Is your family enmeshed and if so, how can you untangle it?
People in enmeshed relationships are defined by the relationship rather than by their individuality. In families that are tightly bound, members often have limited autonomy. Their roles and expectations are set within a family dynamic that dictates what the family does and how they behave and interact. Clear boundaries between family members are few and far between. The boundaries are tangled together yet permeable, like a blockage in a sewer pipe that restricts the flow. They are collapsed and blurred.
Maryanne and Pete are clients of mine. Pete rolls his eyes when Maryanne shares that she talks to her mother at least five times a day by phone or text message. He thinks it’s excessive. Yet, both parents text their children throughout the day. Back and forth messages about school work, activities, issues with friends or teachers, what’s for dinner, whose turn it is to unload the dishwasher, reminders to bring an umbrella or some other inane tidbit consume their days. The family’s boundaries are enmeshed. The expectation that Maryanne and her mother have with each other is the same as what Maryanne and Pete have with their kids. They are all entangled in a consuming web of routine and expectation.
I wanted to see where else boundaries might be restricting the couple’s relationship, so I asked: “How are things between the two of you?” Pete conveyed that they are too busy with the kids, or Maryanne talking to her mom, to have much time together. On the weekends or in the evenings one or the other will be tired, have other responsibilities to handle or other things to do that prevent them from having a night out or spending quality time together. They don’t go anywhere or do anything because other things take priority.
What’s going in here is not uncommon. It’s a boundaries issue. Maryanne and Pete have rigid boundaries around the family dynamic that have pushed them away from each other and keep them apart. That’s what brought them to my office.
The couple is experiencing resentment. They feel sad about not being able to communicate with each other and about not spending time together. It’s not that Pete and Maryanne don’t want to spend time together, it’s that the enmeshed boundaries with Maryanne’s mother and the kids, and the couple’s rigid boundaries around what they do and do not do, has them caught in a trap. They need to find a way to move from the enmeshed and rigid boundaries to more relationship empowering clear boundaries.
How do you move from enmeshed and rigid boundaries to clear boundaries?
Clear boundaries create space for people to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and becoming themselves. Establishing them breaks apart the mesh that keeps individuals from blossoming and sets the stage for getting out of the negative cycle of the trap of enmeshment.
In Pete and Maryanne’s situation, where she is in communication with her mother five or six times a day, their solution was to cut that down to once a day. First, Maryanne told her siblings about her objective to set more healthy boundaries with their mother. Maryanne enrolled her siblings into sharing the responsibility of touching base with their mom during the day. She believes that they all feel better about being involved in supporting their mother.
With the kids, they are allowed to contact their parents only in emergencies during the day. The older two children are responsible for helping the younger one if she needs something during the day. Evenings are designated as family time. There is no contact on social media and cell phones at the dinner table are taboo. The rule of how communication happens is very specific. It’s clear and understood by all rather than flimsy and undefined as in the previous enmeshment.
Regarding Maryanne and Pete’s interaction as a couple, instead of having rigid boundaries between them, they are trying to spend more time together. They’ve created a daily 15 to 20-minute walk-and-talk, a distraction-free stroll around the block where they talk freely about family and personal matters. They are also working on replacing the automatic response to spending time together from “no” to “let’s look at how we can do that.” As a result of shifting these boundary constraints, they are moving toward clearer boundaries in their relationship. I am happy to report that for Maryanne and Pete, things are heading in the right direction.
Are you struggling in your relationship? Might there be enmeshed and or rigid boundaries that are keeping you and your family members from being free to be or become the unique individuals you are? If so, what might you do to define clearer boundaries?
Please let me know what you are doing and how it’s working for you. You can reach me through the comments section. I will personally respond to your comments, concerns and questions.