A close bond with a loved one couldn’t be a bad thing, right? Well, if you lose your sense of individuality to a relationship, or if the boundaries between independence and connection are strongly blurred, then it may be due to something called “enmeshment.”
Enmeshment refers to relationships that have become so intertwined that boundaries are nonexistent or identical. While this concept most often occurs between a primary caregiver and their child, it can also happen in romantic relationships.
Although enmeshment can initially lessen worries around abandonment and rejection, ongoing enmeshment can lead to resentment and low relationship satisfaction. So, recognizing the signs can lead to more understanding and ultimately, healthier relationships.
To answer your questions on enmeshment and how it relates to attachment theory, this article will cover:
Enmeshment is a psychological concept first introduced by Salvador Minuchin in the early 1920s. Minuchin used “enmeshment” to describe family relationships struggling to balance independence and connection.
According to the American Psychological Association, the definition of enmeshment is:
“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.”
While this description looks at enmeshment from a clinical standpoint, it simply means that the boundaries between two people have become blurred. In this scenario, one person may begin to prioritize the needs and wants of the other over their own. As a result, they may start to lose their sense of individual identity and autonomy.
It’s important to clarify the difference between closeness and enmeshment, as confusing them is easy to do. While closeness refers to emotional intimacy and caregiving, enmeshment involves a lack of self-other separation. In other words, thoughts and feelings are merged with those of the other person’s.
While this blurring of boundaries most often occurs between family members, it can happen in any relationship – including romantic ones.
Discover how enmeshment and engulfment are linked!
If we look at enmeshment through a psychological lens, we can see it as a manifestation of unresolved emotional issues. These emotional issues may be a lack of self-esteem, a need for validation, or a fear of abandonment.
Those who experience enmeshment may struggle to set healthy boundaries, express their own wants and needs, and often feel resentment toward others.
What’s more, enmeshment can also happen when someone finds healthy communication and problem-solving challenging. When we can’t communicate our needs and concerns, we may rely on dependence on another person to cope with conflicts and maintain a sense of connection.
Enmeshment usually involves six key elements:
Restrictiveness and control
Fears of rejection
Fears about abandonment
Feelings of responsibility around the other person’s emotional state
Unhealthy ideas about the world and family
Therefore, enmeshment plays a very intimate role in our sense of selves. Boundaries become so entangled that we cannot separate or distinguish ourselves from the other person without feeling extreme anxiety, anger, or distress.
When researchers look into family bonds, many describe family “cohesion” – essentially, the act of forming a united whole. While healthy cohesion is a good thing, when family members become overly involved in each other’s lives, this can become extreme cohesion or enmeshment. However, when family members aren’t close (or cohesive), we call this disengagement.
Essentially, familial enmeshment is characterized by both a lack of individuality and a form of intense closeness and caregiving with another family member(s).
Most families contain some form of enmeshment. For example, a primary caregiver is often enmeshed with their young child, as the child depends on the caregiver for survival.
It is only when enmeshment is extreme and when someone’s behaviors go over and above what is necessary for caregiving that it is considered harmful enmeshment. This form of enmeshment happens when caregivers become overly involved in their childrens’ lives, to the extent that a child’s autonomy and independence may not develop fully.
Enmeshment between a caregiver and child can result in a child finding decision-making difficult and feeling “lost” when trying to understand themselves. They may struggle to identify their likes, dislikes, interests, and views on topics.
There are consequences for all enmeshed family members. On the one hand, being in a state of symbiosis with another person can feel suffocating. However, on the other hand, attempts to achieve distance from them can feel terrifying for both people involved.
However, it’s important to note that the effects of enmeshment may differ across cultures. Evidence demonstrates that family enmeshment may boost self-esteem for adolescents in some cultures. Whereas, for others (typically in Western cultures), family enmeshment may result in behavioral problems, higher anxiety levels, and symptoms of depression.
Healthy closeness and intimacy in romantic relationships typically strengthen the romantic bond. However, in contrast, enmeshment can have adverse relationship outcomes. In romantic relationships, enmeshment refers to difficulty separating your thoughts and emotions from your partner’s.
In a romantic partnership, enmeshment can occur when one partner is dependent on the other, or when the couple is so intertwined they have difficulty functioning independently.
