By Rachel Anyika
Enmeshment Trauma, If Your Parents' Needs Took Priority And How This Impacts Your Relationships
The effects of enmeshment trauma are perhaps less well known than the effects of more overt traumas, like abandonment trauma, neglect or physical abuse. The term 'enmeshment' comes from family systems theory and is based on the study of interactions between family members.
"A central assumption of family systems theory is that interdependencies among relationships within the family are governed by boundaries or implicit rules for accessing materials, resources, and support within the family. Guided by the concept of boundaries, family systems theorists have consistently identified three qualitatively distinct profiles of family interactions characterized by harmony, disengagement, and enmeshment, respectively" - Typologies of family functioning and children's adjustment during the early school years
Healthy, harmonious families demonstrate healthy boundaries between family members. There is emotional availability, adequate nurture and emotional support whilst allowing enough autonomy (separation) between family members. Disengaged families are cold, unsupportive, withdrawn, isolated and have rigid rules. Whilst enmeshed families are the opposite of disengaged. They are inflexibly close, overinvolved in each other's lives, with hardly any boundaries between family members. There is a lack of autonomy and widespread codependency. Very often there is a lack of privacy, parents may search their children's possessions regularly, read diaries etc. There is a general intolerance for differences in opinion in the enmeshed family, the parents do not know how to navigate difference, and therefore fear that it will lead to loss. Enmeshment trauma is perhaps more difficult for people to recognise as they might feel they had everything they ever wanted during childhood, with plenty of attention and affection (Weiss 2014). One study indicates that around 23% of families almost 1 in 4, are enmeshed.
The circumstances that can lead to a family becoming enmeshed are varied, but generally, there are three different types of enmeshed parents (Love 1991). The main types are:
Romanticised parent (also known as covert incest) - This is a parent who uses their child for companionship and intimacy, which they are incapable of finding through adult relationships. If you had this type of parent they in effect made you like a surrogate partner, often idolising and putting you on a pedestal. With this type of parent, you will have had to remain in close physical proximity, accompanying your parent on adult activities and will have often listened to their adult problems, providing them with emotional support. A romanticised parent does not have adequate social connections or support, therefore their child becomes their only source of happiness. This puts immense pressure on their child, as being a child they are unable to fully satisfy an adult's emotional needs. This type of parent uses guilt to get their own way, and sometimes manipulation (especially in the form of favouritism). They are more possessive and their children grow up will often dislike anyone that they date, as they see them as competition for attention. A romanticised parent will require very frequent communication. They may also cause jealously issues with the other parent, and quite often the other parent will take out their jealously on the child by way of anger or withdrawal, rather than confronting the romanticised parent.
"I don't think my mother wants me to get married. She wouldn't like any girlfriend I had. She never liked my girlfriends, not even when I was a little kid. She wants me to take care of her for the rest of her life"- When He's Married to Mom
Helicopter or critical parent - This is the type of parent who watches very closely or directs their child's moves, attempting to protect them from any harm and/or push them to achieve. Rather than helping their children learn the skills to resolve issues or handle obstacles, they try and do it for them. If you had this type of parent they would have been over-involved in your school, friendships and hobbies. They are overprotective, one client told me that his father got into a physical fight with his football coach when he was not picked for the starting line up. Often times they will have pushed you into activities that they wanted to do themselves, rather than allowing a free choice. If of the critical type, they will use criticism to control their child's moves. Helicopter parents subconsciously seek to control their children as a way to manage their own anxieties. Sometimes this type of parent also has narcissistic qualities, they will use their children's achievements as a source of self-esteem.
"Helicopter parenting signals to kids that their parents will make all major life decisions for them, including planning for their future and monitoring their performance, the study authors wrote. Over time, kids will feel like everything they do is for their parents, so they lose any personal motivation to succeed." -Kids with ‘helicopter parents’ more likely to burn out, have a harder time transitioning to ‘real world’
Incapacitated parent (with long-term illness)- This is a parent who is unable to care for themselves fully due to physical, mental illness or addictions and relies on their family for some/all of their basic needs. Whilst sometimes it's unavoidable for children to become a carer for an ill parent, for financial or other reasons, there is still room for the child to have needs. This enmeshed example is more extreme, there is no flexibility for the child's needs, and they may turn down outside support as they think it's better for the child to become the main carer. This frequently is the eldest child, or child that spends most time at home. If you had this type of parent you will have had to take on a little adult role, which is also known as parentification of a child. You would have been required to be alert to your parent's needs, often taking on household adult responsibilities and if you had siblings would likely have been required to help raise them. If your parent had untreated mental illness or addictions you would also have had to deal with the stress of extreme unpredictability. The child of an incapacitated parent will not be able to spend as much time away from home and they live with their parents much longer than is the norm.
