Enmeshment: Breaking Free From Overbearing Relationships

EnmeshmentWhen boundaries are unclear, particularly in families, relationships can become overbearing, with individuals experiencing a diminished sense of self (Bacon & Conway, 2023).

In such situations, our clients can be confused over their separateness, indicating what psychologists call enmeshment (Bacon & Conway, 2023).

While enmeshed families benefit from high levels of communication, they also experience overinvolvement in each other’s issues, problems, and stresses. Family members experience a lack of distance and poor autonomy, impacting their decision-making skills (Coe et al., 2018).

In this article, we introduce the concept of enmeshment, explore its root causes and impact, and learn how to help clients break free from overbearing relationships.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients build healthy, life-enriching relationships.

What Is Enmeshment?

“Enmeshment can be defined as the experience of confusion of one’s separateness from others” and a reduced sense of self and autonomy in relationships (Bacon & Conway, 2023, p. 3596). It also suggests an inability to “fully experience, understand, and value one’s own thoughts, feelings, and needs in the context of relationship” (Bacon & Conway, 2023, p. 3596).

Enmeshment is often confused with codependency. While codependency lacks a clear and agreed definition, it typically refers to a dysfunctional pattern of behavior and thinking in relationships where the individual prioritizes the needs of others over their own (Bacon & Conway, 2023).

Codependency is, therefore, sometimes regarded as an outward manifestation of enmeshment. It focuses on the blurred boundaries and loss of identity within relationships, where individuals rely on one another for their sense of self-worth and emotional wellbeing (Bacon & Conway, 2023).

Enmeshment might be considered at one end of a continuum, with rigid boundaries on the other. Normal functioning within a relationship occurs somewhere in the middle (Bacon & Conway, 2023).

The concept is often considered within a family context, where family members are not differentiated “and become over-dependent on each other, thus blocking individual family members from attaining autonomy” (Bacon & Conway, 2023, p. 3597).

On the other hand, family cohesion is characterized by healthy, transparent, and flexible boundaries that enable each family member to function without interference from others while accessing the resources of the larger family system (Coe et al., 2018).

Enmeshment often arises out of a lack of understanding or awareness of the need to cultivate autonomy during a child’s or young person’s early years. Over time, it can undermine a sense of self, where the individual fails to learn to value their own thoughts and feelings (Bacon & Conway, 2023).

Setting appropriate and clear boundaries can help.

How to love with boundaries - Candace Plattor

In How to Love With Boundaries, Candace Plattor describes her experience of working with families torn apart by addiction and the importance of boundary setting to move forward from the associated trauma.

How Does Enmeshment Impact Mental Health?

Enmeshment can result in conditional access to family resources (for example, emotional support) and stress that overspills between family subsystems, immersing individuals in ongoing family issues and hindering personal autonomy (Coe et al., 2018).

As a result of unclear and excessively lax boundaries within a family (or other close relationships), enmeshment can have a significant impact on mental health (Coe et al., 2018).

Unhelpful and unhealthy impacts on mental wellbeing can include (Bacon & Conway, 2023; Coe et al., 2018):

  • Increased emotional entanglement
    Individuals become overly entangled in other family members’ lives, activities, and emotions, leading to a heightened sensitivity to family stress.
  • Conditional or restricted access to family resources
    Enmeshed family members may have to forego autonomy to access family resources, potentially hindering individual independence.
  • Distress spillover
    In the absence of clear boundaries or individual identities, distress and hostility spill over, leading to an almost constant state of distress within the family.
  • Heightened sensitivity to family instability and upset
    Children may become extremely sensitive to instability.
  • Loss of individual identity
    As boundaries become blurred, the individual’s sense of self becomes intertwined with other family members.
  • Emotional dependence
    Individual self-worth may depend on the approval and validation of others. Such emotional dependence can make developing the skills and autonomy needed to regulate emotions independently challenging.
  • Difficulty setting boundaries
    Healthy boundaries are difficult to form and maintain, making it difficult to assert oneself, say no, and prioritize individual needs.
  • Codependent behaviors
    Cycles of unhealthy relationships form that promote codependency.
  • Impact on other relationships
    Enmeshed individuals may struggle to form balanced, healthy relationships beyond the family.
  • Mental health disorders
    People experiencing enmeshment may experience increased susceptibility to stress, burnout, and feeling overwhelmed.

