Sunday, October 05, 2008

Pull Versus Draw: Enmeshment

Every once in awhile, when we miss our grandchildren, FD will say, "I'm sorry I didn't make enough money to keep the kids in the city. I should have been able to buy them houses nearby, so they wouldn't want to leave."

This always inspires my rousing rendition of that old Blood Sweat and Tears song.
Mama may have
And Papa may have
But. . .
G-d bless the child who's got his own
Who's got his own (big trumpet solo here, great stuff).
You may prefer Billie Holiday. She and Arthur Herzog Jr. wrote the song, I think.

Enmeshment doesn't have to be about money and usually it isn't. It's not about going into the family business. Enmeshment is about psychological pull, meeting the neurotic needs of parents who really should be fending for themselves.

We used to call these ties invisible loyalties. Immature, irrational needs of parents become obligations, nooses around the necks of their kids. Thirty years ago I read the first edition of Invisible Loyalties, a book by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, still recommended reading.

Enmeshment can be an emotional topic. In alcoholic families, it's especially insidious. You can read a new post that I wrote about this as a guest blogger at The Second Road, called The Plant and Enmeshment, if you want a little more on that.

It so happens that I had to walk out on my first post-graduate family therapy lecture many years ago. The sharp, accomplished, erudite lecturer used the Jewish people as the paradigm of enmeshment. He gave a history lesson dating the concept to the necessary protectiveness of European Jews who lived in fear of bayonets and raping marauders, well before Hitler thought of it.

Jewish kids often complain about something they call "over-protection." But it's not fair to generalize.

The psychologist told a packed lecture hall that his parents' generation, the survivor generation, as a consequence of this transgenerational process, couldn't let their children live their own lives, wouldn't let them individuate.

He went on to say that that gooey closeness and psychological interference, the irrational need for information, underlies and maintains neuroses, addictions, and mental illness.

No question, he was right to some degree. This parent-child dynamic, not giving a kid enough psychological space, can affect mental health.

But to profile like that?

This went on, this rant, basting incessant interference from parents even after children have left the nest, railing the irrational need to know the whereabouts of children at any given moment, and what they had for breakfast, if they can get that information out of them, too.

The doc is probably giving the same lecture today, adding that Jewish children now come with an optional GPS chip.

Just as a point of reference, fast forward thirty years, my kids communicate with us and with one another almost every day, from all corners of the country, by group email. These adult children all have jobs, they have friends; they've left home. But for some crazy, psychopathological reason, they still like to stay in touch. The in-law kids are in on this insanity, too, and they don't feel like in-law kids, I don't think, not really. For some bizarre reason, they feel like family. We hope so.

The kids usually start the emails, but sometimes I will, and it will go something like this:
I'm thinking for dinner I'd like to toast French bread and slather it with sauteed mushrooms, onions, green pepper (light on the peppers) tomatoes, and garlic, sprinkle it with some fine mozzarella, make a side of tapanade. What are you guys having?
They all chime in. We can do this until there's breaking news, like a link to a Simpsons video clip.

We must be enmeshed, I guess, as Jews who like to know what's going on with one another.

I've done a little work on comparative cultures and understand that the eldest daughter in some Mexican families is expected not to marry, but is to take care of her parents until they die. And when sons in some Indian families take a wife, she is expected to move into the groom's family home to take care his mother and father.

And now as our economy crumbles and people are losing jobs and houses, some will see living with elderly parents as not just a cost-saving enticement and a functional way to take care of them, but a necessity.

In my multi-ethnic community, having grandparents living in or very near a young couple's home, ready and willing to babysit, is considered a real score.

So what's the psychopathology? Wherein lies the problem?

Being truly enmeshed may have nothing to do with how many times a week or a day a person calls his or her parents, or how many times parents call a child. It depends upon the effect of the behavior, obviously, and the context. If important relationships are neglected due to attention paid elsewhere, any time with anyone, any project, any addiction, any job, can contribute to family dysfunctional, essentially, neglect.

Truly enmeshed has to do with the invisible pull to take care, solely, of the emotional and physical needs of the family of origin. That's supposed to be the job of the parents, not the kids.

