What is Enmeshment? Am I Suffering from It?

Everyone wants to have a close relationship with their partner and other family members, but is there such a thing as being too close? This is what psychologists and family therapists call enmeshment, also known as co-dependent relationships. According to its Wikipedia article, it is “a concept in psychology and psychotherapy introduced by Salvador Minuchin (1921–2017) to describe families where personal boundaries are diffused, sub-systems undifferentiated, and over-concern for others leads to a loss of autonomous development.” We talk a lot about self-care and “me time,” and some naturally people need more boundaries than others, even from their partners, but how do we know exactly if enmeshment is occurring? Besides, spouses are supposed to be co-dependent on each other, right? Let’s find out.

Here are some prime examples of enmeshment:

  • Expecting one partner or child to feel or think the same as them at all times. While people usually pick their romantic partners based on the same fundamental values as they do, it is impossible to agree with somebody on everything 100% of the time. This can be referred to as “group think.”
  • Family members are overly-involved in each others’ personal lives. Parents may want their adult children to constantly “check-in” on them. Individualism is discouraged.
  • Guilting the other party for expressing a desire to spend time with another person. For instance, a girlfriend may expect her boyfriend to always be with her and be disappointed if he wants to visit his brother’s family for once. In parent-child relationships, a parent who is divorced, widowed, or in an unhappy marriage may turn to their child (minor or adult) for their emotional needs. The parent may wish to spend most of their time with their child and guilt them for wanting to spend time with a friend instead of their parent or not even wanting them to move out of the house upon reaching adulthood. They will serve as what is referred to as a surrogate spouse.
  • Lack of privacy in the relationship (searching through personal items, emails, text messages, etc.).
  • The “clingy” friend who continuously checks up on you and is upset with you spending time with other friends who are not them.

Am I enmeshing my family members?

  • Are you unreasonably upset if someone in your family does not share the same opinion as you on more trivial matters? (e.g. if you want a burger but your spouse wants shrimp tacos)
  • Do you spy on your partner or adult children’s phone calls, messages, or bank transactions?
  • Do you expect your children to choose a specific major to pursue a career path you have selected for them?
  • Do you think that you need to control what goes on in the lives of everyone in your family because whatever is best for you is automatically best for them?
  • Do you have no sense of stable identity outside of your family, or do you not have many connections (e.g. friends, good co-workers) outside of it?)

There is a fine line between sharing family values and enmeshment. If boundaries are blurry and unstable in your relationships, it is likely a sign of enmeshment. If you feel that it is a problem in your family, it may be in your interest to seek a licensed family therapist to treat the problem moving forward.