What is an Enmeshed Family?
Salvador Minuchen introduced the concept of “enmeshed” families in his family systems theory in the mid-1970s.  The blog Counseling4Less.com notes that “there are varying degrees of enmeshment, when it does exist.  An enmeshed family allows individual members little to no autonomy or personal boundaries. The roles among family members can be very rigid. One person might be “the scapegoat,” another person might be “the hero,” another might be “the slave,” and so on. These roles are not explicitly assigned. It is usually a very subtle, unconscious process and this is why it is so difficult to recognize, identify, and articulate. We know “something is not quite right” in our family, but we don’t have the language or knowledge base to understand what that “something” actually is. This is why psychotherapy with a Clinician is so important. Individuals in this type of family often grow up not knowing how they really feel or what they want to do in their lives because they are encouraged to feel whatever the rest of the family feels and strongly discouraged from developing their own feelings and preferences.”

Importantly, as new family members are added to the original dysfunctional family system, like new spouses of siblings and cousins and new step-parents, they often will pick up on the unspoken Family Rules and engage in treating family members exactly the same way the original family members do. This can be very confusing for daughters who are being abused because in the back of their minds they might be thinking, “Hmmm, even my parent’s new spouse has started treating me like I’m a bad person just like my birth family already does. Maybe the whole family is right!” No, they are wrong–this is called enmeshment. Yes, a whole bunch of people can be totally wrong about their treatment of you. This is called Family Enmeshment. Yes, they can ALL BE SICK and band together in their sickness. It is an unconscious mechanism of psychologically coping with intergenerational pain, trauma, and loss that remains underground, invisible, and unspoken–but with very real, everyday consequences that can be easily seen in the suffering of every family member. Though one child may be chosen as the scapegoated child, every family member is drawn into the psychological drama and everyone is harmed. No one wins in an enmeshed family, even the sibling who is chosen as the golden child.

Families can be educated, wealthy, beloved in their religious community, famous, or thought to be moral heroes, and they can still be totally dysfunctional! This is called Family Enmeshment. It’s crazy; it’s psychologically deep; it’s disturbingly common in our culture! And back to those step-parents and brothers/sisters-in-laws: if your birth family members are dysfunctional, they will attract partners who are also unhealthy and who are going to naturally pick up on their new family’s Unspoken Rules (because they did it in their own birth family) and participate! It’s called Enmeshment.

The Counseling4Less.com blog notes that “When families scapegoat a particular family member, rather than looking at the dysfunctional family dynamic, they point to this family member and say that he or she is the cause of the family’s problems. Often, the scapegoated person is the one who strives to be an individual, which is threatening to the rest of the family. He or she is often the healthiest one in the family, but other family members don’t see it this way. In their eyes, if only this family member would shape up and think and behave the way that the rest of the family does, everything would be all right.”

Often, the price to the scapegoated person for getting healthy and talking about family problems (or at least trying to!) is shunning. If the Family Rules dictate silence about some family member’s death, addiction, poverty, pregnancy, abortion, imprisonment, and so on, and a family member attempts to discuss any of those issues, they are often attacked and told that s/he is the problem–not the silence! If a daughter sets boundaries and begins to say “No” to being the family slave, in an enmeshed family system she will be seen as a threat to the stability of the psychological spider-web of dysfunction and she will be attacked or shunned to increase the pain volume in order to force her back into compliance with the enmeshment rules. Often if the daughter does not comply with the Family Rules and she continues to seek resolution or at least understanding of these Underground Family Issues, then she is shunned, labeled, and betrayed because she would not comply. Tragically, the daughter can internalize the family’s labeling and see herself as “the bad one”–leading to suicide attempts, becoming the family slave who is expected to take care of everyone, choosing abusive partners who treat her like her family did, and/or expecting a life of misery.

