If you feel like there are *zero* boundaries in your family, you might be enmeshed

Do you have a friend who’s, um, a little bit *too* close to their family? Like, you call your parents once or twice a week and text the group chat when you have news, but they call their parents multiple times a day and it seems like they can’t make decisions without them?

Well JSYK, it’s completely natural that every family has different relationship dynamics because 'there are different cultural contexts for each family,' says Shawntres Parks, PhD, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Women's Health advisory board member based in West Covina, California.

What's more: Family values—both positive and negative—are passed down through generations 'in ways that are both conscious and unconscious,' Parks says. So, while it’s been normalised for your friend to be so close with their parents, it might not actually be that healthy—in fact, there’s a chance that enmeshment is occurring.

Ahead, therapists explain what enmeshment is, identify signs and causes, and share tips on how to overcome it.

What is enmeshment?

Enmeshment is a 'psychological term that describes family relationships where there's a lack of clearly defined relational boundaries, which creates confusion around expectations, roles, and appropriate behaviours,' Parks says. While this term is specifically used to describe familial dynamics—and most commonly occurs between mothers and their children, per Parks—similar dynamics, such as codependency, can affect other types of relationships, like romantic ones, says Jenni Skyler, PhD, a certified sex therapist and director of the Intimacy Institute based in Aspen, Colorado. (But more on that later.)

Picture an enmeshed family as a soup, and a family with healthy boundaries as a charcuterie board, Skyler says. A charcuterie board consists of different compartments and, while all the foods complement one other, each one operates independently. But in a soup, all the different components are stuck in a bowl together and, therefore, function in a blended way. 'They are individuals, but on a systemic level, [they’re] all operating for the family system,' she says.

And while you might think enmeshment comes from a place of caring, it actually often comes from anxiety and a lack of trust and a security in a relationship, says Lauren Cook, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist, keynote speaker, and author of Generation Anxiety based in Pasadena, California.

In healthy relationships, a parent is able to create a secure attachment for their child, a.k.a., the feeling that the child knows they’re safe at home but is comfortable taking risks, Skyler says. That way, 'by the time you're an adult, you can fly from the nest with confidence, rather than feeling separation anxiety or clinginess,' she says. The adult child will also freely communicate with their parents, occasionally seeking advice, Cook adds.

Meanwhile, in enmeshed relationships, the parents are more overpowering (think: helicopter parents), Skyler says. They don't let their kids take risks, and if they fail, they coddle them, she explains. And when it comes to communication, there’s often guilt involved if the child isn't sharing information with the parent, Cook adds. 'Both parties feel like they can't stand on their own two feet,' she says.

How enmeshment affects family subsystems

Different subsystems—like a husband and wife, or brother and sister, for instance—make up families. Healthy families try to find homeostasis (a.k.a. equilirium), which means everyone ends up taking a role, Skyler explains, but 'everybody in the system gets affected' by enmeshment.

For example, if one child becomes enmeshed with their mother, their needs may take precedence, leaving the other child to feel neglected. Consequently, this imbalance in relationships may cause the neglected child to isolate themself from the rest of the family or take on more of a rebel role. The domino effect of enmeshment changes the whole family dynamic, causing dysfunction.

While enmeshment most commonly occurs between mothers and their children, it can affect multiple family subsystems, such as between siblings or a grandparent and their grandchild, Parks says.

Examples of enmeshment

According to the experts, someone in an enmeshed relationship may:

  • Be insecure and seek validation

  • Be afraid of making mistakes in relationships out of fear of the consequences

  • Be a people-pleaser

  • Not be independent

  • Not feel confident making decisions on their own without support

  • Not like being separated physically from family

  • Share personal information too fast in friendships or romantic relationships

Experts say some examples of enmeshment are:

  • If a difficult life circumstance happens to the parent and they’re upset, the child also feels upset and like they need to take care of the parent because the kid is somehow to blame.

  • The mother is a helicopter parent, while the father is very distant.

