causes two people to become enmeshed

The causes of enmeshment can vary. Sometimes there is an event or series of occurrences in a family's history that necessitates a parent becoming protective in their child's life, such as an illness, trauma, or significant social problems in elementary school. At this time the parent steps in to intervene. While this intervention may have been appropriate at the time, some parents get stuck using that same approach in new settings and become overly involved in the day to day interactions of their children.

Other times, and perhaps more frequently, enmeshment occurs as a result of family patterns being passed down through the generations. It is a result of family and personal boundaries becoming more and more permeable, undifferentiated, and fluid. This may be because previous generations were loose in their personal boundaries and so it was learned by the next generation to do the same. Or it may be a conscious decision to stay away from family patterns of a previous generation that felt overly rigid in its personal boundaries.

Is enmeshment really a bad thing or is it just when two people are very close

Enmeshment is different than two people being very close. Close relationships are a wonderful part of life and often allow for appropriate independence within the relationship. Enmeshment, however, becomes a problem because the individuals involved start to lose their own emotional identity. They lack a certain level of autonomy that they need in order to grow emotionally and relationally. In a parent-child relationship this creates a dynamic in which teenagers who need to develop appropriate autonomy become developmentally stymied. They are either too afraid to venture into increased autonomy and become dependent on their parents, or they become reactive to the enmeshment and run too far in the other direction, sometimes making poor choices in their effort to be independent.

Is it possible to love your child too much

No. I don't think it's possible to love your child too much. Love and enmeshment are two different things. However, enmeshment can be a misdirected expression of love.

Do fathers or mothers tend to be more enmeshed with daughters or is there not a clear trend one way or the other

You can definitely have enmeshment that goes in any direction in relationships. You can have enmeshment between one parent and a child, between both parents and numerous children, and between siblings. Probably the most common dyad we see with enmeshment in is between a mom and daughter, but we see it all over the place.

What's the opposite of enmeshment? Is that just as problematic

The opposite of enmeshment is disengagement, in which personal and relational boundaries are overly rigid and family members come and go without any apparent knowledge of what each other is going through. This can be just as problematic as enmeshment. In fact, in its extremes, disengagement can be more difficult to work with because it's easier to teach an engaged relationship how to redirect some of their energy than it is to get a disengaged relationship to engage.

What's the right relational balance between these unhealthy extremes

A good relational balance involves family members recognizing that they have different emotions and can make independent decisions, while also recognizing that their decisions affect others. In these relationships a parent can see that their daughter is upset and anxious and can even empathize with her, but this does not get the parent into an aroused emotional state in which they feel like they have to fix the emotion (or that which caused the emotion) of their daughter. They empathize and show nurturing concern for their daughter but allow her the emotional space to solve her own problems with their support.

How can I know if I am in an enmeshed relationship

Those in enmeshed relationships are often the last to see it. But with awareness you can start to recognize some of the signs:

How can an enmeshed relationship heal? What is the goal in treating enmeshment

The goal in treating enmeshment is to create emotional differentiation. It is a lot like untangling a ball of yarn made up of two or more pieces of yarn. You want the individuals to connect with each other but in a manner that does not inhibit them from thriving individually and in other relationships. It involves coaching enmeshed systems or individuals to back away from each other when they start to solve each other's problems. It involves practicing to allow other family members to sit with their own emotions while communicating to them that you're okay with them feeling the emotion and that they'll be fine. It involves confident emotional modeling to each other in the enmeshed relationship.

What approaches have you found helpful when working with enmeshed relationships

Frequent family therapy involving pointing out enmeshment type behaviors and patterns combined with challenging individuals to find a new way. There is a strong emphasis on making the covert overt, or in other words, pointing out enmeshment patterns that go unnoticed to the individuals involved. It involves the therapist being someone who is calm and comfortable in the midst of high levels of anxiety because the therapist will need to model calmness and confidence with the individuals as they sit in their own anxieties trying to work out of the enmeshment.

Is there a positive trait that those prone to enmeshment possess that can be harnessed

There are absolutely a couple of traits that are common within enmeshed relationships that can be harnessed to create healthy relationships. Two such traits are nurturing concern and relational motivation. The trait of nurturing concern is a terrific human quality that can be used and directed to help others feel appreciated and connected while they grow independently. In fact, the correct use of nurturing concern can facilitate independence and growth. Relational motivation is another great human quality. When we are motivated to be involved in relationships we're being driven to something that creates some of the most joy and peace in life: connectedness. Most of us want to connect and most of us want to be accepted by others. We just need to channel our efforts to meet these needs in a healthy direction. That's what we aim for with enmeshed relationships at Sunrise, to redirect relational energy in a direction that will bring out the most peace, connection, and growth possible.

Quick Facts:

In healthy relationships with a strong connection, however, each person can pay attention to the other without losing or compromising their sense of self. Neither changes who they are or what they think or feel to please the other person. They can be apart without falling apart and be together without losing their individuality. Love is about the freedom to be yourself and be loved just the way you are, even if it's different from your partner.

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Cite Page: Journal: Disabled World. Language: English (U.S.). Author: Sunrise Residential Treatment Center. Electronic Publication Date: 2011-07-18 - Revised: 2015-02-27. Title: Enmeshment: Dysfunctional Relational Pattern, Source: <a href=>Enmeshment: Dysfunctional Relational Pattern</a>. Retrieved 2021-08-04, from - Reference: DW#322-8215.