"Laura Kiesel was only 6 years old when she became a parent to her infant brother. At home, his crib was placed directly next to her bed, so that when he cried at night, she was the one to pick him up and sing him back to sleep. She says she was also in charge of changing his diapers and making sure he was fed every day. For the majority of her early childhood, she remembers, she tended to his needs while her own mother was in the depths of heroin addiction." - When Kids Have to Act Like Parents, It Affects Them for Life
Scapegoating and favouritism
In enmeshed families, it is extremely common for there to be favouritism in the form of the 'golden' child and another child gets assigned the role of bad child (scapegoat). There are a few things happening here, favouritism is another way parents can control their children. The children see that there are more rewards for pleasing the parents, and may now compete for the 'golden' child spot. The 'golden' child is also often a projection of all the good things the parent believes about themselves, so they overlook anything that does not fit in with that idealised image. Whilst they project all the bad aspects of themselves onto the scapegoat. Enmeshed families also use scapegoating as a way to relieve the high levels of anxiety and tension in the family that result from unmet needs. They can instead blame the scapegoat rather than face the pain of unmet needs.
"David's relationship with his mother can be broken down into two separate roles: he was part surrogate spouse and part scapegoat. He was expected to satisfy his mother's need for romantic attachment and absorb her tension and disappointment as well. When she was lonely, she had someone to talk to. When she was angry, she had someone to yell at. When she felt like a failure, she could project her unhappiness onto him. When she wanted more out of life, she could harp on his shortcomings." - The Emotional Incest Syndrome
Relational Effects of Enmeshment
The negative effects of enmeshment trauma are many. They include general anxiety and relational anxiety.
Many of my clients report a sense of feeling like they are constantly being watched and judged by the outside world, feeling pressure to perform or people-please. As an enmeshed child is often not allowed to express a full range of feelings, only those the parent is comfortable with, feelings are effectively numbed which can lead to depression in adulthood or addictions. Other effects include intense guilt and shame, often feeling inadequate that they have not lived up to expectations. Lack of identity and indecision are common, a result of being used to doing or conforming to what the parent wanted.
People who have experienced enmeshment trauma often have dysfunctional adult intimate relationships. They did not feel loved for who they were as children, more what they could do for their parents (conditional love). This can create a core belief of being unloveable, and lead to self-sabotaging behaviours. Adams (2011) finds general emotional unavailability in adult intimate relationships, which can manifest in seeking distance in relationships or chasing after unsuitable partners. Love (1991) points to a denial of having any emotional needs as they likely did not have the space or opportunity to develop needs, as they were always focused on their parents. They are more likely to have a preoccupied-anxious or dismissive-avoidant attachment style in adult relationships and are vulnerable to abusive or co-dependant relationships.
"I see a lot of covert incest survivors who just don’t regulate themselves very well when it comes to romance. They move in too quickly, or they’re ambivalent right from the start, or they go quickly and then become ambivalent, or whatever. It’s not uncommon for covert incest survivors to become serial monogamists, one relationship after another, because in the early stages of romance, when the neurochemicals are surging and making it seem like everything is great, they’re able to bypass their sensation of feeling burdened. They’re able to connect and be sexual with another person. But when the neurochemical rush of early romance dies down, the old feelings return and they’re out of there." - Understanding Covert Incest: An Interview with Kenneth Adams
Those with a romanticised parent are particularly likely to feel suffocated and trapped in intimate relationships. They could not get adequate space from the parent so will project this on their partners, seeking physical or emotional distance. They are often commitmentphobic. As they are used to being idolised by the enmeshed parent, they expect to be fawned over by their partners with minimal effort on their part (inflated self-esteem). I have written a further article which explores in depth why this type of enmeshment will often result in dismissive-avoidant attachment, which you can read here.
With the other types of enmeshment, there is frequently preoccupied-anxious attachment driven by the fear of rejection and abandonment, as so often attention was only given when pleasing or doing something for the parent. Fear of rejection and abandonment in adult relationships, can lead to behaviours like controlling, clinging, prematurely leaving relationships when feel rejected or avoiding relationships completely. An enmeshed child has difficulties shaping a sense of self and identity separate from their parent. This can result in co-dependent relationships in adult life, in which its almost as if they take on their partner's personality and there is a complete merger with partners. There is often low self-esteem with a negative view of self, and a positive view of others (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991).
Those with incapacitated parents are especially likely to be attracted to relationships where they again become a caretaker. They may find themselves in relationships where they are required to 'rescue' their partner, and overgive to others in general (they are often in the caring professions). As they do not know how to set healthy boundaries, they are often left feeling emotionally exhausted and resentful of being taken advantage of.
" Evidence from a sample of over 500 adult women recalling their childhood experience with their dad suggests that many experienced "parentification," the maladaptive process wherein a child begins to take on typical parental caregiving responsibilities and feels responsible for meeting their parent's own psychological needs—such as for validation. For these women, adult romantic relationship satisfaction and relationship security were significantly lower than their counterparts who grew up without feeling parentified"- What a Daughter Needs From Her Dad
Recovery from Enmeshment Trauma
Learn how to set boundaries - Start with small requests, try not to over-explain to the other person why you are unable to do what they want you to do. Simply state why you are not able to do it in a non-defensive or judgmental way. Offer them a compromise if you are able to. For example, your mother is calling to speak to you every day. Instead of feeling trapped and ignoring her calls tell her that you know she would like to speak to you more but you need time to focus on work and other relationships, you could then suggest speaking once or twice a week instead. Avoiding the situation will trigger feelings of guilt and shame that cause people to remain enmeshed.
