When Family Relationships Become Toxic: The Trauma of Enmeshment

Adult daughter cooking with her motherPsychotherapist Salvador Minuchin developed the concept of enmeshment to characterize family systems with weak, poorly defined boundaries. The entire family may work to prop up a single viewpoint or protect one family member from the consequences of their actions. In these family systems, individual autonomy is weak, and family members may over-identify with one another. For example, a child may be unable to see their own interests as distinct from their parent’s and may defend that parent’s interests even when doing so is harmful.

Enmeshment inevitably compromises family members’ individuality and autonomy. It can also enable abuse. Abuse within an enmeshed family system is a unique sort of trauma. Some survivors of such trauma may not recognize their experiences as traumatic and may even defend their abusers. Because boundaries are weak in these family systems, family members who correctly identify their experiences as traumatic may be ostracized or even labeled as abusive.

Characteristics of Enmeshed Families

Most healthy families are loyal to one another and may share certain values. In an enmeshed family, this loyalty and shared belief system comes at the expense of individual autonomy and well-being. For example, the entire family might support the idea of the father as a wonderful parent or great leader, even though he is physically abusive.

Enmeshment does not always lead to abuse, but it is a potent tool for shielding abusers from the consequences of their actions.

Some characteristics of enmeshed family systems include:

  • Each family member fills a specific role. In most cases, these roles enable dysfunctional behavior from other family members. For example, the family peacemaker may smooth over conflicts the family abuser creates or might guilt other family members for attempting to build healthy boundaries.
  • Enmeshment often begins when one family member has a mental health condition or substance abuse issue. Enmeshment normalizes harmful behavior and can be a way to avoid treatment.
  • Enmeshed families often view dissent as betrayal.
  • Enmeshed families may demand an unusual level of closeness even from adult children. For instance, an adult child with children of their own may be expected to spend every holiday with the family. If they spend a holiday with in-laws or with their own family, the enmeshed family may shun or otherwise punish them.
  • Family members’ emotions are tied up together. It can be difficult to discern where one person’s emotions begin and anther’s end.
  • There may be unspoken family norms that family members take for granted. Outsiders may rightly view these norms as unusual or dysfunctional. For example, an enmeshed family may have a norm of never calling the police on a family member who abuses their partner.

Some people also use enmeshment to refer to covert, or emotional incest. This is when a parent or other caregiver treats a child as a partner or equal. The parent may rely on the child for support and unconditional love rather than filling these basic needs for the child.

How Enmeshment Enables Abuse

Enmeshment does not always lead to abuse, but it is a potent tool for shielding abusers from the consequences of their actions. Enmeshed family members may be reflexively defensive of one another and view even deeply harmful behavior as normal and good.

Enmeshment can make it difficult for a person to form close relationships with other people. Without these relationships, it is very difficult for enmeshed family members to recognize that their family’s relational style is not healthy.

Even when enmeshed family members do form outside relationships, their enmeshed family may intrude on these relationships. Alternatively, the enmeshed person may view their family as normal and their partner as the problem. For example, an adult who gets married may still prioritize their childhood family over their spouse or may expect their spouse to defer to family members or accept abusive behavior.

The Trauma of Enmeshed Families

Enmeshment itself can be traumatic, especially when enmeshment normalizes abuse. In other cases, though, enmeshment is the byproduct of trauma. A serious illness, natural disaster, or sudden loss may cause a family to become unusually close in an attempt to protect themselves. When this pattern persists well beyond the initial trauma, enmeshment loses its protective value and can undermine each family member’s personal autonomy.

Enmeshed family systems are often dismissive of trauma. A parent might dismiss their drunken night of abuse as a normal reaction to a child’s bad grades. In adulthood, siblings may defend a parent’s abuse by insisting that the parent was under immense stress or that the abuse was actually the children’s fault. By dismissing trauma as normal or deserved, enmeshed family systems make it difficult for family members to understand their emotions and experiences. In this form of gaslighting, a family might consistently substitute the family’s collective judgment for an individual’s feelings. Over time, the individual family member may struggle to distinguish their own emotions from the emotions the family insists they should have.

