Enmeshment: Dysfunctional Relational Pattern
- 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.