Salvador Minuchen introduced the concept of "enmeshed" families in his family systems theory in the mid-1970s. 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" and so on. These roles are not explicitly assigned. It's usually an unconscious process and much more subtle than that. The point is that 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 (usually initiated by one or both of the parents) and strongly discouraged from developing their own feelings and preferences.
What are the Consequences of Growing Up in an Enmeshed Family?
There is often a strong sense of shame in enmeshed families. The family might designate a particular family member to contain these feelings of shame by making that member "the scapegoat" of the family. 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. Needless to say, this person carries the family shame and often grows up to feel ashamed of him or herself and defective in some way. The other rigid roles that are assigned in this type of family also cause the individual members to feel ashamed as well.
Enmeshment leads to shame and shame often leads to depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders, compulsive gambling, sexual addiction, and other addictive behaviors as well as family violence.
There are lots of nurturing families and lots of enmeshed families. What’s strange is that they often look alike — at least on the surface. But they are very different. A nurturing family is one that empowers family members to have a strong sense of self. Children are loved and drawn into the nurturing center of the family–but without losing their sense of self and outward mission. In an enmeshed family, children are loved and drawn into the center–but often at the expense of their sense of self and outward mission.
In an enmeshed family system (which is more common than you might imagine), parents are dependent on each other and/or their children to make them whole, happy, and loved. In biblical terms, it’s a form of idolatry: trying to find life in someone or something other than God.
When a family is always together, that can be because they are a source of great nurturing and love. But often it’s because a system of enmeshment has been formed where family members are discouraged from having other relationships, from expressing their individuality, and from expressing their life mission instincts outside the family. They would never say that, of course, and almost surely don’t know it. But the parents need-to-be-needed and love-to-be-loved to an extent that they keep their children corralled emotionally and/or physically.
Have you ever seen a family where the children are made to feel guilty when they aren’t around for birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, or other special occasions?
Have you seen a family implode because grown children decided to attend another church, college or move to another city?
Have you ever heard sound waves of guilt because a child (or parent) didn’t write enough, call enough, visit enough, or perform well enough?
Sometimes those families that seem the strongest to us because they’re so close or always together are the ones that are sickest. (Not always, of course.) Families where people are made to feel guilty when they don’t follow unwritten behaviors can be the most damaging of all.
Codependent and Enmeshed are the Same
Codependency is defined as a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (typically narcissism or drug addiction); and in broader terms, it refers to the dependence on the needs of or control of another. It also often involves placing a lower priority on one's own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including family, work, friendship, and also romantic, peer or community relationships. Codependency may also be characterized by denial, low self-esteem, excessive compliance, or control patterns. Narcissists are considered to be natural magnets for the codependent, in that narcissists think they are entitled to more than others and the codependent is used to giving more than what is required and/or healthy, for their own well-being.
People who are codependent often take on the role as a martyr; they constantly put others' needs before their own and in doing so forget to take care of themselves. This creates a sense that they are "needed"; they cannot stand the thought of being alone and no one needing them. Codependent people are constantly in search of acceptance. Codependency does not refer to all caring behavior or feelings, but only those that are excessive to an unhealthy degree.
Symptoms of Enmeshed Families and/or Codependency
Controlling behavior, distrust, perfectionism, avoidance of feelings, intimacy problems, care-taking behavior, hyper vigilance, denial, physical illness related to stress. It is believed that we become codependent through living in systems (families) with rules that hinder development, flexibility and spontaneity. Some general rules in families that may contribute to codependency are:
•It's not okay to talk about problems
•Don’t trust your instincts or other people
•Unpleasant feelings should not be openly expressed (i.e. anger, differing opinions)
•Keep your feelings to yourself
•Communication is best when it is indirect
•Use another family member as a messenger between two others
•Always be good, strong, right and perfect - or at least act it
•Make us proud beyond realistic expectations
•Don't be selfish
•Do as I say, not as I do
•It's not okay to be playful
•It's not okay to shine or excel too much
•Do not rock the boat
•Disaster is always lurking just around the corner, so tread lightly
•Guard the family secrets
•You should feel guilty or scared to say "no"
•Pretend there are no problems
•Nice people are boring (healthy people)
•If we disagree with each other, we are attacking or abandoning each other
•Control others by manipulating with threats, fear, guilt or pity
•If you need attention, be overly dramatic to get it
•Set off others' emotional temperatures to see how it is you feel (or should feel)
•If you control things and people you will be safe
How to Seek Help
There are various recovery paths for individuals who struggle with codependency. For example, some may choose behavioral psychotherapy, sometimes accompanied by chemical therapy for accompanying depression.
There also exist support groups for codependency, such as Celebrate Recovery a Christian, Bible-based group, Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) and Al-Anon/Alateen, Nar-Anon, and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA), which are based on the twelve-step program model of Alcoholics Anonymous. Although the term codependency originated outside of twelve-step groups, it is now a common concept in many of them.