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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  • 3 comments
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  • Hamd

    Hamd

    October 18th, 2019 at 2:13 PM

    Thank you

  • Robin

    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

    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.

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