Trauma Bonding and Enmeshment

People who experience trauma or intense emotions together may bond in unusual and unhealthy ways. Patrick Carnes developed the concept of trauma bonding to characterize these relationships.

With trauma bonding, the cycle of abuse tightly binds family members, creating intense emotional attachments. In abusive relationships, the abuser may become abusive and frightening, then apologetic and extremely loving. Some abusive parents attempt to compensate for their abuse with gifts, special outings, or intense love. Many survivors of abuse report that, when their parents were not abusive, they were extremely creative, dynamic, and loving.

This intermittent reinforcement of love and affection can be very difficult to escape. The longer it persists, the more difficult it may become for a person to leave. Abuse survivors may truly love their abusers and believe that their abusers love them, too.

Even when survivors correctly identify the abuse and establish boundaries or leave the relationship, trauma bonding and enmeshment can affect future relationships. The cycle of abuse can feel normal in these situations, as an intermittent schedule of love and affection becomes the person’s point of reference for a relationship. This may cause trauma and enmeshment survivors to seek out and remain in abusive or enmeshed relationships. It can also make it easier for their family to pull them back into the abuse and chaos.

People who grow up in dysfunctional family systems may ignore their own emotions. They may question their memories, wonder if their trauma really happened, or believe that they deserve to be abused. Even when a person is able to see their family through a more objective lens, establishing boundaries can prove difficult. Holidays, family vacations, and other times of intense family closeness can trigger old habits and lead to new trauma.

Therapy can help a person draw clear boundaries, take their emotions seriously, and move beyond enmeshment. A therapist is also an outside voice who can help a person understand that the behaviors their family normalized are not healthy and that they do not have to remain trapped in their usual family role forever.

To begin your search for a compassionate therapist, click here.

References:

  1. Carnes, P. J. (1997). The betrayal bond: Breaking free of exploitative relationships. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.
  2. Green, R., & Werner, P. D. (1996). Intrusiveness and closeness-caregiving: Rethinking the concept of family enmeshment. Family Process, 35(2), 115-136. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1545-5300.1996.00115.x
  3. Trauma bonding. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.abuseandrelationships.org/Content/Survivors/trauma_bonding.html

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  • Hamd

    October 18th, 2019 at 2:13 PM

    Thank you

  • Robin

    October 19th, 2019 at 6:57 PM

    Yes. And how do you convince a child, even an adult child that this is a problem and that it’s unhealthy. Presumably the parent will not be able to make healthy changes.

  • Ericka

    October 24th, 2019 at 11:39 AM

    I feel I have survived enmeshment, but I need therapy to succor my own handiwork. As I get older, life is becoming newer and easier. I hope that by abstaining from alcohol I can make a better life for me.

  • Geri

    January 23rd, 2020 at 11:33 PM

    I have a sister who is married, both are handicap but live normal lives. The have two sons, 28 and 24. Both boys live at home and have jobs. However, the younger son is showing signs of depression. Their mother, my sister, does everything for them. It has gotten so bad that the nephew could not go to the doctor by himself. His mother did all the talking for him as if he was an 8 year old. I have another sister who is close to the boys. She believes the problem is enmeshment but wants to maintain boundaries and not get involved with helping Jeffery. She has her own emotional problems and I live 750 miles away. What can be done to help Jeffery my nephew in this situation?