Young enmeshed kids stay home from school because their mothers are lonely or afraid, abused, or ill. They have "separation anxiety." They can't bare to feel their mommie's pain.

Older children, when enmeshed, aren't properly launched into society, can't move out of their parents' homes without feeling guilty, or worse, they don't want to move out. (That's where the beer is, for some).

Enmeshed kids usually lack the confidence to leave home, and don't want to leave parents. Sometimes they are the glue in the marital relationship and they know that their role in the family is to keep the couple together.

Enmeshed kids often think that they alone must tend to or solve the problems of their parents, and they know this at a very young age, too.

As parents age, this can be a stark reality, as no one else will do it. If we don't check in on elderly parents, make sure they're okay, and a parent falls ill, we're going to feel something much worse than enmeshed if we hear something terrible happened.

Enmeshed people forget to marry.

Enmeshed means tending to middle-aged, healthy parents. It means sacrificing, not going away to college, and if they do take the leap and try, are yanked back psychologically. Sometimes it means failing in school. We call this failure to launch.

It's that pull, that guilt that's not healthy, feeling one must take care of parents who should be self-sufficient, but who aren't. The guilt. Not being able to say No wears down a person's sense of self. That's enmeshment.

A healthy child can say No to a parent. With conviction.

An enmeshed child sighs and says, "Fine, I'll be over after dinner. I'll mow your lawn." He says this even when helping his spouse or parenting his children would be a better alternative. He leaves the family, mows a lawn that should have, could have lived to grow another day.

Enmeshed children sometimes say that they're doing this family of origin work out of respect, which is fine and good, if it is true and doesn't take away from a spouse's needs, or the needs of the children.

Truly enmeshed adult children say Yes out of guilt, not respect, but passivity. They take the path of least resistance.

Parents still survive when we say No to irrational requests. It's amazing how that works. And they grow to respect us as adults, people with separate lives. Best to do this, to say no gently, consistently, when it is surely more functional to emphasize that boundary.

Then we take it to the next level, encourage our own children to do individuate, become their own persons, do what is good for their families. These decisions can really hurt, can take a lot out of us. The process of letting them go is the process of loss.

But it's good loss, and temporary. When we do this they are exceedingly grateful. They even look at our advice about things, see what we say more realistically, less emotionally, can acknowledge us when we're right, not reflexively dismiss our ideas, bat off our ideas and opinions, just because they're our ideas and opinions.

Done with panache, we become a draw.

If it's a draw, it's not enmeshment. Being a draw is another thing altogether. When adult children are drawn to family, the family is like cotton candy to a child.

When we're drawn to the sound of our parents' voices, we are not enmeshed, but feel something most of us would call a wonderful variant of love.

And an occasional call to YouTube.

therapydoc

From American Idol, LaKisha Jones

39 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting entry today. What happens, tho, when an only child creates the dependency and suddenly, in her mid-forties, falls off the face of the earth, with her two teen-age daughters, communication-wise? We are mad, hurt, confused, and suddenly without a family.
R&R

Not Fainthearted said...

Thanks you! This definition helps put some behavior I see into perspective and gives me language (at least for myself) for why I'm resisting some of the stuff I resist.

therapydoc said...

Any time, not faint.

Anon, THIS is the time, you knew I'd say this, to get therapy. Get a therapist who has some real family therapy training, too, someone who has the skills to engage your daughter, too. Sounds like you're going to need it.

antiSWer said...

This has been my favorite topic so far in my Family Therapy class. Thanks for the most interesting post about it.

Still Dreaming said...

wow. I can't imagine a family like that. It's incredible. I talk to my family probably, oh, once a month... maybe. But then, I was the move out three weeks after I turned 18 type. I've lived on my own and been quite content with it since.

Most of the people I see have the opposite problem (and maybe I do too). Rather then being enmeshed, they're not attached at all.

therapydoc said...

Still Dreaming, don't worry. We're going to get to that kind of family, too. Remember, I tend to deal in extremes :)

Isle Dance said...

