Being a parent is a complicated job.
Healthy parenting includes doing your best to create a loving environment, supporting your kids so that their talents and interests help you guide them to build their own life.
Parents are still going to make mistakes that impact our kids. The parent who does the work for their kid, the parent who puts pressure on a child to intensely succeed, or the parent who is absent emotionally — all may not realize how their actions, or lack of action, can hurt their child. But our individual vulnerabilities become transparent in how we approach such a complicated task, as do — thank goodness — our strengths.
What are enmeshed families?
In one kind of unhealthy family dynamic, the problems may be harder to see. These families are what’s known as “enmeshed.” And it means just what it sounds like — the boundaries between the members of a family don’t exist clearly, if at all. They’re all tangled up with one another.
There’s too much sharing, or too much neediness. Children get the message that it’s not okay to be themselves — they need to stay highly involved with their parents. It can appear from the outside that everybody is very happy, but on the inside, there’s an expectation of loyalty that doesn’t celebrate individual achievement or identity, but demands control.
The new book Educated by Dr. Tara Westover describes an extreme example of such a family, where the parents didn’t believe in public schools, doctors, vaccines, or socializing with others, but kept their children (at least when they were all quite young) working on the farm, away from books or others. There was an intense disdain and ridicule for wanting anything else in life but what was offered at home. The author challenged these rules, but not without paying a heavy price.
Enmeshed families are, of course, on a spectrum. But if everyone in your family knows everyone else’s business, and always feel free to comment or have an opinion, you might want to wonder about enmeshment. If you have your own children but you’re still expected to always be at your parents’ home for the holiday — or your dad drops by with no warning when you’re trying to get the kids down for bed because he needs something — or you spend hours talking on the phone with your mom every day, feeling as if you need to fill her in so she’ll feel like a part of things, you might want to consider just how much your own independence has been supported.
When a parent and a child are enmeshed...
Enmeshment doesn’t only happen in the family itself. A parent can be highly enmeshed with one of their children. Perhaps you took on more and more of the role of confidante as you grew older. You could calm her, and make her happy. You served an emotional purpose in her life, at least that’s what she tells you.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you.“
“You know me better than anybody.“
“I can’t think about you leaving.“
These enmeshed relationships between parent and child aren’t in any way healthy. The child is pulled in to serve the psychological needs of a parent — to help Mom stop crying, or to help Dad out of a bad mood, perhaps preventing a drinking spree. That child is told that they’re doing a great job — no one could do it better. “You make me so happy.” “You’re saving me from myself.”
But guess what? Inevitably, the parent becomes unhappy again– because their problems are adult problems and can only be truly healed by the parent’s own actions.
So the child, who now feels responsible for her parent, fails. She’s not special enough. He’s not smart enough to fix his father’s struggles. To fix that? She or he must try harder.
It can be a lifelong job.
Beth was in her mid-40’s when she came in, talking about the misery in her marriage. But she wouldn’t consider the option of divorce because of how her parents would react, ”It would kill them. I can’t hurt them that much. They would never understand.”
Don’t get me wrong. Enmeshment is very different than asking a child to help you with the garden, or giving them chores around the house. Of course, good parenting is about having expectations. You’re teaching a child about responsibility. But those expectations aren’t the same as pulling a child into a role they never chose to play.
How Does Enmeshment Affect a Child?
Dr. Pat Love wrote a book about this phenomenon, called “The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What To Do When A Parent’s Love Rules Your Life.” She describes the cost to the child: “If the parent represses the girl’s (or boy’s) anger not just once but over and over again, a deeper injury occurs: the girl will eventually dismantle her anger response. Ultimately, it’s safer for her to cut off a part of her being than to battle the person on whom her life depends.”
It can feel following these rules has to happen, like a job you can’t quit. So you swallow your anger.
If you’re one of these adult children, many people may have told you how lucky you were — to have a parent that sang your praises and adored you so much. It’s difficult to question this bond, because you may feel extreme guilt, as if you’re being disloyal for not being there for your mother or father. The slightest bit of separation can be interpreted by the parent as disrespect, disloyalty or even abandonment. You can never emotionally leave nor can you express anger about how trapped you feel. You may look like adults on the outside, but inwardly, you may doubt your own reasoning and capabilities.
“I never realized that I don’t make a decision without talking to my mom about it first.”
“I just assumed that I would help with my dad’s business. I never gave one thought to doing something on my own. So, what now?”
Breaking the patterns of enmeshment…
But the good news is that I’ve worked with both parents who needed too much, been able to see what they’ve unintentionally done, and decided to back off for everyone’s well-being, as well as adult children who needed to pull away from the intensity of the relationship. The pattern can be changed, but it’s going to feel odd for a while. There will be space where there was no space before. It can feel a little lonely — perhaps, oddly enough, for both. If you’re the adult child, you may have quite accustomed to the interest and focus by your parent and being without it feels a little shaky.
The parent can give the gift of supporting independence, and confront their own unhappiness.
And the now adult child may discover a kind of competence not before recognized.
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This was originally published on March 11, 2017 and was updated on March 9, 2019.