Coping with Your Enmeshed Family

Ask the Experts by Marla K. Ruhana, LMSW

Q. I come from a family who has always been very close. I do not understand why my mom gets so upset every holiday, that I must divide my time between both of our families, can you help?

A. Many of us come from enmeshed families in which the boundaries are skewed and all members are a part of the pie, so to speak, as opposed to individual slices within the pie. Members of these families look to one another for insight regarding who they are becoming, as opposed to looking within.

If one is not separate, how can one determine, distinguish their own individuality or place in the world? Regarding the holidays, with regards to a parent, often there is an ongoing assumption, "If I want it this way, my child should want to please me".

Q. My mom isn't that extreme, only on special occasions, what can I do?

A. Enmeshment is very difficult to see when one is in it. Members share in the dysfunction to cope with the fragility of their family. These families attempt to find strength in numbers and cope by fusing members together. Sadly, this often results in shame, blame, and criticism. Justification and rationalization and an individual's lost sense of self.

Q. Can you explain the difference between nurturing and enmeshed families?

A. These families, on the surface look similar to outsiders, yet are quite different. Nurturing families empower members to have a strong sense of self. Members are loved without losing their identity. In enmeshed families, children are loved often at the expense of their own identity. Parents often depend upon their children to define them, make them whole, to find happiness in their children as opposed to within themselves.

Q. I enjoy my time with family, is it normal at times to resent feeling obligated?

A. Families can be a tremendous source of support. If too much togetherness results because of enmeshment members are discouraged from other relationships, from their own individuality, or their true passion outside the family unit. They would never say it and in most cases are not even aware of it, but parents typically need to feel loved and needed to the extent that they often hinder or repress their children from evolving.

Q. Is this why my mom is adamant we keep our problems in our family?

A. Most likely. In these family systems, it is typical that no outsiders are trusted enough to help or guide.

Q. Have you seen other's feeling guilty around the holidays?

A. Yes. It is very common. Adult children in these families often feel guilty for not calling or visiting enough.  The families in which members are made to feel guilty when they do not follow the unspoken rules can be the most detrimental. It is a sign of health when our children don't have to be home to be happy, establish relationships outside the family, and make their own decisions.

Q. Many say my mom is aware of her behavior, others say she is unaware of what she says and does. Do you have thoughts on this?

A. This is an individualized aspect of enmeshment. Unfortunately, without knowing her or observing your family dynamics, I cannot speak to that. If enmeshment seems severe, it could be a sign of a mental health issue. Seeking out the help of clergy or a mental health practitioner can be useful to assist in coping more effectively with family issues. As parents, our job is to discipline, love, nurture, and support while allowing our children to become their own individuals. A nurturing family is the best gift you can give your children!

Marla Ruhana, LMSW is a clinical social worker in private practice in St. Clair Shores. She facilitates retreats in Lexington, MI and teaches in the Graduate School of Social Work at Wayne State University. Visit her Web site at Ruhana is a member of The Family Center's Association of Professionals.

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