I like hearing these extremes. :o)

Jack said...

I think that I have decided that there is no such thing as normal.

Lou said...

I was glad to read this today. The last couple years my mother has begun making all sorts of irrational demands. I was in AlAnon for my son, and I'm finding those tools really helped me with her latest crisis.

I also liked your 1st post on Second Road.

therapydoc said...

Normal is my least favorite word, so I'm with you.

Lou, I'll be putting up another post there soon. Thanks.

rosysunset said...

This is such a timely post after spending this weekend hammering out Thanksgiving and Christmas plans with our extended family. Ughhh. There is nothing like holiday plans to reveal invisible expectations and guilt and how families operate differently. This year, as the sort-of-enmeshed-daughter, I didn't take the bait my mom laid out. I didn't play her game!!! Boy it was tough but you know, for the first time in ages I'm actually looking forward to the holidays. This post put some words to my experience this weekend. :)

therapydoc said...

So I should have titled it, Just in Time for the Holidays, eh, ROSY?

therapydoc said...

So I should have titled it, Just in Time for the Holidays, eh, ROSY?

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this is an odd situation, but in my family of origin my mother and younger brother were enmeshed, while she and I were unattached.

I think a large part of the issue may have been related to the death of another brother when he was 18 months, and I was 3. I'm told Mom was depressed and withdrawn for a long time (understandably). Later, when she gave birth to enmeshed brother, we almost lost him to a condition related to Rh incompatibility.

We're trying to help our kids grow into independent adults who feel confident and secure in the world. Still, I cried and pouted and generally acted the nut for a few months after OD started college (especially since she seemed to be settling in so well). It's so hard to let go, but they deserve their own lives.

Thanks for this article. It really helps to keep things in perspective.

Syd said...

It almost sounds like co-dependence. What's the difference? I have felt enmeshed in something most of my life but am at last becoming less entangled in the mesh.

therapydoc said...

The second son becomes what we family therapists refer to as the sacrifice. It doesn't have to be this way, you know. No where is it written that relatonships can't change.

Anonymous said...

I hope you'll write more on the second son/sacrifice issue in the future.

I do know that relationships can change, but that's difficult when one person doesn't want to change, and the other person has given up.

Enmeshed brother has managed to put some distance between Mom and himself by marrying and moving out of the family home. Still, she expects a lot of him, and does a lot in return.

I live 500 miles away by choice, so I don't have to witness this and can avoid thinking about it most of the time.

--Queen of Avoidance :)

Leora said...

Where I got stuck on your post was not the theme of enmeshment (years ago, a friend who wasn't Jewish said her Jewish friends had a harder time separating from their families) but on the psychologist lecturer and his tone. He sounded like a self-hating Jew (I'm guessing that he's Jewish, as many brilliant academics are). I would have a hard time listening to him, too. He may have been "right", but he sounded nasty. Couldn't he have said the whole thing in a different tone?

therapydoc said...

Syd, the difference is that enmeshment is always parent-child. And the child is never expected to take care of a parent, emotionally.

The gooeyness is for sure the same. And the idea of invisible loyalty, although with co-dependence, there's nothing very invisible about it.

Actually, enmeshment can be pretty glaring, too.

All Rileyed Up said...

Great thoughts, though I expected the ending Youtube clip to be Simpsons...

I witness a lot of enmeshment around me, though I'd never heard that term until now.

Deb said...

Enmeshed or detached, the ebb and flow of it all is grist for the mill.

AuthorMomWithDogs said...

Another potentially emotionally charged topic wonderfully, clearly explained. Very helpful.

frumhouse said...

Great post and explanation of enmeshment! This post is so clarifying and enlightening.

Shosh said...

i loved this post! hopefully ill remember it in about 20 years....

Anonymous said...

Interesting but very confusing (to me) post. After separating from my parents for close to 20 years (by separating I mean living my own life while they lived theirs) I suddenly found myself very caught up in their lives due to their age and an onslaught of health/mental problems that come with having parents of advanced age -- their both in their 80's. There's no one else to help them so what do I do? Leave them to fend for themselves? I suppose some would applaud me for what I am doing, other would say I am acting co-dependent. I figure I have to do what makes me feel best about the situation and walking away is out of the question because, as rocky as our relationship has been at time, I love them.

therapydoc said...