  • G

    March 29th, 2020 at 12:34 PM

    It’s great that she wants to help them, and it’s also good that she wants to protect herself and the rest of these family members by not violating their boundaries. This is by its nature a difficult place to be in because both impulses come out of love and yet they are in conflict with one another. I think that it will take a great deal of work and commitment to help these young men but she doesn’t have to do it alone. Before attempting an intervention, I’d really hope she could work with a therapist to help her protect her own heart and mind through this process, as the process of helping them will be profoundly challenging, and she should reach out to resources that are setup for this exact kind of situation, such as social workers and abuse hotlines. Not only will they be able to give the best advice on how to refer these men to the right lifelines that can help them live their own lives and heal from enmeshment, but hopefully they could also connect them to the right mental health providers so they can heal on their own time. It will be painful overall, but it sounds like she loves them and doesn’t want them to suffer. I believe having a therapist and a spiritual practice, and hopefully other supportive and respectful family members, could help her find courage to intervene on their behalf. These men will be grateful later in life, no matter how hard it is in the short term, and it means ending a family cycle of abuse that could easily continue in their future families and relationships (or if you’re a Buddhist like myself, their future lives even!)

  • Tina

    May 15th, 2021 at 2:34 AM

    Is it ok to run when the pain of watching the dysfunction is too much to take?

  • James

    November 27th, 2021 at 4:58 PM

    My wife did this to my kids. I did everything in my power to save them and it wasn’t enough. Mostly because no one I reached out to for help believed me. Some people became disgusted with me when I told them what was going on because I could not fight my wife’s mental illness on my own. I don’t know why people thought I was just trying to slander her or exaggerating. I was just conveying facts trying to solicite help and no one ever did. She is borderline personality and bipolar. Now she’s a meth addict. She has lied about everything and in the process she flunked all 3 of our kids out of school. my wife has been a school teacher for 27 years. Yeah. I haven’t had contact with my 3 kids in over 5 years. She triggered a heart condition in my son over this. He and I shared a very strong bond. I bonded well with my son and I enjoyed his company and he mine. She broke that. I was in jail when I found out that he had to be rushed into emergency surgery. I never got to see him. I told my therapist it was my wife who caused it and she laughed at me. To hide her shame my wife damaged her kids and nearly killed me. I have to cycle 30 miles daily just to stay alive. I’m developing ticks. I’m traumatized. Severely. Thru this pandemic with no contact. I’m a Dad. I identify as a dad. I had a terrific father and I know what it means to be one and I was. And she stole them from me while keeping me downtrodden so I could not refute her or her lies. I think I’m going to sue the shit out of all of them. I told the school my wife was dangerous. They protected her. They were complicit in my children not getting an education because they allowed my kids to be sequestered by her thru homeschooling. She isolated them when I tried to get her help after finding out about her new friend and the meth she had introduced her to. Substance abuse with bipolar and borderline personality …I don’t recommend it. The police are even complicit in my kids and being so traumatized by this. I told them of the abuses just as I told the school and they dismissed me and no one ever did any interviews with my wife or any of my kids. Once she made accusations of violence ..no one cared what I said any more. Any good lawyers out there? My wife is a meth addict and batshit crazy. She been a teacher for 27 years. She flunked my kids out of school. All 3. Her district helped. By doing so they destroyed me. I reached out. I tried to face it head on and no one took me seriously. They even sabotaged my effort to save my kids. I need to monetize this because I’m dying from it. It’s terrible. It’s a huge problem in America and Great Britain. The courts are making it worse.

  • Paige

    February 21st, 2022 at 8:49 PM

    Sir with all respect, you are the problem here. Please get professional help a therapist and a doctor to prescribe something. Things will be clearer then Good luck.

  • Susan

    August 29th, 2022 at 1:50 PM

    Paige’s above comment represents the problem – and risks – when trying to navigate through the trauma and many issues which family enmeshment and trauma bonding creates. One thing I’ve learned in my own journey – is be very discerning in who we share with, or reach out to for help. And also to not give a damn what others think. If we’re acting in our own integrity, if our conscience is clear, in that we KNOW we’re telling the truth and not exaggerating, then we have God on our side, no matter the times it feels like we have no-one. Strength and courage to all who are fighting to get through this.

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