How do you know when close is too close? Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb are the amusingly irritating twins in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”, and Disney’s “Alice and Wonderland.” They are not the brightest of bulbs, but they do offer a funny and enlightened example of Enmeshment. These silly brothers seem to be inseparable, finishing one another’s sentences, laughing at one another’s jokes, and even violently attacking one another for small infractions. Their brotherly union seems impenetrable, and their concern for anything outside of their own union is non-existent. Dee does not exist apart from Dum, and Dum would lose his identity all together if not for Dee. Fused, welded, enmeshed and co-dependent. Poor lads.
I have been studying enmeshment as a challenge to the definition of intimacy for years now. What many people in my office recounted as closeness or intimacy was actually enmeshment. What’s more, some clients blatantly rejected true intimacy for its corrupted cousin. Why would someone “feel more comfortable” in enmeshed relationship than in intimate relationships? I was about to find out. It’s no wonder that during this same time of study, I was experiencing a personal crisis in my friendships. No truer study, than when encountered personally. In my own life, there was a time I considered a few friends close and intimate, the “best BFFs someone could find,” I thought. But later concluded that much, but not all, of our relationship was enmeshed. Upon this learning, I set out to discover the differences between true intimacy and its counterfeit, enmeshment.
I found that there are relationships, and systems of relationships that are so enmeshed, and look and act so much like Tweedle Dees and Dums that even Walt Disney couldn’t distinguish the real from the fiction. But you will get a clearer picture as we proceed. You will learn to identify enmeshed relationships and their pitfalls, how to detangle yourself from dysfunction, and how to recognize the key traits to true intimacy.
Emotional Tweedle Dees and Dums
Enmeshed relationships are lopsided. Their dynamic must have a both a powerful and powerless person to exist. This power imbalance may not look noticeable on the outset, but upon further investigation, the imbalance is always present. The enmeshment dynamic can occur between mother and son, where the mother uses the son to fulfill certain emotional needs. It can occur between two friends, where one is perceived as needy, and the other is put together.
The individual with the most power in the relationship will use manipulation and psychological control to keep the powerless individual completely dependent and fused.
Enmeshed Family Systems: In enmeshed family systems, conformity is essential for the fusion to solidify. Autonomy is not tolerated. The parents sacrifice their children’s budding independence on the altar of family unity. The children are discouraged to think for themselves if contrary to parental ideals. These children grow up without a solid sense of identity apart from who their parents want them or need them to be.
The family system experiences the child’s budding autonomy as an act of betrayal against the system. A child’s independence is seen as a threat to family unity. A child’s individual desires, hopes, needs apart from what can be achieved within the enmeshed relationship is shamed as bad, disloyal, immoral, foolish, or selfish. The child cannot bear to be such a source of shame, disappointment or pain to the parent, so the child must submit to the enmeshed dynamic for emotional survival.
Enmeshed Church Systems: Some churches can be very unhealthy. Enmeshed systems usually have a dynamic, yet narcissistic leader whose primary concern is to appear above reproach, holy, adored and in control. This leader controls the power and uses manipulation and psychological control to keep powerless members completely dependent and fused. Psychological manipulation include member exclusion, threats of excommunication, guilt, slander and condemnation disguised as accountability, and There is no room for challenging questions, differences of opinion, or disagreements or doubt. If the leader is questioned or shown in a negative light, the member is chastised into “repentance” or shunned, sometimes publicly. Members end up acting the same, dressing the same, and talking the same. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.
Although enmeshed family and church systems can take many different forms, here’s a couple of examples to help you identify them.
Rebecca was raised in a home with a long-haul truck driving father who was rarely home, and a mother who worked a lot as well. She was the youngest of three sisters and felt as if she was raised more by her oldest sister than she was by her own parents. Her oldest sister, Anna and her mother seemed to be confidants. Her mother would turn to Anna when she was lonely or needed a friend to talk to. Her mother also relied on Anna for house work and cooking when she was at work. Anna became a surrogate spouse to the mother- a responsible agent when the adults were gone. Rebecca always felt like a burden to her mother and to Anna. When Rebecca asked to have a friend over, Anna would scold her saying, “Don’t you know I have to take care of too many brats as it is?” When Rebecca wanted to join the softball team, Anna said “no” because she needed help with house work.
One day, Rebecca came home in tears because a group of girls said something hateful to her. On this rare occasion, both Anna and her mother were home. They circled around her asking her what was wrong. Trusting that they truly cared and wanted to help, Rebecca opened up and shared her troubles. Both Anna and her mother became agitated, quizzing her about her friends, about what she said or did to provoke the group of girls. All of a sudden, Rebecca felt like the hateful things the school girls said must have been her fault. Her mother and Anna added, “You must have done something to warrant it- and just look at yourself. Your hair is a mess, and your clothes don’t match. Try not to make such a spectacle of yourself, and leave those girls alone!” Rebecca felt ashamed of herself. Her blossoming sense of self was crushed. Even her mother and sister could see that there was something blatantly wrong with her. Rebecca was angry but she turned that anger against herself. She could not trust herself. Her ego was fractured.
