Enmeshment, Human Behavior Series Part VI


Continuing in the Human Behavior Series, Part VI series concerns enmeshment and disengagement. These are vital for healing and boundary setting.

What is enmeshment? Enmeshment is a term coined by family therapist Salvador Minuchin to describe a relationship pattern in which personal boundaries are unclear or nonexistent. This means the people involved are emotionally fused or dependent on each other and cannot function independently or have separate identities. Enmeshment can happen in families or other relationships.[1]

Before getting into the blog, I wanted to share from Loner Wolf website. They have the best list I have found to describe enmeshment and I hope you will ponder each one and ask yourself if any hit home. I see several I am still working on. 

 13 ways enmeshment may impact you as an adult:

  • You feel the need to rescue everyone around you
  • You feel the need to be rescued
  • You take responsibility for other people’s feelings, habits, and choices
  • You can’t tell the difference between your emotions and the emotions from those around you
  • You struggle to give yourself (or others close to you) personal space
  • You feel like your partner “completes” you and without them, you would be nothing
  • You get tangled up in the drama of other people’s lives easily
  • You feel betrayed when someone close to you wants to do their own thing without you
  • You define your worth by how useful you are to others
  • You confuse obsession with care
  • You don’t really know who you are (your sense of self is weak)
  • You easily lose your identity in the presence of others
  • You don’t have many interests or hobbies outside of your family/friend/romantic relationships
  • You might make other people responsible for your emotions (rather than taking responsibility yourself) HERE

There is a term called Enmeshment trauma. This happens in close families. Families that are “too” close can become unhealthy. Some examples are when parents live out their relationship through their children and have no identity apart from them. Other examples are when the family unit has no distance apart from one another. All the family members know what each family member is doing at all times. They may even tell others that their family is everything. In enmeshment the children cannot separate their own feelings and thoughts from their parents. They lose their identity. Some signs of enmeshment are when adult children must call their parents daily to check-in. The parents keep a running log of when the children visit, tracking how long it has been. All birthdays, holiday traditions, and celebrations must transpire with the immediate family. The family members have little privacy, and they are entangled in the family unit. In this scenario, the family communicates about the day-to-day happenings on the job or with little Sally, the newest granddaughter who just started playing baseball. Still, emotionally, they are stoic and unable to speak honestly with vulnerability.

Enmeshment is clearly visible in the story concerning Sarah and her son Isaac. When Sarah died, Isaac was devastated. It was as if he lost a wife instead of a mother. He was 40 years old when he married Rebecca but let’s back up a bit.

Sarah is old and past bearing children when three visitors come to Abraham’s tent and promise him a seed from his own loins. Sarah laughs in disbelief, possibly laughter mixed with exaltation. I don’t know as I was not there.

Possibly Sarah’s years of waiting have led to questioning everything. Perhaps her and Abram were often sad or questioning whether they heard the Holy One accurately or if it all was in their minds. Maybe they had marital spats over Hagar often. I’m only guessing here, but what we do know is that Ishmael, Abraham’s seed from Hagar mocked Isaac. Sarah was protective of the promise and told Abraham to send away Ishmael. If I were a guessing Gal, I would surmise that having a child you have wept for, waited patiently for, yearned for, and given up on, would cause quite an attachment. And just possibly one so enmeshed, so strong, so joyful (Isaac’s name means Joy) that a mother and son could become best friends, and if marriage troubles arrive and the child is now a young man, a mother might even open up to her son and describe her feelings, hurts, lack of attention or understanding of his father. Soon, the son is noticing when the father makes mistakes, loses his temper, and of course, we cannot forget the younger years when the child is an infant and toddler who is constantly being held and coddled. The husband notices his lovely wife doesn’t look at him with such endearment any longer–yes, jealousy can arise.

I made a similar mistake with my firstborn.

And so, as the story unfolds concerning Sarah, Abraham, and their son, Isaac, we learn that at the age of 127, Sarah dies. After she dies and is buried in the cave of the couples, Abraham continues to live, marry, and have more children. But Isaac seems to stop. Time stands still. We don’t hear much more about him until Eleazer, the servant, swears an oath to get a wife for Abraham’s son from among his kindred.

Many know the story that involves Abraham’s servant and Rebecca. If you are unfamiliar it can be found in Genesis 24.

Continuing with Isaac:

“Now Isaac had just returned from Beer-lahai-roi, for he was living in the Negev. Early in the evening, Isaac went out to the field to meditate, and looking up, he saw the camels approaching. And when Rebekah looked up and saw Isaac, she got down from her camel and asked the servant, “Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?” “It is my master,” the servant answered. So she took her veil and covered herself. Then the servant told Isaac all that he had done. And Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah and took Rebekah as his wife. And Isaac loved her and was comforted after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:62-67, BSB)

Finally, after the death of his mother, he is comforted.