It’s vital to be aware that enmeshment impacts individuals differently depending on multiple contextual factors and can have complex effects on mental wellbeing (Bacon & Conway, 2023; Coe et al., 2018).

Enmeshment can even offer potential benefits when maternal relationship stability is high, while exacerbating the risk of mental health problems when it is low (Coe et al., 2018).

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3 Examples of Enmeshment

Next, we consider several examples of enmeshment, formed in three very different types of relationships.

In the family

When 14-year-old Jacob repeatedly returned home early from school with feelings of discomfort, his parents, Robert and Kate, sought help from a therapist (D’Astice & Russell, 2020).

Following several sessions, it became clear that “Jacob’s autonomous functioning at school was constrained by disengagement from his father, enmeshment with his mother, and a somewhat divided parental subsystem” (D’Astice & Russell, 2020, p. 914).

The therapist suggested Jacob be given more space and responsibility to help him cope with social situations better. Jacob and Robert were encouraged to discuss additional coping strategies, and along with Kate, the three of them worked on setting clearer, more consistent boundaries (D’Astice & Russell, 2020).

Friendships

When 26-year-old Alex found herself constantly rescheduling her life to accommodate the needs of her best friend Sam, she began to feel drained and overwhelmed, seeking guidance from a life coach (Kristenson, 2022; Aloian, 2024).

Coaching sessions uncovered that Alex felt responsible for managing Sam’s emotional state to the point where she was sidelining her own relationships and interests. Alex’s sense of self was becoming increasingly intertwined with Sam’s, and she lacked the individual space she desperately needed.

The coach recommended that Alex cultivate a sense of self separate from Sam by establishing firmer boundaries, prioritizing her needs, and fostering a healthier, more balanced friendship (Kristenson, 2022; Aloian, 2024).

Romantic relationships

When Jordan and Taylor moved in together, they became inseparable; neither would make a decision (even a straightforward one) without the other (The Couples Center, 2023).

Jordan had difficulty spending an evening alone or with other friends without Taylor. The result was that Taylor’s personal interests took a back seat, with all focus on the relationship.

A relationship counselor helped them see they were enmeshed as a couple and felt threatened by (and fearful of) the thought of personal space. They were encouraged to foster individual interests and spend time apart while being reassured that this would strengthen, not weaken, their relationship (The Couples Center, 2023).

10 Signs to Look Out For

Signs of EnmeshmentEnmeshment can take many forms. The following is a list of possible signs for a counselor or mental health professional to watch out for in their clients (D’Astice & Russell, 2020; Bacon & Conway, 2023; Coe et al., 2018).

  1. Indistinct personal boundaries
    Trouble distinguishing their personal feelings, thoughts, and desires from those of close others
  2. Reduced self-identity
    A weakened or damaged sense of self; regularly putting the needs and goals of others before their own
  3. Heightened emotional dependence
    Displaying excessively close and dependent emotional connections with significant others, potentially hindering their personal or social development
  4. Increased relational dependency
    Expressing the belief they cannot lead a meaningful life without another’s constant involvement or approval
  5. Decision-making difficulties
    Struggling to make personal decisions without experiencing guilt or anxiety, indicating a lack of autonomy
  6. Behavioral over-adaptation
    Adapting behaviors, desires, and actions excessively to meet others’ needs or expectations, often at the cost of their own wellbeing
  7. Challenges in external relationships
    Experiencing difficulties building and maintaining relationships outside the primary enmeshed relationship, including friends, work colleagues, and romantic partners
  8. Mental health concerns
    Experiencing anxiety, depression, or stress, potentially stemming from feelings of entrapment or inability to create and pursue an independent life
  9. Parental over-involvement
    Reporting a family dynamic where parental needs are prioritized above their own, leading to overdependence and blurred boundaries
  10. Behavioral issues in child clients
    Children showing signs of externalizing problems such as behavioral issues and oppositional defiance, especially in situations of family instability

The list is not exhaustive, and clients must be considered within the context of the relationship under review (Bacon & Conway, 2023).