Find a licenced psychotherapist or counsellor - A therapist will work with you to understand your individual personal history and heal relationship issues. They will help you shift perspective and re-frame how you view relationships, helping you gain confidence in your decisions and giving you the freedom to choose to be in a relationship. If you are interested in Emotion Enhancement Therapy services you can find further information here.
Mindfulness - The benefits of meditation are extensive and can be read further here. A mindfulness practice will help you learn to take your focus away from other people and back to your body and what your individual needs are.
Notes on Research
Many researchers have noted the general lack of studies in the area of enmeshment trauma. "Previous studies have readily identified and measured parentification and its negative outcomes; however, these same studies have also identified the great need for further exploration of parentification and its possible alternative aftereffects” (Hooper 2007). It is also important to note that some studies have found fewer negative outcomes when looking at enmeshment in more collectivist cultures like in Japan or Latin America (Fuhrman & Holmbeck, 1995); (Chun & MacDermid, 1997). One study compared negative outcomes of depression and anxiety in enmeshed adolescents from both the UK and Italy (Manzi 2006). Higher levels of enmeshment were shown to correlate to higher levels of depression and anxiety in the UK adolescents, yet in Italy higher enmeshment did not appear to have a positive or negative effect. This is thought partly to be due to different expectations around successful autonomy, with Italians generally living at home until a later age. However, it seems these types of studies have mostly been conducted amongst adolescents and not looking specifically at behaviour in adult intimate relationships, so it is unclear how much of these findings would apply in this subject area.
Adams, K. M. (2011). Silently seduced: When parents make their children partners, understanding covert incest. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.
Adams, K. M., Morgan, A. P. (2007). When he’s married to mom: How to help mother-enmeshed men open their hearts to true love and commitment. New York, NY: Fireside Books.
Love, P. (1991) The Emotional Incest Syndrome What To Do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life. Bantam
Strauss, N. (2015) The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships. HarperCollins
Wallin, D. (2007) Attachment in Psychotherapy, New York: Guildford
Barber, B. K., Buehler, C. (1996). ‘Family cohesion and enmeshment: Different constructs, different effects’. Journal of Marriage and Family, 58, 433-441.
Bartholomew, K. & Horowitz, L.M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: Atest of the four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61,226-244
Chun, Y.-J., & MacDermid, S. M. (1997). Perceptions of family differentiation, individuation, and self-esteem among Korean adolescents. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 59(2), 451–462
Fuhrman, T., & Holmbeck, G. N. (1995). A contextual-moderator analysis of emotional autonomy and adjustment in adolescence. Child Development, 66(3), 793–811
Hann-Morrison, D. (2012) ‘Maternal Enmeshment: The Chosen Child’, SAGE Open. doi: 10.1177/2158244012470115.
Hooper, Lisa. (2007). 'The Application of Attachment Theory and Family Systems Theory to the Phenomena of Parentification.' The Family Journal. 15. pp 217-223.
Manzi, C. Vignoles, V. Regalia, C. and Scabini, E. (2006). Cohesion and Enmeshment Revisited: Differentiation, Identity, and Well-Being in Two European Cultures. Journal of Marriage and The Family - J MARRIAGE FAM. 68. pp 673-689.
Rovers, Martin. (2004). ‘Family of Origin Theory, Attachment Theory and the Genogram’. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy. 3. pp43-63. 10.1300/J398v03n04_03.
Schwartzman, G. (2006). ‘The subjectivity of the mother in the mother-son relationship, attachment, separation, and autonomy’. International Forum of Psychoanalysis, 15, 226-232.
Sturge-Apple ML, Davies PT, Cummings EM. Typologies of family functioning and children's adjustment during the early school years. Child Dev. 2010;81(4):1320-1335. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01471.x https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2911122/
Flint, D. (2020) 'What A Daughter Needs From Her Dad', Psychology Today [viewed 1/2/2021] At: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/behavior-problems-behavior-solutions/202012/what-daughter-needs-her-dad
Kaplan, D. (2012) Emotional Incest and The Relationship Avoidant [viewed 3/6/2020] At: http://debrakaplancounseling.com/emotional-incest-and-the-relationship-avoidant/
Lamothe, C. (2017). "When Kids Have to Act Like Parents, It Affects Them for Life". The Atlantic - https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2017/10/when-kids-have-to-parent-their-siblings-it-affects-them-for-life/543975/
Stieg, C. (2019) Kids with ‘helicopter parents’ more likely to burn out, have a harder time transitioning to ‘real world’ - CNBC [viewed 01/01/2021] At: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/11/22/study-kids-who-have-helicopter-parents-experience-burnout-in-school.html
Weiss, R. (2014) Childhood Covert Incest And Adult Life [viewed 2/5/2020] At: https://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2014/07/childhood-covert-incest-and-adult-life/
Weiss, R. (2015) Understanding Covert Incest: An Interview with Kenneth Adams [viewed 2/2/2021] At: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/love-and-sex-in-the-digital-age/201510/understanding-covert-incest-interview-kenneth-adams