How Close is Too Close? Aiming for Family Cohesiveness and Preventing Enmeshment

One of the main aspects that make up a functional, healthy family is the presence of cohesiveness between family members. A cohesive family pertains to family members having a strong emotional bond and interdependence with each other while simultaneously thriving as individuals with their needs met and aspirations fulfilled. Strong emotional bonds and interdependence promote each member’s optimal self-development and overall life satisfaction. Thus, stress management is positively affected and general health increases. A cohesive family also promotes self-esteem, preventing mental health issues like depression.

However, it is rarely wise to have too much of a good thing, and such is the case with the closeness between family members. The effort in achieving close family ties is often misunderstood which ends up in strained relationships that cultivate blurred personal boundaries, over-dependence on one another, and isolation from social interactions outside of the family. The cultivation of the previous characteristics is the point where the family is no longer cohesive but rather tangled in enmeshment.   

What is enmeshment?

The American Psychological Association defines enmeshment as “a condition in which two or more people, typically family members, are involved in each other’s activities and personal relationships to an excessive degree, thus limiting or precluding healthy interaction and compromising individual autonomy and identity.” 

In enmeshed families, family members are detached from their personal desires, goals, opinions, and sometimes even their basic physical and emotional needs. Instead, they shift all their attention to the family, ensuring that everything they do or plan to do is aligned with the interest of the family.

At a glance, one might see these types of tightly-bonded families as inherently positive. After all, it is expected to strive for closeness with one’s family and have them be an integral part of one’s life. But when it crosses the line towards enmeshment, the non-existent boundaries between family members lead to a chaotic distribution of roles and expectations. Issues such as parentification, or children taking over the parents’ functions and duties, and codependency, or the complete reliance of a person towards another to fulfill their emotional needs, are common manifestations of enmeshment in a family. 

Apart from its negative effect on each family member’s role, enmeshment can also foster trauma in individuals. Adults who grew up in enmeshed families may continue revolving their lives around the choices and favor of their parents rather than branching out to the world as their own person. They may have difficulties starting or maintaining relationships or falling into toxic relationship patterns. They also tend to blindly obey authority figures which may be an issue in conflict resolution. Individuals who have yet to discover themselves outside of their families would also have their concept of self-esteem and self-identity negatively affected. 

Differentiating Cohesive and Enmeshed Families

It is not easy for individuals to have a concrete judgment of their family’s degree of healthy cohesiveness and where it crosses the line to enmeshment. Thus, before delving further into the practical ways you can keep your family bonds healthy and away from enmeshment, you must first understand what makes cohesive and enmeshed families distinct.

Boundaries and individuality

The line between cohesion and enmeshment is drawn in the presence of adequate boundaries and the celebration of growth for all family members. While there is an elimination of privacy and lack of individual identity in members of an enmeshed family, cohesive family members encourage respecting each others’ physical and emotional boundaries for them to individually develop their identity outside the family without compromising family closeness.

Having a “deep bond”

Having a deep bond has very distinct meanings in the contexts of cohesion and enmeshment. While cohesive families have a deep bond with one another without jeopardizing their external relationships, enmeshed families demand that their members prioritize their familial relationships only,  expecting that all satisfaction is derived from family relationships.

Interdependence vs. codependency

Codependency between family members is a characteristic of enmeshed families wherein one party serves to fulfill the emotional needs of another party at the expense of their own. There is an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the feelings of the other person or the family as a whole. This sense of responsibility constrains the family members into acting only in the interest of the family or specific controlling figures within the family. 

This might be confusing as cohesion is marked by a high emphasis on interdependence, meaning that sharing one’s burdens and emotions with the other party within a relationship drives the relationship closer. However, emotional interdependence is the act of being vulnerable to a person one is bonded and healthily relying on one another. 

Keeping Families From Being Enmeshed

There is no denying the fact that it is difficult to change the ways of an enmeshed family. The unhealthy patterns are often so deep-rooted within the family system that, more often than not, individuals do not realize that they are in an enmeshed family in the first place due to enmeshed values being so normalized and all they know. But that is not to say that it is impossible for an enmeshed family to change their ways or to prevent them from happening. Below are tips on what can be done to prevent and keep families from enmeshment. 

Strengthen autonomy in all family members

A family is a unit consisting of distinct individuals who need a sense of independence and authenticity. Cultivating a secure sense of autonomy in all family members is one way to break the cycle of enmeshment. Helping family members reach their potential, understanding their points of view, opinions, and beliefs while encouraging healthy self-disclosure and providing a support system for the needs and ambitions of all family members prevents enmeshment from reappearing.  

Strengthening autonomy can be done by enforcing clear, rational, and consistent expectations regarding what family members can and cannot do. Allow family members to operate within said expectations freely and continuously adjust expectations as family members grow and change as individuals, as well as minimize control.   

Another way to do so is by constantly involving family members in conversations and discussions regarding individual and family matters, promoting transparency and opportunities to practice autonomous thinking. Finally, it is crucial that family members, especially younger ones, are encouraged to start independently problem-solving, so that they may develop healthy coping mechanisms when they fail and are able to generate solutions to problems, which will help them become more independent as they grow. 

Maintain meaningful relationships with individuals outside of the family

Having healthy relationships outside the family is pivotal in encouraging the development of family members, as it provides a space where they do not feel trapped or helpless in an enmeshed family. Individuals with enmeshed families need other people to rely on, be it as a confidante or someone to provide shelter when required. 

Start with yourself

 More often than not, it is up to one’s own self to challenge enmeshed values deeply embedded within one’s family. To challenge these values means to unlearn habits that perpetuate enmeshment, set and maintain clear boundaries, delve deep into who you are as a person to maintain authenticity, and rely on internal control and external support. 

In conclusion

As an individual’s first microsystem and environment to grow and develop, it is important for families to foster individuality and autonomy in all its members while remaining closely tied in a healthy manner. When bonds get too close for one’s own good, family members need to be active in introspection of their family dynamics to avoid becoming enmeshed. 

If you would like to read more resources on family functioning, head on over to the Family Science Labs. Using the research of the Institute for Life Management Science, the lab produces courses, certifications, and other learning materials aimed at improving family dynamics. Visit the Family Science Labs today. 

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Photo by Brandon Green on Unsplash

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