Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Separating and Self: The ANTI ENMESHMENT FACTOR

When I was a post-grad at the Family Institute of Chicago in the early 80's, Bill Pinsof described enmeshment as the quintessential feature of Jewish family life.

Because the Jews were always running from Cossacks or Crusaders who raped and pillaged Jewish towns and threatened their lives and liberty, Jews needed to know where their children were.

This morphed in modern times from the "over-protective" mother who suffocated her children needed to know where they were, into a mother who needed to know who her children were, what they thought, why they thought things, when would they change their thinking, and worse, WHO WERE THESE STRANGE CHILDREN they were hanging out with? All friends or associates of a child, outsiders, were let in only with extreme caution

Thus enmeshment, as in "way-over-protectiveness" got a very bad rap in the eighties, but not nearly as bad a rap as enmeshment that contributed to psychosis (or so family therapists believed).

We'll call this next theory the one that spawned the Early Eighties Psychosis, the double bind. Parents of sick kids were thought to give mixed messages. One parent told the child to do one thing, the other said the opposite. The child was effectively paralyzed, acted weird or catatonic, schizophrenic.

For awhile, in the history of family therapy, Childhood or Adolescent Schizophrenia was actually thought to be triggered by such double binds. This was perhaps the worst chapter in the history of legitimate family therapy.

Schizophrenia, we now know, is caused by either genetics or birth trauma. We're not 100% sure. We are sure that it is NOT caused by poor parenting or bad marriages. Too much negative emotion in familes exacerbates withdrawal and the symptoms of all of the psychoses, but it doesn't cause them.

The Italian family therapists thought that it did and budding family therapists were trained to treat the marriage, no matter what the symptom of the child. This piece of family treatment has lasted into the current century.

But some of us actually think of the child as having his or her own set of problems that may include family issues (probably do). We want to help the marriage, the family, the entire universe as a matter of fact, but we'll settle for helping the kid and working on the family context, tweaking it as best we can.

Empowering relationships is a big one for me, enabling people to get what they need from their families.

In traditional family therapy, however, it was the relationship between the child's parents that was considered the essential problem and characteristic of an enmeshed family system.

Parents may keep up appearances to others, but their love life, their relationship is pseudo-intimate and/or conflictual. The child is a source of solace and comfort to one or both of parents at the expense of having the freedom to develop other relationships outside the family.


Just to keep the family therapy lecture alive a wee bit longer, sorry, I'm on a role, the FEMINISTS HATED THAT the MOTHER in the Early Eighties Psychosis was the real bad guy, tightly holding on to the child since she didn't work. The FATHER was the hapless jerk who hadn't been socialized to have relationships with kids.

The MOTHER'S tools of the trade included guilt, lies, over-protection, and refusal to allow the child to venture off into the world (or even school, sometimes) to learn about life, to develop into a confident, independent individual.

FATHER, not all that upset that MOTHER has a pal, doesn't object very much.

Feminists had a right to be angry, see?

If a child did manage to "leave home," meaning went off to a university out of town, a crisis in the family of origin ensued, pulling him back, sabotaging the launch. Jay Haley wrote a marvelous book little book called Leaving Home, describing just that.

These theories, even the double bind theory, held up fairly well in their context. Haley would have said that the ANTI ENMESHMENT variable was to leave guilt out of parenting, establish intimacy within the marriage, let children be children, to let them go.

Sal Minuchin, another father of family therapy, agreed with Haley, said that the job of a family was to establish intimacy within the marriage, intimacy within a sibship. Sal drew the family tree I drew for you in my step-parenting posts that circles parents as the primary dyad in families.

When there are CHILDREN, parents have to establish a pecking order of intimacies. The parents are intimate with one another, the children are intimate with one another.
My father used to say that was why if one of us did something wrong, all of us got punished. He thought it was great that us kids bonded by being angry at him. (The picture says it all about my attitude towards perfectionism)

Dad had the right idea, perhaps, but the execution left something to be desired. (No, we weren't abused). Being angry at your parents isn't the only way to bond. That plan ensures pseudo-intimacy, intimacy at the expense of someone else.

If an enmeshed child gets married, his mother often has the key to his new home, and may think nothing of dropping by at the most inconvenient times.

Family therapists had (have) their work cut out for them in cases like these, but of course there are so many degrees of enmeshment, so many levels of guilt, that there is a slippery slope to generalizing about what is pathological.

Oh, and Jews have NO corner on the market.

We can talk about this another time. It's really about separating from children, allowing them to separate from you, pushing them to live their own lives, to build SELF

To me? The ANTI ENMESHMENT variable has always been, when they were young, the don't look back; You Can Do It style of parenting. Encourage confidence and experience, exploration.

Push them out, make them learn, insist that they don't look back, except to say, THANKS, MOM and DAD, you really got it right. I CAN do it.

Oh, and if anyone's listening? That was for when you were young. You guys can still live right next door. It's okay. I won't want the key.

Copyright 2006, TherapyDoc


Holly said...

Taking a slight twist on this it goes hand in hand with a phrase I commonly wear out in the adoption world: "Your children will be as comfortable or uncomfortable with their adoption as you their parents are." You can fool yourself into thinking you've carefully controlled your emotions, issues, etc. But our kids are mirror reflections of us in so many ways. Well said Linda - - again.

BTW I've enjoyed reading your tidbits of personal insights of late. ;o) Keep it up.

Holly's Corner

Therapy Doc said...

Thanks Holly, you're so right!

theohzone said...

fantastic as always, TD. although that pseudo intimacy thing worries me - sounds like me and my brother!

mimi said...

I think enmeshment is not only a Jewish phenomenon. My friend Kanella is Greek and her parents are the most culturally similar people I've ever met. Also, think Asian/Japanese parents who are busy directing the lives of their kids. It has to do with parents who want so much for their kids - achievement, happiness, filial loyalty, etc.

Therapy Doc said...

Absolutely. There's no generalizing, however, to an individual child.

Some children need to differentiate from the family, need to determine their own norms and values. When they are not appreciated for their differences, rather are shamed, cut-off, or disparaged within the family/community, then they may be in emotional jeopardy.

Their parents, also, the people who have had difficulty accepting a "different" child, lose out.

They may lose their relationship with their child altogether and have no stake in future progeny.

Forget filial piety/loyalty.

It's not gonna' happen.

This is why family therapists tend to value tolerance and acceptance of individual differences.

People get sick when they can't be themselves.

Most children, by the way, who are being compelled to follow a certain trajectory, are still working on identity formation.

What I'm saying here is that our children (as do we) have our whole lives to determine who we will be tomorrow.

Why hurry our children? Where's the fire?

Better Things-- Seeing Ghosts