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.