Enmeshment and How To Break Free

Enmeshment and How To Break Free

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Medically reviewed by Kira Graves, PhDMedically reviewed by Kira Graves, PhD

Enmeshment is a term for when people become excessively involved in each other’s personal lives and activities. It usually refers to issues that occur in familial relationships, such as those between parents and children. However, it can often occur in friendships and romantic relationships, too.

When enmeshment is present in a relationship, people cannot develop independence or healthy identities outside the relationship and do not have healthy boundaries with one another. Being enmeshed can greatly affect your social and emotional well-being. Fortunately, there are several strategies you can use to improve your relationships.

What Causes Enmeshment?

It’s not known what causes enmeshment in families. Oftentimes, these patterns are passed down from generation to generation. For instance, if you grew up in a family where enmeshment was common, you might parent your own children this way. Similarly, if you grew up in a family where enmeshment dominated, you might follow similar patterns in your friendships or romantic relationships.

At times, enmeshment and dysfunctional boundaries may result from trauma within the family—such as a child experiencing a medical emergency or parents going through separation or divorce. These situations may cause a parent to become overprotective or overbearing toward their children.

Signs and Symptoms

Enmeshment in relationships develops when there is an unhealthy amount of emotional closeness. This often causes people to be overly dependent on one another, lack personal space and boundaries, and limit their ability to find their identities and meaning outside their relationships.

If you are enmeshed in a relationship, it may look like the following signs:

  • Unfair levels of loyalty expected of your relationships
  • Feeling excessive pressure to spend time together
  • Resentment when your partner or family members do anything outside of the relationship or unit
  • Unclear and shifting boundaries
  • Being too intertwined with the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of others
  • Conditional support (“I will do something for you only if you do something for me.”)
  • Lack of independence
  • Having extreme sensitivity to your partner or family members' stress or problems
  • Constantly being entangled in each other’s activities at higher-than-normal levels
  • Extreme reliance on your partner or family members

The Effects of Enmeshment

In families and relationships where enmeshment is common, mental health can deteriorate. The emotional and social effects of enmeshment can last for several years. In particular, children brought up in families with high levels of enmeshment may experience enmeshment trauma, or trauma that results from enmeshed relationships in childhood.

Enmeshment can affect your life in the following ways:

  • External behaviors: Having temper tantrums, not following rules, acting out physically, showing general hostility, and having oppositional defiance—all common for children who grew up in enmeshed homes.
  • Emotional dysregulation: Teenagers who grow up in enmeshed family units may experience higher levels of emotional dysregulation, which can cause negative moods, higher stress, and a reduced ability to handle difficult situations.
  • Decreased parental happiness: The effects of enmeshment affect more than children and teenagers. Research shows that parents in enmeshed families also report decreased happiness.
  • Higher risk of mental health conditions: Growing up in a family with unclear boundaries is associated with several mental health conditions, including eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and depression.
  • Changes in well-being: Weak boundaries in relationships can also cause higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of empathy.

How To Put an End to Enmeshment

If you grew up in an enmeshed family or have enmeshed romantic relationships, there's hope. Experts recommend that creating healthy boundaries can slowly help reduce enmeshment in your relationships.

Creating Healthy Boundaries

Forming clear boundaries in a relationship isn’t about being cold or rigid. The idea is to make your boundaries known, while also being flexible and understanding of the other person in the relationship. Your goal is to have strong, but warm boundaries.

You can do this by:

  • Discussing your needs and boundaries
  • Listening to the needs and boundaries of your partner or family members
  • Practicing saying no to requests you cannot meet
  • Acknowledging a person's needs when they say "no" to you
  • Pointing out when someone else is not honoring your boundaries
  • Honoring other people's boundaries regularly

Seeking Therapy

Although boundaries are a healthy part of any relationship, it can be challenging for many people to establish and communicate boundaries. This often occurs because people who grew up in enmeshment never had the opportunity to practice healthy boundaries.

In such cases, therapy is a great way to learn about boundaries and find effective ways to implement them in your relationships. Both family therapy and couples therapy can help you form healthy boundaries.

How To Heal

Being raised in an enmeshed home and lack of boundaries can have long-lasting effects on your mental health and your ability to form healthy relationships as an adult. But you are not powerless here. There are things you can do to heal from enmeshment trauma and learn to establish boundaries. Here are some ideas:

  • Learn that saying no is OK and healthy
  • Tell yourself that it’s not your job to make others happy or to please others all the time
  • Remind yourself that self-care is a priority and that caring for yourself will naturally make you a better friend, spouse, or family member
  • Pay attention to others’ boundaries and honor them as an act of kindness
  • Don’t expect others to know what your boundaries are; learn to articulate them clearly
  • Use “I” statements when possible to effectively share your boundaries with other
  • Don’t overcommit to the requests or needs of others
  • Celebrate yourself each time you honor your own boundaries

You don’t have to do this alone. If you are having trouble communicating your needs and boundaries or identifying them, consider going to therapy. Most therapists are trained in helping people form strong boundaries. Ask potential therapists if they have experience with enmeshment and how they can help you learn to establish healthy boundaries in your life.

A Quick Review

Enmeshment is a relationship that lacks clear, healthy, and flexible boundaries. Enmeshment often happens in families, but these patterns can continue throughout adulthood. People who grew up in enmeshed relationships are more likely to experience relationship issues, emotional dysregulation, and a higher risk of mental health conditions.

Establishing healthy boundaries and communicating your needs to others can help you break free from these patterns.

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