I guess if people parented with this in mind, that their kids would ultimately resent helping them out at some point, they might parent a little more thoughtfully.

Kindness has to be good karma. A pain sometimes, and you're sure sometimes that it's not apreciated or even deserved, and yet...whacha gonna do?

Crabby McSlacker said...

Never really thought of enmeshment when listening to that "God Bless the Child" tune, but it fits. Actually, a lot of stuff Billie Holiday sang kinda creeps me out. Ever listen to the lyrics to "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do?" Love her style, but the dysfunctional relationship stuff scares the heck out of me.

Mark said...

This is a wonderful writing on enmeshment. All parents and children would be served well by your thoughts. There are so many dynamics in the parent/child relationship that it is difficult for many to discern what is healthy and unhealthy behavior.

Battle Weary said...

I'm wondering if it's possible to be enmeshed and detached at the same time, with the same parent. Looking back, I see both with my mother.

therapydoc said...

Sure, anything is possible. But wait until I post on detached parenting to decide.

And again, this type of assessing is only good if it pushes people to stick their necks out to change things for the better. So if you're detached at one phase of life, you want to work on more attachment; if you're too attached, you try for spreading out a little, developing your other relationships a little more.

Battle Weary said...

For me it's she's on the east coast and I'm on the west coast...and that is a very good thing!

therapydoc said...

Six hours and she's there!

Battle Weary said...

Ha!! Not in our case! It took her 3 days to get here when my grandmother passed away. She's physically disabled so not able to just run to the airport and jump on a plane very easily. Minimal contact is good in this case...enmeshed and detached and abusive...very bad combo.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your insight into enmeshed relationships with family of origin. It is a fresh and honest explication of what goes on in this truly horrible dynamic between parents and their children ( in my experience anyway). Your post has helped me feel less alienated and guilty and more determined to set the boundaries to make my relationship with my mother healthy.

therapydoc said...

So glad it helped, anon.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I married into a family that is enmeshed to the n'th degree. I have to think, act, be, do and say what they want - there is no room for autonomy here.
There is NO privacy, and boundaries do not exist. They will tell us how many children to have, when to have them (this is the ONE thing in my life I'd had control over and decided not to have a child), and they'd tell us when to buy a house (and it's unrelenting pressure from the entire family if you don't follow their direction).
They took over my wedding to the point that I wanted a wedding cake but they wanted a dessert table; guess what? I paid $1k for a wedding cake that was carted to the back room as soon as we arrived to the reception hall (before guests arrived) and they put out the dessert table that they wanted. I had to answer to emails the following Monday from people asking why I didn't have a wedding cake.
This is one of many examples of how boundaries in enmeshed families simply don't exist, and that is a recipe for disaster in any marriage.
My husband has had to attend counseling to learn that it's ok to say no - a product of a controlling family. We are currently in therapy to save our marriage due to the unrelenting pressures we've faced from his family to live our lives according to what they want, and his irrational fear of standing up to them or "disappointing" them if he doesn't do as they say. Guilt trip is a commonality.
One family member, a parent, will make me get out of the bathroom (I had just gotten out of the shower) to meet a guest of his - I was hounded to come out though I hadn't even had the opportunity to blowdry my hair yet. Ridiculous formalities and stringent rules.

Another family member threatens to never ask us to do XXX again if we don't go out with him when he asks. He then ostracizes us for not dropping what we are doing on a moments notice for a social visit with him.

The grandmother will guilt me into eating food "I made that for you" to the point that it is force feeding when you aren't even hungry. And a "slice" of pie is literally a quarter of the pie. And if you don't eat it all, you get the dagger eyes. I used to say yes to be polite, but those days are long gone.

Eating a meal with them is like walking on eggshells. Heaven forbid you want to wash your hands before dinner, the entire family will be hounding you to hurry up because when they say sit, they mean NOW. RIGHT NOW.