  • One parent is an alcoholic, while the other tries to keep the family stable and afloat.

  • The mother is super hardworking at her job, while the dad is a people-pleaser.

Enmeshment vs. Codependency: Enmeshment and codependency are similar, but 'codependency is kind of a descriptor for enmeshment in a relationship,' Parks says. Plus, enmeshment comes from place of anxious attachment (or clinginess), Cook says, where people get overly attached and boundaries get crossed. With codependency, though, you might feel like you can’t stand on your own two feet, and you can’t survive without the other person, she adds.

Causes of enmeshment

Enmeshment has many possible causes, such as a generational pattern of secrecy. 'When there are a lot of family secrets and information that is not disclosed from one generation to the next, that's more likely to create that unhealthy dynamic,' Parks says.

On the flip side, enmeshment can also be caused by a parent overcorrecting their own childhood, Skyler says. For instance, if your mother grew up in a household where she was neglected, she may feel the need to overcompensate in her caretaking duties, inadvertently resulting in enmeshed relationships with you and/or your siblings.

Conscious or unconscious messages from parents to their children can also cause enmeshment, Cook says. In an effort to protect their children, they try to send the message: The world is a scary place sometimes, but you have the resilience to be able to navigate that. While said with good intentions, the message their children actually receive is: The world is a scary place, and you need me to feel safe.

Another cause? If the family is very closed off to outsiders, they can create an enmeshment environment with a lack of support when someone tries to integrate a romantic partner into the family, Parks says. (Example: You get married, and your spouse isn’t added to the family group chat.)

Additionally, any type of family trauma can also cause enmeshment. For instance, if a child dies, that could create enmeshment between the parent and the surviving child(ren), Parks says. Or, if an unexpected trauma happens in your city, a parent could form separation anxiety from their child out of fear of what could happen to them, or vice versa, Cook adds.

Mental health effects

Being in an enmeshed relationship can take a toll on your mental health in many ways, including:

  • Anxiety from 'fear or worry about inability or lack of ability to meet the caregiver's expectations because the roles and expectations are not clearly defined,' Parks says.

  • Depression from 'constant feelings of guilt or worthlessness at the inability to meet the needs of the caregiver,' says Parks.

  • Narcissism because 'their family is their groupie,' or the people that praise them, Skyler says.

  • Borderline personality disorder because they tend to feel abandoned and can end up clinging to the person they're enmeshed with, Skyler says.

  • Agoraphobia because 'people aren't getting out and living their lives because they want to be so close to the nuclear family,' Cook says.

How to recognise and overcome enmeshment

It’s totally possible to overcome enmeshment and form healthier family dynamics, Parks says. Ahead, the experts explain how:

1. Assess the enmeshment.

They say the first step is acknowledging the problem, so start by assessing whether you’re in an enmeshed relationship by examining the emotional reaction you have when someone you’re in a relationship with receives bad news, or when something you don't want to happen, happens. Do you experience severe distress or take on their same emotional characteristics? Or are you able to separate their experience from yours, and manage your emotional reactivity? If it’s the first option, you’re probably enmeshed.

Still not sure? You might try a mini-test. Say you don’t talk to your parent for a few days and emotional reactivity—such as anxiety around not talking as frequently—comes up for one or both of you. That's likely an indicator of enmeshment.

2. Uncover your individual needs.

During your enmeshment assessment, you might also recognize that you don’t have individual needs. If you take a minute to try and think about your needs and wants, and all you can do is think about someone else's (like a family member's), that may be a sign to begin working on your individual needs. First, really think about your own needs in relationships, Skyler says. You can even use the five love languages as a tool to jumpstart the process. What do you need to feel loved and taken care of? Quality time or space? Words of affirmation or acts of service? Physical touch or gifts?