I want to assert–right here and now–that defining yourself is entirely UP TO YOU. YOU get to decide who you are–not your dysfunctional family–and make the life YOU want to live surrounded by people who treat you like YOU want to be treated. There are currently self-help books on the market that explicitly state that adult daughters should continue their relationship with their openly abusive mothers and family members and just learn to cope with the abuse. This is preposterous! Abuse destroys peace of mind, normal adult functioning, and healthy self-esteem. Erasing a family’s poisonous brainwashing takes time and dedication, but YOU are the most important person in your life! If you think your kids are the most important, you are wrong. YOU have to heal yourself before you can model for your kids what it looks like to be a healthy adult–this is the most important message a mother can show her children. YOU matter–don’t let your destructive family messages rule your life or allow popular self-help books to fool you into believing that if you are a “self-actualized/enlightened/good daughter” you will put up with your mother’s/family’s abuse.  Look under  the “Tools for Healing”  at this site for ideas on how to begin or deepen YOUR fabulous healing journey that YOU so deserve!!!

The Counseling4Less.com blog notes that “Families where people are made to feel guilty when they don’t follow unwritten behaviors can be the most damaging of all.”

“General Rules of Enmeshed Families

•It’s not okay to talk about problems
•Don’t trust your instincts or other people
•Nice people are boring (healthy people)
•If we disagree with each other, we are attacking or abandoning each other….”

Read more at Counseling4Less.com where excerpts from this section are taken.

4 thoughts on “Enmeshment

  1. There is a famous study of monkeys starting with five members and one is battered. When some of the monkey’s are changed out for other monkey’s the new ones follow the same treatment as was set up before they joined the group. Like in a chicken coop where one is pecked to death by all the others.
    I resisted the violence and lies and the unknown my whole life but there was no way to stop the continuing abuse from so many. Leaving my family and some of my family leaving me was the only healthy choice. They would not have left if I had not begun to refuse the role assigned to me. I wish I had not wasted so much of my life caring for all these “family” people. There is nothing you can do to stop this cycle of abuse. It feels good to those that are doing it, it is not just “they way they are”. They are making calculated choices to behave in hateful ways. Hard to believe family are really traitors.

    • So true. I admired the phrase- families make “calculated choices to behave in hateful ways.” I spent way too much of my life, and thus myself esteem, telling myself that they didn’t know what they were doing. Ha! They sure did. I get comfort in thinking there is a special place in hell for people like this. I imagine they are trapped in a ho movie theatre, eating stale popcorn and drinking flat cokes. Over and over they are made watch the people they tried to destroy have healthy, positive and loving lives…. without them and despite of them. Plus they get moments of reflection on how sorry their own lives were!

  2. The most destructive, as well as, very confusing for me was that, my family sometimes treat me as the golden child other times the scapegoat, and many times as the family slave. It depends on the situation and their interests, but what really did hurt me a lot is that loud sound inside me captivated by them. I always had the urge to scream out loud but deeply inside I was sure no one will hear me or even understand. That is why I suffer from guilt and very low self- esteem, when any one even a waiter or shop assistant treat me badly I always believe it is my fault or I don’t worth respect. I am nothing. Very painful indeed.

    • Dearest Marwa…this type of inconsistent treatment that creates profound ambivalence inside young and adult daughters is extremely painful. One does not know when the “kind” parent will be present or the abusive one…the truth is, of course, the inconsistent treatment IS abuse in and of itself. The kindness cannot be trusted, can feel manipulative, and only creates more pain. I am SO GLAD you are recognizing your “urge to scream” and your inner wisdom heard “that loud sound inside me”. This means your WILL and SELF are very strong and healthy! Can you write about your urge? Draw pictures of it? Let it out safely…do you have someone trust worthy in whom you can confide? Dump the “low-self esteem”…you have the power to send the negative internal voices away. We believe in you here at Sedna’s Daughters…the daughters here have been through similar atrocities as you have…remember, you are NEVER alone on this journey. Take good care of yourself, beautiful Marwa!! Love, always, Sedna

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