Pull Versus Draw: Enmeshment
This always inspires my rousing rendition of that old Blood Sweat and Tears song.
Mama may haveYou may prefer Billie Holiday. She and Arthur Herzog Jr. wrote the song, I think.
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).
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.
From American Idol, LaKisha Jones