Watch this to learn more about the five love languages:

The second step: Understand the deeper layer of your needs and how to access them, Skyler says. So, if you want physical attention from someone, think about why. Then, start fulfilling these needs. Try the 'Selfish Exercise,' suggests Skyler. If you and your mom are in an enmeshed relationship, for example, identify what you both need in a moment. Then, decide together how you can meet both of your needs (rather than sacrificing them for the sake of the relationship), and then dive deeper into why you both have those needs.

Say you get a job offer in another city away from your parents, and you feel the need to take it—both for your career trajectory and financial future. But your mom says she needs you to live close to her. Work together to come up with a solution that satisfies both people. During this process, it's important to chat about what the needs really mean, Skyler says. If your mom craves physical closeness, why is that? Maybe it helps her feel safe and secure because she can check in on you easily. With the root cause of these needs in mind, what can you both bring to the relationship to elevate it beyond enmenshment?

3. Communicate and create boundaries.

Together, form a new understanding around what roles and expectations are the healthiest based on the context of your relationship. Back to the job offer example: Before you move to a new city, set a new check-in boundary with your mom that suits both your needs. Then, start practicing those check-ins—without 'being so rigid around expectations of checking in multiple times a day,' Parks says. Maybe you opt for a phone call every other day and eventually work up to becoming comfortable with a weekly catch-up.

Creating new expectations around communication is one way to begin setting healthy boundaries with the other person in a loving and compassionate way. As you're taking these actions, explain to the other person that just because you’re trying to grow and expand doesn't mean you love them any less. There's still room for them in your life, as well as new relationships.

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2. Find the right route through conflict.

Say your significant other is getting the cold shoulder from your sibling during your family vacation. You can either bring the issue up directly to them, or chat with other family members that aren't as involved. Just make sure it's safe to talk to your sibling—as it's not super safe to chat with those who have narcissistic tendencies, Skyler says. In that case, it's advised to turn to other family members, which is called triangulation, she explains. Approaching conflict from this workaround allows you to press pause on it, so you can figure out which family members are safe to talk to and figure out your best path forward.

During this process, consider whether you want to continue living with the current status quo, and when you can create a boundary and honor what you need, Skyler says.

3. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Because enmeshed relationships often operate from a place of people-pleasing and agreeableness, 'we don't want to make our loved ones mad, so we continue to engage very deeply into these relationships,' Cook says.

To transition into a healthier relationship, however, you 'have to be able to manage anxiety enough to not give into the desire to just do the thing that you've been doing,' Parks says. 'You've got to be able to practice different behaviours to create a healthier dynamic.'

So, when conflict does come up, do your best to stand your ground, even if it’s uncomfortable at first. 'That is the biggest and the best way to break through an enmeshed relationship,' Cook assures.

4. Go to therapy.

You can either go to therapy by yourself or with the family member you're enmeshed with, Skyler says, depending on whether or not they're open to it. Solo therapy can help you identify what makes you happy (instead of your family) and what you want to do with your life. 'That's one form of getting clear about living by your own agenda and operating by your own needs,' Skyler says.

If the family has the capacity to do family therapy, that's also a great option. 'Doing therapy as a whole family unit can really shift everything,' Skyler says. If you want to ask a family member (or members) to join you in therapy, you can say something like: Hey, I know we're struggling with [insert issues], would you be open to going to therapy with me? That way, it's their choice to say yes or no, Skyler says.

Ultimately, if you’re in an enmeshed relationship, setting healthy boundaries and doing the work on yourself might be challenging—especially at first. But it doesn’t make you a bad person to recognise your own needs and, consequently, have some tough conversations with loved ones, Cook says. Instead, unlearning enmeshment will help all the other relationships in your life feel more balanced and fulfilled, enabling you to start living a more independent life.

Meet the Experts: Shawntres Parks, PhD, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and Women's Health advisory board member based in West Covina, California. Jenni Skyler, PhD, is a certified sex therapist and director of the Intimacy Institute based in Aspen, Colorado. Lauren Cook, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist, keynote speaker, and author of Generation Anxiety based in Pasadena, California.

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