Root Causes & Their Consequences

“Families with clear boundaries maintain a balance between autonomy and relatedness” and support their members by giving sufficient distance to offer a degree of independence while providing enough support to ensure the necessary closeness and involvement (D’Astice & Russell, 2020, p. 912).

Enmeshment occurs when relationships have “diffuse or porous boundaries” (D’Astice & Russell, 2020, p. 912). They result in too much family involvement, reducing individual autonomy.

The consequence is a potential lack of independence, a heightened sense of belonging, and a high degree of sensitivity that can impact adaptation to stressful situations, mainly when those around the individual depart from expected behaviors (D’Astice & Russell, 2020).

Understanding Enmeshment Trauma

Enmeshment traumaEnmeshment trauma is “a form of emotional damage that occurs when one or more parents project values, needs, and dreams onto their child” (Ardelean, 2022, p. 15).

Ultimately, the child abandons their sense of self in an attempt to please their caregiver and be worthy of their love.

Such trauma means that when the caregiver is unavailable, the child may experience feelings of emotional abandonment yet may feel an increased sense of control and peace (Ardelean, 2022).

10 Tips & Strategies for Overcoming Enmeshment

It is possible to break free from overbearing relationships and escape the shackles of enmeshment. The following is a brief set of tips and strategies for overcoming enmeshment based on practical therapeutic experiences (Martin, 2023).

Work with clients to (Ellie Mental Health, 2023; Mindwell NYC, 2021):

  1. Identify and experience feelings
    Recognize and explore personal emotions rather than those they are told to feel.
  2. Establish boundaries
    Establishing boundaries is crucial. Boundary setting helps tell other family members what they are and are not allowed to do.
  3. Consider their needs
    They can learn to consider their personal happiness rather than endless self-sacrifice.
  4. Communicate their needs
    Once they have recognized their personal needs, suggest that they make others aware of them.
  5. Take steps toward autonomy and independence
    Encourage them to strive toward owning their decisions, goals, and problem-solving.
  6. Develop their identity
    Explore their identity. They do not need to conform to the expectations of others. Who would they like to be?
  7. Seek out a professional
    Breaking free from overbearing relationships is difficult, but a therapist can help them navigate the process.
  8. Build autonomy
    Do the things they love. Begin to pursue personal interests and encourage other family members to do the same.
  9. Practice mindfulness
    Use mindfulness to ground them in the present and connect with their own thoughts and feelings rather than those of others.
  10. Expand their circle of friends
    Suggest they reconnect with old friends and form new relationships with those who share their interests and values.

While enmeshment can leave clients feeling dependent on others and lacking a sense of self, changing behaviors and seeking appropriate help can help them move away from past limitations and constraints (Bacon & Conway, 2023).

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How to Implement Healthy Boundaries

In our article 14 Worksheets for Setting Healthy Boundaries, we explore the importance of boundary setting and offer guidance and tools for putting practical ones in place that are in line with personal values.

Sarri Gilman provides a helpful video to help people understand the importance of setting boundaries and how they enhance relationships and quality of life.

Good boundaries free you - Sarri Gilman

Useful Resources From PositivePsychology.com

We have many resources available for therapists working with families, couples, and individuals to help set appropriate boundaries and build and maintain healthier relationships.

Our free resources include:

  • Relationship Audit
    This valuable exercise helps clients understand the degree of authenticity in their relationships.
  • How to Set Boundaries – Saying No
    Learning the art of saying no is a crucial assertiveness skill and essential for setting healthy boundaries.
  • How to Set Boundaries – State What You Want
    Setting boundaries starts with clients clearly communicating their wants.
  • Dealing With Boundary Violations 
    While setting boundaries is vital to healthy relationships, so is establishing the consequences of breaking them.

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

  • Setting Healthy Boundaries With Parents
    Setting boundaries with parents can be challenging. Yet confident and clear communication of relationship limits can reduce conflict and encourage mutual understanding within the family.

