What is Enmeshment?

As relational beings, we have the core desire to love and be loved. This desire is inherently GOOD, but certain factors can cause this desire to become distorted. One way love and connection can become distorted is through enmeshment.

Enmeshment is when the lives of two or more people become so intertwined that it blurs lines and makes boundaries unclear. Salvador Minuchin, one of the leaders in Structural Family Therapy, coined the term. Enmeshment can also refer to any relationship system that has expectations of the members to think, feel, and believe in specific ways, which can be either spoken or unspoken rules 1.

These relationships may involve blurred boundaries, excessive control, dysfunctional relationship patterns, lack of independence and individuality, and unhealthy family patterns 2.

Enmeshment can blur lines and make boundaries unclear.

Signs of Enmeshment

Enmeshment can occur in any relationship, whether it be with family members, a romantic relationship, or friends. It also can happen with more than one person at a time, such as with your entire immediate family or with parents or children. While it can happen in all of these scenarios, it is most commonly seen in families. If you are questioning whether you may be in an enmeshed relationship, there are six signs key signs.

You prioritize other people’s needs first

Part of any relationship with another person is about making compromises, however, the problem occurs when we, as individuals, place another person’s needs and wants as the priority, neglecting personal preferences and requirements in the process. This often leads to neglecting your own needs and desires.

You isolate yourself from other relationships

It is easy to spend time with people who we care about most, especially as it brings us joy to be with those we love. However, if spending time with one person becomes your only socialization, this can be problematic. Having a well-rounded social pool of friends and family allows for different opinions, interests, and experiences. If the person you may feel enmeshed with makes you feel guilty for spending time with other people, this is a sign that your socialization is being unfairly controlled.

You don’t have boundaries

We all should have boundaries based on our own needs. The boundaries we establish should be communicated with the people we surround ourselves with. Understanding your needs when establishing boundaries is key.

You have difficulty differentiating between your emotions and other’s

For those who are overly empathetic, this can be a tricky. It is wonderful to express empathy for those you care for and to emotionally support them in hard times. However, you should be able to tell the difference between when you are feeling pain yourself vs. feeling the pain of another person. There should be an ability to distinguish between ‘my emotions’ and ‘other people’s emotions’

You find disagreements difficult

Differences are a natural thing to have with anyone. No two people are going to be exactly the same, so it is more than okay to disagree with those around you on any given topic. If you feel like you are unable to tell people you care about that you disagree with them without it becoming an issue between you two, this may be a sign of enmeshment.

You lack a sense of self

As stated, we all are individual beings. We each have different characteristics, interests, dislikes, personalities, etc. However, if you feel uncertain about who you are, what you want, and can only describe yourself in the context of a relationship, this is a definite sign you are lacking a sense of self 3.

Why Enmeshment Can be Harmful

At the core of it, enmeshment is about control, which can prevent others from being themselves and doing what makes them happy. While there are families who are extremely close in a healthy way, those who are enmeshed typically have a greater sense of stress and anxiety, feel less personally fulfilled, and tend to neglect relationships outside of the enmeshed one.

Enmeshment is about control.

Treating Enmeshment Issues

There are a few recommended steps towards working outside of an enmeshed relationship to form more stable and healthy connections.

Address the impact of enmeshment

It is imperative to look at what areas of your life this enmeshed relationship is impacting and how. You may recognize that the things that you do are based on the other person in your relationship and not your own likes, desires, or needs. Learn to listen to your own needs and desires and start to think of what will make you happy.

Build your own autonomy

Being with other people can be comforting, familiar, and enjoyable. However, it is also important to have time to ourselves to pursue our own wants and needs. Start to explore things you can do just for yourself. This may be working out, watching a favourite show, working on a hobby, etc. For people who have been in an enmeshed relationship for quite some time, this may be extremely difficult at first. Remind yourself that being on your own is a growing experience and is healthy.

Journal, seek out a therapist, or speak to a trusted friend or mentor

Realizing the impact of enmeshment can be an emotional experience. Remember that it is more than okay to seek out professional support through a therapist or to speak to someone you trust about what you have been going through. A trained therapists can assist you with looking at these relationships and processing what areas may not be healthy for you. Journaling can also provide some relief through the process of working through your feelings and thoughts.

Setting and keeping boundaries

Finally, it is necessary to figure out what kind of boundaries you need for your own well-being. Start by making a list and be prepared to discuss these with the other person. Remember that your needs are important and that when you draw boundaries, others are expected to respect and follow them4.

Treat with CBT

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) assists in teaching individuals new ways of thinking and behaving, in order to promote positive growth and change. This can be beneficial for those in enmeshed relationships, as most people who are involved in one are used to certain ways of thinking and may need assistance with recognizing toxic patterns.

If you believe you are in an enmeshed relationship our platform offers a complete online therapy toolbox which includes time with a personal therapist who can support your through your journey. If this is something you are interested in, we would love to hear from you! Resources 5 6 7