Maria Droste Counseling Center

The Enmeshed Family: What It Is and How to “Unmesh”

by Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC

It’s a word most of us have heard before, often when describing families that are extremely close and tightly wound. But what does it mean? Aren’t families supposed to be close? Aren’t we supposed to try to please our parents or siblings? Doesn’t being a part of a family mean making sacrifices sometimes?

Well, the answer is “yes” and “no” to all three questions. Yes, the hope is that our families are our primary social communities; little (or big) clusters of individuals who are related by birth or adoption, and who define themselves as members of that clan. Ideally, children are launched into their adult lives from these families, prepared to think for themselves and with a well developed efficacy and identity of their own.

When families are enmeshed, however, this doesn’t always happen. When children are raised to conform to their parents’ expectations of who they are, what they believe, and how they think and feel, that individuation so necessary to being truly independent doesn’t occur. Healthy families allow for differences in their members; adults and children alike.

Growing up is a process of exploration, and healthy families allow for a child to develop according to their own individual and unique characteristics. Children who love art are encouraged and supported in that interest, even if mom doesn’t value art herself. Children who love music or theatre are supported in those interests, whether dad had football and soccer in mind or not. Children are not told how they should feel or think, but are encouraged to make up their own minds and express what they are feeling without being judged.

As children grow older, enmeshed families can hit heavy walls of conflict when the natural healthy questioning of adolescents challenges parents with “too rigid” expectations for their children’s behavior. Teenagers are supposed to differ from their parents, and they often need a few years of wide variance from their parents before they settle into what feels right to them. That’s a healthy process.

Families that are enmeshed often have a set of spoken, or unspoken, rules that govern the member’s behaviors even into adulthood. Do these sound familiar to you?

  • Don’t talk to outsiders about what goes on in our family. That is our business and our business only.
  • What Mom and Dad say/believe/think/feel about you is what is right, never mind that you are 45 years old and have been on your own for 27 years.
  • It’s okay for you to be a little bit different from us in some ways, but there is a line that you can’t cross in this family and still be accepted (maybe you can’t be a Democrat, or a gay person, or marry outside of our race).
  • The cost of being different is to be cut off. We cannot accept differences that challenge our rigid sense of who this family is.
  • Even as adults, you will conform to the wishes of “the family” instead of make your own mind up about how, where, and with whom you wish to live your life.

If they do sound familiar, it is possible that your family is enmeshed on some level. If so, there is good news and bad news about that. Change is possible, but it isn’t easy. Enmeshed families are rigid systems that become locked-in over time, and these roles and patterns can be very hard to break out of. If a family as a whole understands that this enmeshment is unhealthy and wishes to change, family therapy can be helpful in establishing more permeable, flexible boundaries within family relationships.

This is an ideal scenario; however, most often what occurs is that one family member recognizes that they are unable to be who they are or live as they choose without offending the family, and that person very often needs to make a difficult choice. In healthy families, members are supported in making choices for their own well being, even if members don’t agree with those choices.

Individuals who decide to divorce can often be judged by other adult family members who think they “know what’s right” for that person and that marriage. Adults who wish to change religious or political status can feel they don’t have the right to do so because their families will disapprove. Adult children can make well-meaning but wrong judgments about how their parents should be spending their money and retirement years.

If you are dealing with trying to make healthy choices for your own life and experiencing the fall-out of being “different” in an enmeshed family, you have a couple of choices. You could confront your family in a loving but firm way, tell them what you see happening, and then tell them what you need in terms of moving forward. Invite them to accept your decisions for your life whether or not they are the decisions they would make for you. If they resist, offer to do family counseling with them in order to ensure you all navigate through these changes and maintain a healthy closeness.

If your family members refuse, the choice for you is to remain in conformity for the rest of your life, sacrificing what is best for you and suppressing your own identity for the family’s collective identity, or to risk their disapproval and make your own choices. You can choose to do what is best for you; that is within your control. What you can’t control is your family’s response, but you have to be willing to let them deal with their response; it’s their business, not yours.

Over time, many families will be able to adjust to the changes and accept you on some level: “Oh that’s Jimmy, he’s a little ‘different,’ but he’s okay.” Some may not, but this is where the sacrifice part comes in. If you are in an enmeshed family and you have a need or desire for your life that isn’t in compliance with the family “rules,” you are going to have to make a sacrifice one way or the other. Choose your own well being, or choose a life of denial of your own needs.

If you are in this situation and need help with these decisions, individual therapy might be helpful to you. Therapy can help you determine what you need and want, and help support you through making the changes you need to in order to get where you want to be. Therapy can also help support you in staying strong in your own sense of who you are, no matter what others believe.

Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC, is a therapist who specializes in individual, family, and couples and marriage counseling in Denver, CO. She provides services through Maria Droste Counseling Center.

4 Responses

  1. Linda says:

    Enmeshment is a tricky thing and this blog describes the intricacies and the choices very well. One thing to remember is that you can “love” your family, without having to agree with how they would have you live your life.

  2. Wbv says:

    Thanks for this. In the long run the choice may be either to betray ourselves or to conform.
    I wish i had multiple life terms but since i have only one i will darn choose what is to the best interest of that one life.

    Am not talking selfishness. By no means. I am talking about self care and god knows how little of that has passed through my life.

    • chris lewis says:

      WBV
      I am so glad to hear your are choosing what is in your own best interest — life is too short to do otherwise! And I agree, it is not in the least a selfish decision. In fact, taking good care of ourselves is the best thing we can do for our loved ones as well! Thanks for your reply, and keep up the self-care!
      Chris Lewis EdS, LPC

  3. Lynn says:

    Your article is very helpful as we approach the holidays. I think perhaps a great need to please is built into enmeshed families. Members will struggle for years, not pleasing themselves with their own choices, because of the greater spectre of family disapproval, so it feels like a sacrifice either way. And within enmeshed families, there are always those who use rage, guilt, or crisis to manipulate others and make sure they stay “on board.” No matter what you do, they cannot allow themselves to be pleased with you because expressing approval would cost them power over you next time. In the end, the only one I have power over is me. I must make choices that are healthy for me and my family and know that it is my intent to show love and honor for my enmeshed family without jumping back into the midst of an unhealthy and controlling situation.

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