22 Comments

  1. Oh boy did this resonate with me! I’ve been taking care of mom since I was 15 and my mom died and there has been anger on my side that I’ve swallowed time and time again. Now she has Alzheimer’s and my life has stopped once again to take care of her. By the time it is actually my time I’m terrified I will be to old to live!

    1. I’m a little confused Rena… maybe you meant to say your dad died? But it sounds as if you’re exactly the person I wanted to reach. Maybe there are ways even now that you could take better care of you — using a service to help with your mom, or allowing others to care for her, at least some of the time. I obviously don’t know, but I might suggest you talk to friends about your options. Maybe you could start that life now. Thanks so much for letting me know.

  2. Thanks for addressing such an important blog. Enmeshment can have long-lasting effects on a child’s emotional development and relationships. Thanks for shedding light on this point. keep sharing.

    1. What do you do to help someone going through this.
      If there parent is making them take 2 much BP medication and telling them it’s something else.

        1. Hi, this hit a chord with me. I am the youngest child of the family and at the age of about eight my parents divorced. Our mother had custody of us. Looking back at my relationship with my mum (I am 51 f now), I realise I was always made to be by her side. If there was a family event, I was taken with her, not my siblings. Any work conferences she had, I was taken along. I missed my year 12 camp to drive with her a very long way (over 12 hours), to attend her parents 50th wedding anniversary. I did have my own life, to a point. At the age of 24, after my fiancé had been killed in a car accident, I moved overseas. I was loving my life, enjoying a different country. Her mother became ill and to this day, my mother tells people she travelled to “come and get me and bring me home”. I look back now and wish I had never left that country, or should have gone back. As time has gone on, my siblings do not and really haven’t ever lived within 5 hours of our mother, but I live 1 hour away. My mother (77) lives alone and fell badly this year. So I dropped everything to move in with her to take care of her, as that is what “I” have always done. After 3 months I had to go back to my rented unit. I just could not take it anymore. There are many more details, that I will not go into. The thing is, now I feel painfully guilty leaving her alone knowing there are many things she can not do for herself. I am angry at myself for feeling guilty and have gone no contact with her until I figure myself out. I would really appreciate any guidance and I do intend to seek out help.

          1. Hello Rachael. It certainly seems as if you were “chosen” to fill some gap for your mom, maybe caused after the divorce. (Obviously I’m not sure.) But that intense duty you feel, a responsibility that goes beyond what many children or adult children would feel. Your words, ‘I dropped everything” suggest this dynamic in a very real way. I’m glad you’ve had your own life – as you say, “to a point.” I’m glad you’re going to seek help because this kind of enmeshment… it’s funny in a way. It can start out with you feeling so special, but in reality, it sets you up for failure. You may be told, “You’re who I need.” But no child can make an adult happy. No child can “fix” a parent’s world. So you inherently fail at your special job. Hopefully seeing this – and then deciding what to do about it now, in the circumstances you find yourself in, will be helpful.

  3. I think my wife (27F) is trapped in this enmeshment. I shared this whole article to her and she agrees with it, but some unhealthy actions by her parents go unnoticed. When I point it out to her, she sometimes defends their behavior. One specific example seems innocent enough—her father texts her “Goodnight, I love you” every single night without fail—however, her response indicates that this message seems more manipulative than not. And she often becomes anxious or filled with guilt when she can’t or forgets to respond to it.

    1. I remember walking out of a therapist’s office one time when she suggested that maybe my mom was manipulative – that it was enmeshment that is. It’s a very difficult dynamic to see because it looks and often feels like true caring. A great thing to do would be to be supportive of her reading about it more or going to therapy. You may not be the person she can hear this from… and I understand that, for her, it can feel tremendously disloyal to question that kind of caring.

    2. I’m seeing this go on with my boyfriend. It’s like there protective of there parents.
      But full of fear & anxiety when they get near them, or don’t do what they say

      1. The term for it TH is “conditional love.” Or “enmeshment.” Conditional love is when love is offered BUT you need to please me in order for that love to be given. Thanks so much for commenting.

      2. My fiancé has a strong cultural force of being controlled, manipulated, and lied too. My Mom is equally needy of my needing her. Gosh! How terrible!? We are adults and make
        Our decisions based on what our lives need. I told all of my kids if I ever do this to them to call me out. I don’t want to do this to my kids. Stop generational trauma in its tracks!