I have lived in my home since 2004. It is now 2012. I have yet to be able to cook a meal on my stove in my own home because they physically shove me out of the way and take over. They say they are "helping" and ignore my repeated attempts to get them to back off. They don’t understand what no means.

They walk into our bedroom without knocking. They follow me around and tell me how to do things, because they want everything done the way they do it (if I rinse a can in my sink, they stand over my shoulder telling me I shouldn't. Why? Because they don't do it, so that means I shouldn't do it.).

My husband tends to take on gestures or personalities of those around him, depending on who he's around at that time. Lack of an identity perhaps due to enmeshment.

If you disagree with this family, the entire family is in an uproar. You can't think for you, you have to think for them and like them.

To say enmeshment is emotionally unhealthy is putting it lightly. I live in a constant state of anxiety around these people who believe it's their right to micromanage every detail of our lives.

We are planning to move out of state as soon as feasibly possible.

I used to find it odd that a lot of the family members are scattered across the U.S. from coast to coast. I get it. I totally get it now. I want to run. I want to run far and fast so I don't have to constantly feel their breath on my neck.

therapydoc said...

Anonymous, I don't give advice on the blog, but this is so emotionally bad for you, for both of you. Sure, move away and establish rules about visits. You might have to go on vacation when they visit your spouse.
Business, obviously.

Can I use what you wrote in another post? Or in a book? The examples are painfully true.

Anonymous said...

Ii grew up in a very tangled family, and when my father started a home building business, we were all expected to become life long employees . I have worked there forty years, by now me ,my two brothers, and my mom are equal partners" for the last 15 years"
When we became partners, I suggested we hire outside bookkeeping. As we were still expected to work 60 plus hours a week , it seemed only logical to me, that no one had any time left to commit to keeping our books. My mother opposed this very much, she ask me how could I trust a stranger with my money.
As anyone could imagine in an environment , that left no room for time with my own kids,unless I took them to work. I found myself in a divorce that,also involved business appraisals ,for our now 5 businesses, owned by the same persons. My mom" my dad past a few years ago", my older brother, myself, and my younger brother,my sister was given half the amount of shares by my mom. The 3 boys had to pay for ours.
When my attorney explained that each company had to be appraised ,I didn't know how to explain how the books were kept. As an equal partner it was always my understanding that any benefits brought in by any of these companies was to be equal, I have been asking to see business expenses from the start. I received computer print offs in which the expenses were categorized..we were also taking a wage home for the work we did, as time went on I suggested that we needed to raise our wages for the cost of living increase, I was immediately rebuffed, with my mom saying that surely after also getting my profit distributions, that I , should be happy with that.
I have never been a spender, I went out of my way to live within my means. My wife at the time was a nurse practitioner , who made good money. While we did alright, I could not help but notice my younger brother seemed to be living larger than I could even think about. This bothered me somewhat because his wife work a part time position under my mom. She never was required to do anything. I objected to my mom that she really made things much worse when she did do anything, but my mom said , that she was afraid that my brothers marriage would fail unless she was given a position, this I could not get over, as my wife and I paid for her education.
While at the bank to get divorce documents ,I ask to see the last months cancelled checks, and a copy of the statements, I was amazed at the entitlements each person doing book keeping we're taking, I immediately ask to review the books for each company, I was told as soon as they had time to get them, that I could review them, that was years ago,after a million excuses as to why I could not look them over, I called a formal business meeting, at which time I told them, I will let the past entitlement s go, but only if we hire certified book keepers from now on, really to my amazement , I was told that I seemed to be the only one who had a problem with this setup, and that they refused to implement any changes, I told them that they were going to have to buy out my shares ,as I refused to be held liable for what I consider embezzelment .
I have been promised a buyout proposal for over a year, they just keep coming up with different excuses, when I retained an attorney, they started promising a buyout soon, again with the excuses week after week. I finally became frustrated enough to give my attorney the go ahead and file for dissolution of all the businesses, as they have not come close to keeping proper books, or been transparent to all the shareholders,

therapydoc said...

What a story. So frustrating, and years of effort. Thank you for sharing.