Enmeshed couples may appear very close and dependent on each other. They may do most things together, take on each others’ hobbies and interests as if they are their own, and let go of their personal boundaries.
When part of an enmeshed couple, it may feel “wrong” or uncomfortable to spend time alone or make a decision independently. Furthermore, one partner may feel responsible for taking care of the other, especially when they’re upset.
As a result of taking on each others’ hobbies and interests, someone in an enmeshed partnership may lose sight of their own interests and struggle to feel confident doing things on their own. This experience can be overwhelming and lead to feelings of suffocation, resentment, and lower satisfaction in the relationship.
On another note, enmeshment can be tricky to identify as it’s often an unconscious process – it happens outside our awareness. For example, you may recognize that you and your partner do everything together and that you have taken on your partner’s interests. However, you may also struggle in pinpointing just why this has occurred.
Attachment theory, first proposed by John Bowlby in the 1950s, is a psychological theory that explains how we form emotional bonds with others. Attachment theory suggests that, as babies, we naturally tend to form attachments to our primary caregiver.
This attachment teaches us to trust and rely on the caregiver for comfort, protection, and support. We typically develop a secure attachment when we experience sensitivity, acceptance, and emotional availability.
However, we may develop an insecure attachment style if we experience rejection, misattunement, or emotional control from a primary caregiver.
If you would like to know your attachment style and receive a free report on what it means for you and your life, take the free quiz on The Attachment Project’s website.
Evidence suggests that those high in attachment anxiety are more likely to experience family enmeshment. This finding may be because the anxious attachment style is characterized by strong fears of abandonment and rejection – key elements of enmeshment.
Therefore, if a primary caregiver or partner in a romantic relationship has an anxious attachment style, they may be more prone to blurring boundaries and forging a heavy sense of dependence in an attempt to ensure closeness.
Those high in attachment avoidance tend to withdraw from any sense of cohesion and unity. Therefore, they distance themselves from emotional closeness, reliance on others, and intimacy. For these reasons, avoidantly attached individuals may be less likely to experience cohesion.
This pattern of behavior is understandable when we consider the formation of the avoidant attachment style. As children they were taught that their needs for closeness would be rejected, so, as adults they’re uncomfortable with depending on others and vice versa.
Attachment theory states that the way our attachment needs are met during childhood will shape our patterns of attachment and behavior in future relationships. Going by this logic, we typically carry our attachment style, whether secure or insecure, into adulthood.
Because of this continuation of attachment styles, we may be more likely to experience enmeshment in a romantic relationship if we underwent familial enmeshment. What’s more, this pattern may be especially apparent if you or your partner (or both!) have an anxious attachment style.
However, enmeshment may not always happen because of your attachment styles. For example, it’s possible that factors such as relocating could contribute to enmeshment in a relationship. When one partner relocates, they may leave behind their support systems and familiar surroundings, which can make them more dependent on their partner for emotional support and a sense of belonging.
Enmeshment is a complex psychological concept that can result in resentment and feelings of suffocation, even though that is far from the intention. It most often occurs in caregiver-child relationships, but can also happen in romantic relationships.
Enmeshment can occur as a result of unresolved emotional issues, such as a lack of self-esteem, fear of abandonment, or a need for validation. Understanding attachment theory can also give us an insight into how enmeshment develops and what may motivate families and couples to become enmeshed.
It’s important to understand that when someone behaves in a way that encourages enmeshment, they aren’t doing so on purpose. There’s a fine line between closeness and enmeshment, and enmeshed behaviors often happen outside of our conscious awareness.
APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Enmeshment.
Green, R. J., & Werner, P. D. (1996). Intrusiveness and closeness-caregiving: Rethinking the concept of family enmeshment. Family Process, 35(2), 115–136.
Manzi, C., Vignoles, V. L., Regalia, C., & Scabini, E. (2006). Cohesion and Enmeshment Revisited: Differentiation, Identity, and Well-Being in Two European Cultures. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68(3), 673–689.
Petrican, R., Burris, C. T., Bielak, T., Schimmack, U., & Moscovitch, M. (2011). For my eyes only: Gaze control, enmeshment, and relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(6), 1111–1123.
Smrtnik Vitulić, H., Gosar, D., & Prosen, S. (2022). Attachment and family functioning across three generations. Family Process, e12787.