Fast forward: Rebecca grew into a beautiful young woman with a list of academic and athletic accomplishments, but with an unfortunate shrunken sense of self based on what her mother and sister told her. She struggled for years in a cycle of breaking contact with her family, feeling guilty and estranged, and then re-engaging them in their unhealthy dynamic again. Her sense of identity seemed to come and go in phases. At times she would feel strong and confident, and then other times, she’d feel utterly worthless and vile.
Such is the byproduct of enmeshment. In her early thirties, she sought intensive counseling that affirmed the painful and confusing relationship dynamic in her childhood family system. It took the diligent pursuit of truth and love to finally solidify her sense of self. Through intentional boundary setting, pursuit of need fulfillment and self-respect, Rebecca has learned real autonomy, and the ability to relate to important people in her life without being swallowed up. She broke the enmeshment curse.
Anna felt the pressure of caring for a family long before she was ready, but was rewarded by mom with special adult secrets and conversations behind closed doors. Anna was made to feel special. Rebecca was made to feel less-than. Mother and Anna were enmeshed. Anna took on her mother’s identity, her parental role, and her power in place of her own. In a dog eat dog world, one must choose to be the eater or the eaten. Anna chose the former. Anna and her mother set up an enmeshed family system where individual needs and wants were controlled, discouraged and even shamed, to the point where Rebecca completely lost herself in the vacuum of the system. Truly both Anna and Rebecca were victims of a psychologically controlling family system.
Eric was the oldest in a family of 5 children. His father owned a book store in a small town, and did some handy work on the side. Eric’s mother homeschooled the 5 children and taught violin lessons in the afternoon to neighborhood kids. He was academically gifted and quickly inherited the job of tutoring the younger kids with their home school studies. They went to a small church that valued morals, modesty and maintaining separation from the evils of society. When Eric was 15, he began to protest helping his younger brothers and sisters with their studies. He wanted to join an academic club for gifted and talented at the local high school, and to maybe even compete with their debate team.
Eric’s parents asked him how he found out about this club. Eric replied that Joseph from church had invited him to join. Eric’s parents glanced at each other knowingly. “Eric, joining a club at the high school is not going to happen. If we wanted you to go to a public school with the rest of the world, we would have never home schooled you in the first place. You know we are different than them. You are different than Joseph too. It’s probably time you started limiting your time with him.” Eric thought about Joseph. It was true that Joseph was different than them- different than anyone at the church, actually. His mom was divorced and he hadn’t seen his dad for a few years. Joseph was about the only kid he knew that actually went to the public high school. Everybody else from church was home-schooled just like Eric.
His parents continued, “You know, Eric. We have worked tirelessly protecting you from worldly influences- the kind of influences that corrupt. We’ve given all we could to you, and now is not the time to throw that away. Your place is with the family. Your place is teaching your brothers and sisters. When Eric protested that he could help his brothers and sisters and join the club too, Eric’s father said that if Eric had that much extra time, he could help at the book store. Eric’s dad had been meaning to start religious mentoring with Eric anyway, and this would be a good time to start doing some one-one-one spiritual discipleship. “After all,” Eric’s dad added, “isn’t that what would please the Lord?”
After this conversation, Eric felt numb. He learned long ago that his anger would get him nowhere, and it was sinful to feel angry toward his parents anyway. They had done so much for him and his siblings. He should feel grateful that they loved him enough to home school him. He should want to help his siblings. If he weren’t so selfish. If he wasn’t so worldly. If he were just a better person, he wouldn’t have even asked to be in that stupid club. Shame settled in like a suffocating fog, and Eric lost another little piece of himself.
In the months that followed, while Eric helped out at the store and submitted to discipleship times with his dad, he noticed an increasing desire to get out. He dreamed of being out on his own, free from family obligations. As soon as the day dream faded, he felt tremendous guilt for wanting to get away from the family he loved. He would confess these things to his dad during their discipleship times. Confession of sins was a central theme to this type of spiritual guidance. Feeling conflicted between family loyalty and the true desires of escape, he made a secret promise to himself to move out of the house as soon as he could earn a living. Maybe working at the store and saving his money may work out for the best, after all.
