Enmeshment (also known as emotional incest) happens when a child is required to take on an adult role in their relationship with a parent (or caregiver). This often occurs where one parent is physically or emotionally absent which causes the other parent to use the child as an emotional crutch or substitute for adult relationship. It can also occur when one parent has serious illness or physical disabilities and cannot fully look after themselves without assistance from the child. In both instances the parents needs have taken over the child's individual emotional needs. The most common form of enmeshment which causes wide ranging effects on relationships, is that of mother enmeshed men, as a result of an emotionally underdeveloped, needy mother and an absent or emotionally absent father. Much of the blueprint we have for (heterosexual) relationships comes from the relationship we had with the opposite sex parent. Therefore enmeshed men are carrying forward enmeshment trauma into their adult relationships. This results in control issues, avoidant attachment, inability to commit and sometimes sex addiction.
How emeshment occurs
"In a functional upbringing, a child would be recognized as an individual, and given the space to develop his own sense of self; his own personal identity. The mother would allow the child to set his own boundaries, and she would graciously respect them. She would set her own boundaries, and teach the children the importance of self-sufficiency and independence while offering nurturing encouragement. If the mother is emotionally undeveloped, needy, and incapable of setting and maintaining her own boundaries, the child will grow up playing an unhealthy role. The child will be used to satisfy the emotional needs of the mother. He will grow up believing that his purpose in life is to make sure his mother is happy and okay." - Smother Dearest - Mother And Son Enmeshment by Cayla Clark on the Next Chapter blog.
In childhood the mother will regularly invade the child's physical and emotional space. This could happen in a number of different ways. The mother could adopt helicopter style parenting. This means being overly protective or taking excessive interest in the child's life. Following the child closely and directing their movements when they are attempting to play or interact with others. Not allowing the child much freedom to undertake normal childhood activities for fear of injury or danger. Attempting to control the child completely and not teaching them how to make their own judgments and decisions. Pushing the child into being what the mother wants them to be with little consideration of the child's individual talents or likes. Doing everything for the child, well into teenage years and beyond leaving them with little knowledge of how to cook, clean or do everyday tasks.
The mother could attempt to become the child's best friend or alternative for adult companionship:
"When I was a kid my mom would pull me out of school some days, not for any reason other than she seemed to want my company. I would just get dragged along while she shopped, and then we’d have lunch somewhere, with me listening to her talking about her life with my dad and how she was feeling about their relationship. Sometimes she would take me to the movies with her – not kid movies but grown-up stuff. My dad was always working or drinking, and she didn’t have many women friends, so I was her fill-in. And in a way that wasn’t so bad. I liked skipping school and eating out and getting see to movies that other kids didn’t, but at the same time I always felt a little bit weird with her. She always seemed to sit a little too close to me, and she commented on my body all the time, especially when I was a teenager. Sometimes she’d walk into the bathroom when I was in the shower to put away towels or some stupid thing that could easily have waited until I was done and dressed. Lots of stuff like that. I had no privacy at all. Even if I was in my room with the door locked she could be right outside, listening and asking me through the closed door what I was doing, was I OK, did I need her for anything. All I really wanted was for her to leave me alone." - Childhood Covert Incest And Adult Life by Robert Weiss on PsychCentral.
Here the mother will over share adult issues with the child for example complaining about issues with the father or other adult relationships, worries about work or financial matters. The mother may provide excessive adulation or affection for the son, almost putting him on a pedestal. The mother will constantly ask the son to keep her company, she will often have a lack of other adult relationships or social contacts to keep her busy (if suffering physical illness she may not be able to leave the house much). A key emotion that the son will experience is guilt as he will believe that he is the sole source of his mother's happiness and will be terrified of letting her down. This means that he will be unable to say 'no' to his mother, set boundaries or make his own decisions.
Consequences on adult relationships
“Now that I have what I’ve always been looking for—a close and committed loving relationship—I want out. I’m suffocating and my girlfriend is making demands of me; demands that I’m not prepared to meet.” - Emotional Incest and The Relationship Avoidant by Debra L. Kaplan.
Subconsciously attracted to women like the mother, controlling, needy and possessive.
Will not fully mature into a man, remaining a 'peter pan' type emotionaly undeveloped.
Feels trapped or smothered in intimate relationships.
Unable to voice or get his own needs met in intimate relationships.
Unable to fully let an intimate partner in, feeling intense guilt or shame.
Inability to make own decisions.
Feels intense pressure and burden by partners needs in relationships leading to fear of commitment. The Neil Strauss video at the end of this article provides valuable insight on the reasons for this.
Difficulties in gender and sexual identity.
Ambivalence about partners, quickly swinging from love to hate or like to dislike.
Unable to set boundaries, attracting co-dependent partners.
Casual sex addiction.
"They meet someone and they think, “I don’t want to be with you if you burden me.” Sometimes they become sexually shut down with their long-term partner because the relationship feels so burdensome. They can’t enjoy it or be spontaneous with it anymore. It starts to feel icky to them, just like their unhealthy, overly enmeshed relationship with mom or dad. So they’re drawn to sex where there’s no commitment and there’s no obligation. Sometimes they don’t even want to know the other person’s name. The more anonymous it is, the less they know about the other person, the better." - Understanding Covert Incest: An Interview with Kenneth Adams by Robert Weiss on Psychology Today.
These characteristics cause an emotional shut down and avoidance of relationships leading to avoidant attachment. Men suffering from enmeshment trauma will often subconsciously pick women similar to their mother who are controlling, smothering or needy (severely anxious attachment style). However, the enmeshed man's ambivalence and distance will help to amplify the anxious partners controlling and needy side thereby causing the enmeshed man to not only subconsciously seek but subconsciously create a similar relationship to that in his childhood.
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 everyday. 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 to you could then suggest speaking once or twice a week instead. Avoiding the situation will trigger the feelings of guilt and shame that cause people to remain enmeshed.
Find a licenced psychotherapist or counselor - A psychotherapist will work with you to understand your individual personal history and heal relationships issues. They will help you shift perspective and re-frame how you view relationships to help you gain confidence in your decisions and giving you the freedom to choose to be in a relationship.
Move out - Enmeshed parents will often try to make their children dependent on them for as long as possible. Using guilt and manipulation to keep the children near by. If you still live with your parents well into your twenties, move out as soon as it is possible.
Remind yourself that you are not responsible for other peoples feelings - You can help contribute to someones happiness but should never be their sole source of happiness.
If you start to feel trapped or suffocated explore how those feelings relate to you - What events in your childhood do these feelings remind you of. Sit fully with the feeling, do not try and push it onto a partner. It is not caused by your partner's faults, these are your own feelings.
Cayla Clark, Smother Dearest - Mother And Son Enmeshment -http://nextchaptertreatment.com/smother-dearest-mother-and-son-enmeshment/
Robert Weiss, Childhood Covert Incest And Adult Life - https://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2014/07/childhood-covert-incest-and-adult-life/
Debra L. Kaplan, Emotional Incest and The Relationship Avoidant - http://debrakaplancounseling.com/emotional-incest-and-the-relationship-avoidant/
Robert Weiss, Understanding Covert Incest: An Interview with Kenneth Adams - https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/love-and-sex-in-the-digital-age/201510/understanding-covert-incest-interview-kenneth-adams