Parental Alienation And Enmeshment Issues

Stahl (1999) reports that the children who are most susceptible to alienation are the more passive and dependent children, or the children who feel a strong need to psychologically care for the alienating parent. The child and alienating parent share a sense of moral outrage and there is a fusion of feelings between them. While noting that there is a plethora of research studies in this area, Stahl suggests that the clinical descriptions which have found their way into the professional and legal literature offer some useful guidelines for consideration in custody decisions. Long-term effects of alienation left unchecked may lead to various pathological symptoms, which include but are not limited to:

  • splitting in their relationships
  • difficulties in forming intimate relationships
  • a lack of ability to tolerate anger or hostility in relationships
  • psychosomatic symptoms and sleep or eating disorders
  • psychological vulnerability and dependency
  • conflicts with authority figures
  • and, an unhealthy sense of entitlement for one’s rage that leads to social alienation in general.

It is also important to understand something of the family process of enmeshment. While the literature does not often incorporate discussion of this topic into descriptions of parental alienation, it would appear that enmeshment and overidentification of the child or children with one parent may significantly contribute to the level and intensity of observed alienation processes. The term enmeshment has been widely used in the family therapy literature since it was popularized by the work of Salvador Minuchin (1978). Describing psychosomatic families, Minuchin and his colleagues outlined the impact of four disruptive family dynamics: enmeshment, overprotectiveness, rigidity, and lack of conflict resolution methods. The offspring in these families included anorexic girls who were so caught up in the family pathology that they were unable to differentiate themselves and were locked into an illness that reflected the family disorder. They were trapped in rigid roles with their other family members and they were treated in such an overprotective manner so as to make a virtual moat around the family system which blocked out the outside world. Attempts to penetrate these protective walls were rebuffed, leaving no opportunity for corrective feedback, new learnings, or breaking the suffocating mold that held the members captive.

Enmeshment refers to an extreme form of proximity and intensity in family interactions…In a highly enmeshed, overinvolved family, changes within one family member or in the relationship between two family members reverberate throughout the system…On an individual level, interpersonal differentiation in an enmeshed system is poor…in enmeshed families the individual gets lost in the system. The boundaries that define individual autonomy are so weak that functioning in individually differentiated ways is radically handicapped (Minuchin, et al, 1978, p.30).”

Minuchin described the lack of clear ego boundaries between family members which produced a form of fusion, a condition that interfered with a clear sense of self as apart from the family while still being a part of the family. Taken with the family failure to have suitable means for conflict resolution, Minuchin traced how the family system contributed to the production of psychopathology in the members and how it was unable to move forward to more healthy and adaptive roles. From this seminal work, a large body of literature has emerged which has been most influential in the family therapy world. As with parental alienation described above, varying levels and degrees of enmeshment may occur, ranging from mild and isolated elements of enmeshment to more pathological and pervasive features. In divorcing families, the impact of enmeshment can become more pronounced as the normal balancing influence of the other parent is gradually diminished. Much like parental alienation, the phenomenon of enmeshment may be found in varying degrees of intensity, with corresponding degrees of negative impact on child development.

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