Eric was a member of an enmeshed family and church system governed by psychological and religious control. The authority in these systems convince the members to be vulnerable by sharing weaknesses, wounds, sins, and struggles in order to gain influence and control. The spoken words sound loving and caring, but there is something off about them. This family is a prime example of spiritual or religious enmeshment, in the name of religion. Their idea of religious community and relationship includes control at its core. It exists when the powerful use the powerless to gain value. This value can be a few different things: 1)looking good in other’s eyes, 2)feeling good because they follow difficult rules, 3)gaining more followers, or 4)being so exclusive they deem themselves special and separate from the rest. The value or currency changes from family to family, system to system, but the manipulative practices remain the same. They exist to keep their members close, loyal and dependent on them for idolization. Conformity and closeness are key.
If it sounds cultic, it is. Falling somewhere on the cultish spectrum, the psychologically controlling nature of an enmeshed family system is at the core of any cult, just varying in degree of threat. To be sure, the threat of being disowned, banished or cut out of the family is real. A family like Erik’s will not tolerate too much emotional separation before some kind of ex-communication occurs. For a person with a damaged sense of self, a heightened sense of shame and loyalty, ex-communication from the family can feel a lot like death. People from enmeshed families have learned to adapt to the enmeshment for survival, becoming highly dependent on the system to feel ok about themselves.
Breaking away from an enmeshed family system is not easy, but often necessary for future healthy adult functioning. People raised in these controlling environments learned coping mechanisms to survive the psychological maltreatment. They learned to bury their needs to be seen, valued and loved as separate and unique people. These coping mechanisms, although useful for survival as children, prove maladaptive in adulthood. Adulthood is a time where individuals heal from the wounds of the past, and change the course of their futures. Breaking away from the unhealthy family dynamic may be seen as betrayal by the enmeshed family, but the truth is, breaking away from dysfunction has nothing to do with betrayal, and everything to do with love. Breaking away from the family’s expectations of you will help you see clearly to stop the cycle of confusion, guilt, shame and people pleasing. If you don’t, a true betrayal will occur- the betrayal of yourself.
Victims of Enmeshment will likely feel:
- Confusion about what is really right and wrong.
- Shame about not being good enough.
- Distrust of their own intuition and inner voice.
- Guilt about individuating, differentiating from the family.
- Ineffective at good decision making.
- Unable to identify their own needs and desires, unsure about how to pursue them, and bad for having needs in the first place.
What does a Healthy Relationship Look Like?
You’ll need to know the meaning of a Solid Self, Differentiation, and Connection to understand healthy family relationships, so I’ve made some definitions to help you.
- Sense of Self: Having a solid sense of self is having confidently and firmly held convictions about self and the world, without need to convince, change or control others with differing views.
- Differentiation: Having the ability to emotionally separate from others, with independent thoughts, feelings and beliefs while staying connected and respectful to significant others.
- Connection: Healthy relational connection involves interdependence, a shared balance of power, and mutual give and take. Each party shares his/her life experience, thoughts, feelings and opinions without fear of judgment or control from the other party. True love occurs as each is heard, validated and valued.
- True Intimacy vs Enmeshment: True Intimacy is sharing your experience with another person without fear of being judged, changed or controlled. It is listening to another person’s feelings and experience without trying to change, judge or control them. True intimacy involves acceptance of being flawed humans. Out of that acceptance, a sense of healing, growth and godliness can emerge.
A healthy family system is made up of people who give one another freedom to differentiate, express emotional separateness while they still stay connected. Relationship health is the ability to share life experiences, thoughts and feelings without judging, changing or controlling others in the system. A parent’s job is to provide a healthy, safe and loving environment in which children can grow and become functional, emotional adults with unique thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. When parenting becomes license for invading a child’s inner life for control or parental use, parenting becomes emotionally abusive.
In a healthy system, each individual is not only allowed opinions, voice and pursuit of need fulfillment, but is encouraged to do so in safe ways that promote mutual respect and consideration. If you didn’t experience this kind of family system growing up, you can still create it for yourself and your current family. Here are some things to try.
NEXT STEPS TOWARD HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS
- First: work diligently on developing your sense of self by actively identifying your needs, desires, and your inner voice.
- Second: prioritize your needs and desires to the same level as you prioritize others.
- Third: Resist the temptation to cut off from people. In your pursuit of differentiation, you may error on the extreme side by cutting people off all together. Take this process slowly. Healthy boundary setting takes time and practice. Don’t use a hack saw when you could use nail clippers.
- Fourth: Be patient with yourself and the people around you. They may not understand the changes you are making, and they will probably resist them. Boundaries are important, but make them flexible based on your changing needs.
- Fifth: Enlist wisdom. Join a support group or counseling to help you make these necessary changes. Supportive people can show you what healthy relationships actually look and feel like. You can have healthy relationships, but you’ll need help to do it.
The hard work of activating your sense of self, differentiating, and staying connected becomes easier the more you practice. This work will feel like laborious exercise at first, two steps forward, one step back. But before you know it, you will attract others to yourself who are doing the same type of exercises. You will begin to understand what true intimacy is, and the joys that spring from it.