Jane: Some thoughts on how to break the ties of enmeshment (part 4)

by on October 9, 2014

in Bernice responds

I am so happy to have found your site. Being able to read the stories of other onlies further helps me to understand my feelings and not feel alone in my struggles.

I am an only child to a divorced mom/dad.My mom had poor relationships with her mom/dad/siblings and never dated or remarried. To say that I was and am the focus of her life is an understatement to say the least. I am now 37 years old and this constant battle of trying to exert my independence and live my own life is becoming more and more overwhelming. I have 4 children of my own and need her support but the more support I am given the more enmeshment I feel. My emotions are often confusing for me as I feel grateful and intimate with her but then angry and frustrated too. What advice would you provide for me to help me in moving forward with my family and with my own mental health? Jane

Dear Jane

Many thanks for your email and your permission. I will try and offer you and others some thoughts, rather than advice, based on the information you have shared. It is better that you decide what is best for you as you are the expert on your circumstances. Some of what I say may not resonate with you, but could resonate with others so it is useful nonetheless for me to state a number of ideas and you please ignore what does not fit!

Enmeshment can be really difficult to see in ourselves because we are too deeply embedded in the relationship to be able to take a step back. However it may be obvious to others and so it often a good idea to ask them questions such as:

Do you think I am too close to my mother/father?

Do you think I am too dependent on her/him?

Do I take too much notice of her/his opinion?

Am I able to say No to her/him when she/he makes demands?

Here is an example demonstrating how hard enmeshment is to see personally: Monica

Whilst working with Monica I had the strange sense of experiencing her as two people. When I explored this with her I realised there was the Monica who was independent, self-sufficient, in connection with her mother but able to draw boundaries. However there was another Monica who was over-identified with her mother and felt her pain and loneliness and wanted to ease that for her, as if it was her own pain. This was Monica’s enmeshed part. In this place she felt unable to hold onto a sense of herself. She could only experience herself through the eyes of her mother and those eyes reflected back the sort of Monica her mother wanted which was not the Monica who was independent from her mother.  The enmeshed Monica often felt angry and hateful towards her mother, but at others so dependent on her that she felt she couldn’t make decisions without her mother’s blessing. At these times she felt completely responsible for her mother’s happiness and well-being.

By recognising the enmeshed Monica and allowing her to experience her anger and frustration she could then move forward and begin to help herself nurture her independent part and negotiate new ways of being with her mother. This became possible because she no longer felt sadness or guilt towards her mother because she had a much stronger sense of self.

The difficulty in enmeshed relationships is that both parties fear the separation from the other; a moving away from merging with the other. Monica could be quite separate on a conscious level but deep inside her she was fearful of the break from her mother that felt like an annihilation of her-self. This feeling is extremely powerful and is what keeps us enmeshed. The paradox in enmeshment is that there is comfort in the merging: ‘You cant live with them but you cant live without them.’ The merging gives you a sense of identity but also takes it away, because you do not have a strong sense of a separate personal identity.

Whilst it is good to have reasonably close family ties and receive parental support, negotiating what you want and what you don’t want, can be difficult! For example, I have seen many circumstances where the parent feels they are doing all the giving ie care of children etc. and getting nothing in return but at the same time not recognising their own needs for inclusion. Similarly the adult ‘child’ whilst appreciating the help, does not want the interference which can be about how to do certain things, or views and opinions on child rearing – never a good one to share without invitation! Also there is often a tendency to expect a parent to ‘drop everything’ and be available. So once the issue of preconceived expectation comes into play, the two parties involved are no longer responding from a place of choice but a place of duty, implicit expectations and trade off. For a win-win situation both parties need to feel they are both appreciated and are getting something for themselves out of the interaction.

Jane states about her mother: “My emotions are often confusing for me as I feel grateful and intimate with her but then angry and frustrated too.”

This is exactly how enmeshment feels and I think it indicates the need to think carefully about how much of the relationship is useful to you, and how much is useful to you both. I know this is a tricky one but until you are clear what you want I don’t think you can have a discussion with your mother about needs and expectations which I would suggest is necessary, in order to begin the separation process.

Sadly there are no easy answers and I can only offer general ideas, some of which I hope are useful to you and others.







  • Andrew

    Enmeshment is sneaky! As an only, I learned to do everything with my parents, holidays, etc. You get linked without realizing. When I met someone and fell in love, someone foreign now intrudes on the family ‘triad’ and it doesn’t take long for your parents to find fault in them. I realized that if I wanted a wife and children, this had to be broken. You have to pick a side. I picked my wife’s side (for my own and new family’s happiness). My thinking was that if I picked my wife, I would be happy in my new life, and hopefully through distance, my parents would come to accept. It’s very hard, I have hope. Hope that they will see and we can have a ‘new’ healthy relationship.

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