Understanding the Concept of Enmeshment

Man trying to talk to woman and holding her shoulder but woman is faced away

As you have undoubtedly read elsewhere on the website, The Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center is dedicated to both the individual’s wellness and the family’s mental health. We firmly believe that the entire family suffers when one family member is sick. However, families often don’t realize that their relationships within the team may worsen mental health and addiction concerns. In the video below, Ben Brafman, co-founder, and chief clinical officer of SBMHC, talks about the lightbulb that goes off when he speaks with some families dealing with mental health concerns.

What Is Enmeshment?

Enmeshment is when two or more family members have permeable or blurred boundaries. Some theories surrounding enmeshment point to these individuals sharing far more than they should. Some cases may occur with mothers and daughters who may share personal information that may not be appropriate because of their age difference or relationship. For example, while every parent will eventually have to have the “sex talk,” discussing sex and their sexual experiences may be inappropriate.

Fathers and their sons can also become enmeshed. It’s not uncommon to hear about fathers that find out about their son’s drug abuse and start to abuse the drugs with their children. On the surface, this may seem unbelievable. Still, the parents often rationalize the behavior by saying that if the child uses it with them, they are less likely to do it in an uncontrolled environment. Of course, while theoretically, this may have some validity, in practice, it simply promotes and normalizes drug use. Further, it becomes far more challenging to parent in a traditional sense when these boundaries have been crossed.

Surrogate Spouses

Enmeshment can also occur between parents and children of opposite sexes. Salvador Minuchin’s initial measurement concept was further discussed by John Bradshaw, who saw children acting as surrogate spouses to parents of the opposite sex. This is often described as emotional incest.

It’s important to understand that in most cases where enmeshment is a concern and where a child is involved, it usually begins with a dysfunctional relationship between the adult parents. Often, the adult does not realize the depth of their enmeshment with the child, and the child cannot simply comprehend that the relationship is dysfunctional because it is all they know.

Enmeshment Outside the Parent-Child Relationship

Enmeshment is not linear, and while we most commonly see parents enmeshed with their children, these relationships can often involve siblings or groups of family members. Ultimately, our relationships are often defined by the boundaries we set, so a lack thereof, in any setting, can lead to enmeshment.

We often see parents concerned about their social life and status in their social and professional circles. Accustomed to climbing the social and professional ladder, they constantly strive for more. However, their children often suffer as a result. When spouses are enmeshed in this manner, they often see their children as an impediment to their success and a ceiling on their social life. Without truly understanding the consequences of their actions, they can blame their children for not allowing them to thrive. Younger children, of course, do not know how to process these feelings of guilt and may lash out, creating a vicious downward spiral. Older children may rebel more quietly by internalizing these feelings and turning to drugs, alcohol, or other pleasure avenues to escape this reality and feel “normal.”

Whom Does Enmeshment Affect Most?

Enmeshment affects the entire family. Often, those within that toxic relationship do not see the significant damage being done, leading to fighting amongst family members, denial that a problem exists, and a vicious cycle that repeats itself.

How Can You Deny Mental Illness and Drug Abuse?

When two or more individuals are enmeshed, the relationship often begins with a closeness and camaraderie that many envy. After all, what parents don’t want to be adored and respected by their children? However, enmeshment creates a false sense of these feelings. In actuality, the individual with the mental health or substance abuse disorder, consciously or subconsciously, sees an opportunity to avoid facing their concerns and continue with their behavior. When someone outside the relationship points out problematic issues, one or both people in the enmeshed relationship desperately cling to what they have built. There’s likely a deep-down knowledge that something is wrong, but the possibility of losing the connection outweighs any rational thought.

Enmeshment and resultant denial can also cause significant friction within the family system. For example, one may fight bitterly with their spouse or partner to address genuine concerns. Again, the desire to maintain an enmeshed relationship, no matter how toxic or what has come of it, does not allow the enmeshed parent to see beyond their feelings and selfish need for what they mistake for love and affection for their child, for example.

This becomes very clear when parents are asked who sets the rules in the house. Ideally, both parents would proceed in lockstep to ensure that the household receives direction in a unified and transparent manner. Even if one parent is dominant, there is still some clarity and action. However, the response we most often get from families, addressing in measurements, is that there is no clear boundary or expectation of the children or any family member, and the family structure is in constant turmoil.

Should You Rule the Family With an Iron Fist?

After reading about enmeshment and the structural deficiencies it causes within the family unit, you may think that a rigid structure is the best way to ensure that the family follows the right path. This, however, is no different, simply on the other side of the spectrum. We see similar concerns from families that believe a rigid structure is the way to live. Ultimately, the rigidity of these kinds of relationships creates a lack of understanding and creates resentment.

Problems arise when the family doesn’t know the rationale for specific strict rules, and the dominant family member has no interest in explaining them. This causes friction between spouses and in the parent-child relationship. Often, children begin to rebel and seek external sources of pleasure, eventually landing in toxic relationships or developing pseudo-families, often with bad actors in their community.

So, What Is the Answer?

The most critical first step is communication. Many families with core members involved in enmeshed relationships have lost authentic touch with themselves. There may be a concern that one or more family members will get angry or that the truth will come out by communicating, and demons must be faced. But ultimately, proper communication comes down to understanding that you can’t always do it alone and don’t always know the answer. Letting go, no matter how uncomfortable, is how you begin the healing process.

If this process occurs early enough, the family may be able to avoid significant mental health and substance abuse consequences. However, the longer this continues, the greater the need for professional intervention from a mental health center like SBMHC.

Even within the treatment setting, various levels of care address varying severities of mental health and addiction issues. High-functioning individuals who can conduct normal social and professional relationships can often enter outpatient care, receiving part-time therapy to address their issues. Others may need intensive outpatient care or even partial hospitalization to receive the intensity of services needed to manage their struggles. No matter what level of care the patient enters, the most crucial part is that they take that first and most challenging step – asking for help.

The Prognosis for Enmeshed Family Members.

Most family members are reluctant to address their mental health and addiction concerns for the aforementioned reasons. No matter how toxic, the draw of their relationship is often too strong to break alone. Sadly, this often results in one or more family members entering a treatment program once they have hit “rock bottom.” However, throughout the therapeutic process, and with a significant focus on the family, the hallmark of SBMHC, our families can often understand where they are, take steps to repair their relationships, rebuild their boundaries, and eliminate enmeshment from their lives.


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