    3. I have this same situation, especially around the goodnight love you texts, random memes or gifs with a question or comment to reel my attention in. To act confused when I confront her actions or intentional manipulating me despite expressing my need for space. She’s needy, always has been. It wasn’t until a series of events that led her moving back home after trying Florida. Her expectations inside her head are unrealistic. I’m 47 years old, successful, a good parent, I work full time, and have a fiancé whose circumstances require attention. She needs me to feel better so she can feel better. She tries to fix things when they are a normal part of life. Ugh! It’s exhausting and spiritually violating. I hope you are able to work through things and your wife gets the boundaries you both need. Be well!

  4. Margaret,
    This was helpful and confirming. My wife gets calls from her mother 5+ times a day, every day, for as long as cell phones have been ubiquitous. She spends the majority of her work breaks and lunches on the phone with her Mom, including disruptions while she’s working. And it’s never important stuff, like gossipping about her brother’s every move. I had to put a stop to mealtime calls, calls while our family is riding together, and my wife abruptly cutting off our conversations when her Mom calls. Though these still happen occasionally. She also goes to their house 2-4x a week, and will hide trips from me by packaging them in with a trip to the grocery store. 95% of the things she does for them, they could do for themselves.
    And her help is never asked for from a position of humility and gratefulness for her time, but rather a “I need you to do this today” position. She has such a big heart, but shoulders so much guilt to the point of being brought to tears at times.
    A part of me feels selfish for bringing this up to her because ultimately I’m asking her to spend less time with her parents. But I feel like our marriage and her mental health are on the line. Again, thank you for the clarity on the subject.

    1. You’re so welcome. It can be a tough dynamic to address. I remember a therapist of mine suggesting my mother could be manipulative; my loyalty to her and not understanding enmeshment back then led me to walk out of his office, incensed that he would suggest such a thing. I called him back, apologized, and said, “You know, you must’ve touched on something.” Good luck to you and your wife.

  5. Im very glad I found your article. Im struggling in my relationship with my mom. I am currently pregnant with my first child and it has really made me realize that I cannot tolerate my mothers behavior anymore – I simply dont have the strength. For context, my mom is mentally ill (borderline, schizoaffective) and did not raise me (my maternal grandmother did). I do love my mom but I resent her. She expects my time, my resources, and is unrelenting if I dont give her what she wants (she will throw fits, self harm). I find myself completely unable to just cut her off. To me, its immoral and I love her so I just cant do it. Add the fact that both her siblings are dead and she doesnt really have anyone except me and grandma. Its just awful all around.

    1. My first response is to say that cutting someone totally off and setting boundaries are two different things. It may not seem that way to your mother however. I might recommend that you work with a therapist on what boundaries you want to set and then invite your mother to join the session. It can help to have an objective voice in the room to help keep the conversation hopefully constructive for both of you. I’ve worked with several people who’ve discovered, with sticking with their boundaries over time, that their parent (or other relative) will respect those boundaries. Of course, your partner (if you have one) and you must also work to decide what’s best. Congratulations on being a new mom! It’s very common for a child’s presence to be the “reason” why a parent feels they have to make a different decision about this kind of situation. I’m actually writing a podcast episode right now that talks about anger and empathy toward a parent. It’ll come out next week.

  6. Hello,
    This is the closest I’ve found to my adult relationship with my mother. After my parents divorced when I was about 12, I was her companion, confidant, and helper. I don’t resent helping with things like the cooking and such when I was a kid because I learned to be self-sufficient. However, I was frequently left on my own when she had a man in her life and felt much less important compared to them. I was always the appeaser, doing whatever she wanted or needed to keep the peace.
    I was on my own at 18 because she remarried and I was generally happy. But there were times when I needed her and she couldn’t make the effort to help. I was expected to be there at her beck and call, however, and given the guilt trip otherwise. I was happiest when I lived several states away and wasn’t as accessible.
    Now, as a 56 year old adult, I’ve been forced to move back in with her due to my own pending divorce and a medical problem which does not allow me to live alone. It’s not serious, nor crippling, but I need help with dressings on my back weekly.
    Since this move, several years after her last husband died, she suddenly wants to be the perfect parent. She hovers, she smothers, she treats me like a child more than she ever did when I was one. My emotionally abusive marriage has changed my personality drastically and she can no longer accept that I’m her mini-me. She talks to me with baby talk, expects me to cheer up because she wants it, and is in constant need of validation of her worth. Her personality now rubs me raw to the point of just wanting to go anywhere but here. She even wanted to talk to me about a fling she recently had and is having trouble respecting my boundaries that I don’t want to hear it. In fact, she has trouble respecting any of my boundaries and frequently reminds me that what she wants is more important because she gave birth to me.
    I know that when this medical condition is finally resolved, hopefully soon, I want to go as far away as possible and never look back. At this point, I have no desire to continue the relationship at all. I guess I’m the jerk. No one’s parent is perfect, I get that, but to see the glaring narcissistic neediness at this age is shocking and I just can’t deal.
    Thank you for listening.