Isaac has been in the desert at Beer Lahai-roi. This should ring a bell.  We learn in verse 62 that Isaac has returned from Beer-lahai-roi— “

Beer-lahai-roi is the name of the well where Hagar met the Angel of YHWH for the first time (Genesis 16:14). The Angel sends her back to Sarai. Later, when she is banned, she meets the Angel at Beersheba (Genesis 21:14). Beel-lahai-roi Meaning “The Well Of The Living One Who Sees, The Writing For A Life Of Vision.” Abarim Publications.

Isaac brings his wife into Sarah’s tent. This one sentence speaks volumes. This points us back to the topic at hand, enmeshment.

This can happen between parents and children, spouses, and friends.

What does it look like in spouses? One or both partners avoid conflict. There is often trouble with emotions and boundaries. Neither opens up for fear of rejection or abandonment. Usually, the couples are always trying to please each other to their own hurt. There is no alone time. Friendships involve couples. And if the husband or wife finds a close friend taking time away from the enmeshment, the person may paint them in a bad light or try to separate the friendship. Each person seeks the approval and opinion of the other to a fault. After long periods of noncommunication, I am not suggesting the couples are not speaking, but they never break the surface. Its day to day talk. The elephants in the room get swept and swept under the rug until, one day, an explosion happens. Due to the severity of the blast, both parties return to their normal behavior with some added enmeshment and a bit of tiptoeing along with words of affirmation.

What does enmeshment look like in friendships?

Psychology Today explains it this way:

Codependent friendships are close relationships that violate some of the essential features of healthy close relationships. Unlike healthy friendships, codependent friendships are highly imbalanced. One person takes the role of “giver” and the other of “taker.” The intimacy is derived from a dynamic where one friend is regularly distressed or in crisis and the other friend listens and rescues. More than interdependent, the friends are “enmeshed,” with unclear personal boundaries. Often, the giving friend enables the taker friend. Their loving support and problem-solving make it easy for the taker to avoid responsibility and/or the hard work of personal change.[2]

Problems often occur because the giver wonders if the taker really cares. Sometimes the taker doesn’t want to be in that position. Sometimes the giver is busy trying to fix the other by offering advice or psychoanalyzing them, but what happens when one person who has been enmeshed, suddenly sees the unhealthy situation and decides to take a step away or keep their boundaries up? Usually, boundaries do not go over well at first. They take time and need to be eased into in certain situations.

Enmeshed relationships can occur between:

  • parents and children
  • romantic partners
  • siblings
  • family members
  • friends

Psych central has a list of examples:

You might be in an enmeshed relationship with a partner or family member if:

  • you don’t feel in touch with your feelings because you’re concentrating on another person’s needs
  • you believe it’s your responsibility to save, protect, or serve another person — or someone is treating you that way
  • you’re giving up hobbies or interests to adapt to the lifestyle or expectations of another
  • your relationship determines your happiness, self-esteem, or sense of self
  • you experience another person’s emotions as if they were your own
  • you’re replacing other relationships with your partner’s or family’s
  • you suppress your own feelings to avoid disagreement or conflict
  • you feel anxious or scared if there’s conflict and do whatever you can to resolve it
  • you can’t make a decision without your partner or family’s approval, or when you make an independent decision, you face backlash, guilt, or shame
  • you feel uncomfortable spending time away from your partner or family
  • there’s a lack of privacy between you and your parents, family, or partner
  • For more info click below

What Are Enmeshed Relationships? How to Set Boundaries | Psych Central

Often when trying to find balance, it takes a while to get there, and we can go so far in the opposite direction at times when we realize we are unhealthy or encased in an enmeshment, but the opposite end of the spectrum is just as dangerous. Disengagement can be worse than enmeshment. Suddenly your child or sibling stops opening up to you. Phone calls are stiff and rigid. When this happens, a person stops expressing themselves or giving out any details when the person was pretty verbal before. Things become secretive, like the Fort Knox vault. Transformation takes time. Transitioning takes time. Hallways have many doors and lead to open spaces. And so, we continue searching inward, looking for what we need to work on, and we make sure we have healthy boundaries.

Due to our childhood and past traumas, we often are not aware of what we are doing or who we really are. We might think we do, but usually, the person staring back at us in the mirror has scars we cannot see, wounds that need to be healed, or an appearance that shines with light, but we can’t see it.

I hope this series is blessing you. Let me hear from you in the comments below.






[1] What Is… Enmeshment – Mental Health @ Home (mentalhealthathome.org)

[2] The Codependent Friendship | Psychology Today

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