Ask clients to try out the following four steps:

    • Step one – Consider your needs.
    • Step two – What limits and boundaries would you like to set with your parents?
    • Step three – Choose a calm and neutral tone to share them with your parents.
    • Step four – Be consistent with your boundaries.

Make it clear when limits are reached and boundaries are ignored or broken.

  • Setting Boundaries in Difficult Conversations
    Defining and communicating boundaries means assertively protecting your rights to your bodily, emotional, mental, or spiritual health, ideas, and needs.

Suggest clients try out the following five steps to learn and practice boundary setting:

    • Step one – Reflect on past situations when your boundaries were crossed.

What happened?
How did you respond?

    • Step two – Plan to clearly set and state a boundary when something similar happens.
    • Step three – Consider how the other person will respond.
    • Step four – Reflect on how you will handle their response.
    • Step five – Role-play the scenario.

With practice, we can become more ready to respond to challenging situations and set appropriate boundaries in a precise and controlled manner.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others build healthy relationships, this collection contains 17 validated positive relationships tools for practitioners. Use them to help others form healthier, more nurturing, and life-enriching relationships.

A Take-Home Message

Enmeshment is a complex problem that impacts the wellbeing of our clients, particularly in family settings that lack appropriate boundaries (Bacon & Conway, 2023).

Enmeshment suggests confusion or lack of clarity regarding the client’s separateness from other family members (or a partner).

It can also involve “a diminished sense of self that includes a loss of autonomy in relationships, and an inability to fully experience, understand, and value one’s own thoughts, feelings, and needs in the context of a relationship” (Bacon & Conway, 2023, p. 3596).

While often requiring support from an experienced therapist or mental health practitioner, it is possible to break free from overbearing relationships and the limiting effects of enmeshment.

In time, the individual can regain their sense of self and build on personal autonomy.

Family therapists should become familiar with the indicators of enmeshment and learn how to best support clients in setting and communicating clear and effective boundaries with other family members, partners, and close friends.

Over time, individuals can regain their autonomy and feel a sense of increased control over their lives, decisions, and future directions.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.

  • Aloian, A. (2024, March 10). What is enmeshment? Therapists explain examples, causes, and how to overcome it. Women’s Health https://www.womenshealthmag.com/relationships/a46802049/enmeshment/
  • Ardelean, A. (2022). Examining attachment style in hookup culture: The societal normalization of trauma-based partner selection [Undergraduate research, The University of British Columbia]. https://open.library.ubc.ca/soa/cIRcle/collections/undergraduateresearch/52966/items/1.0418457
  • Bacon, I., & Conway, J. (2023). Co-dependency and enmeshment — a fusion of concepts. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 21(6), 3594–3603.
  • Coe, J. L., Davies, P. T., & Sturge-Apple, M. L. (2018). Family cohesion and enmeshment moderate associations between maternal relationship instability and children’s externalizing problems. Journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 32(3), 289–298.
  • The Couples Center. (2023, February 28). Signs of an enmeshed relationship and how to cope. https://www.thecouplescenter.org/signs-of-an-enmeshed-relationship-and-how-to-cope/
  • D’Astice, T., & Russell, W. P. (2020). Enmeshment in couples and families. In J. Lebow, A. Chambers, & D. C. Breunlin (Eds.), Encyclopedia of couple and family therapy (pp. 911–915). Springer.
  • Ellie Mental Health. (2023, December 14). Unraveling enmeshment: Understanding healthy boundaries in family relationships. https://elliementalhealth.com/unraveling-enmeshment-understanding-healthy-boundaries-in-family-relationships/
  • Kristenson, S. (2022, November 10). 13 warning signs you have a codependent friendship. Happier Human. https://www.happierhuman.com/codependent-friendship/
  • Martin, S. (2023, August 17). Family enmeshment: What it is and how to overcome it. Live Well with Sharon Martin. https://www.livewellwithsharonmartin.com/family-enmeshment/
  • Mindwell Psychology NYC. (2021, January 4). 14 signs of over-involvement in a relationship & how to break free fast [2022]. https://mindwellnyc.com/over-involvement/

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