    KW

    1. I don’t think you’re a jerk KW. Probably being so close to it, with her mom acting so strangely (and you seeing it more clearly) is making it worse. Distance is often needed in these situations. I hope you heal from your own emotional pain from that abusive marriage and maybe you can also see if the connections between your childhood and your choice of partner. I’m so glad the article was helpful to you. Warmly Dr. M.

  7. Hi Dr Margaret, I’m very happy to have found this post because I feel like my partner (31F) is experiencing this now and I’m not sure how to react or what I can do. We’ve been together for less than one year and things are going well however I’m finding myself holding back from becoming serious about the next level (buying a house/children etc.) because I’m slowly starting to sense what looks like the beginning of ‘enmeshment’. My partner is extremely family orientated, they have a family group chat where they speak as a family, all go back to their parents’ house for Christmas etc. These things are common, so I don’t have a real issue with them. However, on top of that I frequently find my partner sending text messages to her mother (daily). This happens at all times in the day, sometimes from the moment she wakes up, to when the adverts come on the tv and in-between sets in the gym.

    I don’t always know the content of the messages (and I don’t really care for what the content is) however I just find this level of communication between a parent and child too much! To give some context her mother stopped working from a young age and concentrated on bringing up my partner and her siblings and now they’re all at an age where they’re in relationships and have all moved away from home. And I feel this is a way for the family to stay involved in all of their children’s lives. Again, not necessarily a negative thing.

    For me personally my relationship with my mother could be better, we speak once every 4-6 weeks generally when either of us have something to update the other on. When we do speak it’s a huge download of information and that should do until the next one. This is similar with my father whom I’m closer too but maybe once every 2/3 weeks. I don’t feel the need to update him on my day-to-day antics unless there’s a reason for it. So, witnessing the other end of the spectrum with parents to me is an eye opener.

    It’s got to the point where whenever I see my partner messaging her mother, I get this strange feeling where I’m annoyed and it’s not because she’s not paying attention to me, it’s more of a ‘I can’t believe that you’re speaking again.’ For example, we recently hike a mountain trail and when we got to the end the second that we got signal my partner messaged her mother letting her know she’s ok and sending photos of the trip – literally within minutes of the signal coming through. I don’t know why I get this strange feeling, but I do and I’m not sure if its due to me or if it actually is signs of enmeshment. I feel guilty because I understand that part of me is asking my partner to speak with their parents less which just sounds stupid when you say it out loud.

    Another thing I noticed is that my partner has spoken about children, more specifically when she has her first child, she ‘needs’ her mum there for the first few months – to the point where she mentioned her mum will be moving in with her to ensure that she is supported when her child is born. And then afterwards her parents will move closer to home to help with everything and be closer to their grandkids. Obviously, there’s positives to this and partly makes sense, you’d want to be closer to your grandchildren, but I find it strange that she has this reliance on her mother being so close to her during this time.

    This is causing me to really think about the future because if this is annoying me now, I can only imagine what I will feel like if things start to become more serious and houses/children become involved. I want to bring it up with her but as you mentioned I’m expecting the reaction to be ‘this is my family, and you don’t understand the relationships’ or ‘how dare you say these things about me and my mother.’ or even ‘just because you don’t talk to your mum doesn’t mean you can dictate how I communicate with mine’.

    However, my silence also doesn’t help as I would only have myself to blame if this annoyed me further down the line at a point where I may be at a point where it’s more difficult due to other commitments (house/children etc)

    I would love to hear what you think of this, am I overreacting, or do I have a point here?

    Thanks

    1. Chris, I think you’re quite on target to consider what’s concerning about this dynamic and what it might possibly mean for the future. I’d hope that your girlfriend would consider going into therapy with someone you both trust and choose, in order to get perspective on both your families and what dynamics are likely to cause a problem. If your gut is saying, “Wait a minute…” then that’s important. In my experience, this kind of family dynamic is hard to leave or even see at times. Good luck to you both.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.