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When It Comes to Grown Kids, How Close Is Too Close?

Enmeshed family boundaries block the establishment of other relationships.

Key points

  • It's hard to break the habit of enmeshed boundaries in families, especially because boundary styles are transmitted between generations.
  • Enmeshed boundaries are necessary in infancy and early childhood but interfere with separation and individuation later.
  • Disentanglishing enmeshed boundaries is a gradual, delicate process that's necessary for grown kids to form their own intimate ones.
  • Postparenthood requires adjusting family boundaries so that each generation has a healthy balance between intimacy and independence.

Boundaries express our need not only for connection but also for independence and autonomy. Nowhere is the conflict between those two psychological needs clearer than in the relationship between parents and their grown children.

The biggest mistake parents of emerging or adult kids make is failing to recognize or respect their boundaries. The boundaries must reflect the younger adults' age-appropriate need for increased autonomy and independence.

In many families, enmeshed boundaries are a fact of life, a habit that’s hard to break even when the kids are no longer physically, emotionally, or even financially dependent on their parents. Disentangling them is a gradual, delicate process, often stimulated by the development of new intimate relationships as adult kids form their own families and create marital boundaries of their own. But until then—and sometimes, even after—the habit remains. It gets in the way of an equal, mutually respectful, adult-to-adult relationship between the generations.

Typically, parents in enmeshed families worry that their kids are keeping from them things they think they should know. Often, they get so overinvolved that their kids simply stop telling them about their problems. “My son keeps reminding me of the time in college when I called his professor to complain about a grade I thought was unfair,” says one woman. “Of course, I’d never do that now, but I admit, it's hard not to keep telling him he should stand up for himself more at work.”

When family boundaries are enmeshed, even grown kids find it hard to stand up for their views and opinions; they describe conflict with their parents as an emotionally draining experience. But their parents describe it the same way. “When they’re mad at me, it’s hard to concentrate on anything else,” says a 50-year-old who’s raised her 20-year-old twin daughters mostly on her own. “When one of them says we need to talk, I get anxious. I think about their problems even when they have nothing to do with me and we’re not together.”

When grown children form their own families, their newly created marital boundaries usually reconfigure existing family relationships. But not always. Although family boundary styles are intergenerationally transmitted, most people tend to choose partners with the same level of fusion and differentiation as they experienced in their own families. When they don't, the grown child's partner may be uncomfortable with the enmeshed boundaries of his or her new family.

Carol reports that her son-in-law James complains frequently about what he calls the "lack of daylight" between Carol and his wife. "He says that neither of us has any boundaries at all," and as she describes her relationship with her 34-year-old daughter, it's hard to describe them as anything other than fused, which angers and excludes both their husbands. ”It would probably be better for her marriage if we weren’t as close as we are,” the mother admits. "And it might help mine, too.”

In enmeshed families, both generations worry about how open or private they should be with each other. The moods and feelings of one affect the other, and one person's needs usually take precedence over the other's. Typically. that's the younger person's, although that changes as both generations age and grown children take more responsibility for their parents.

In enmeshed families, what parents think of their kids reflects how they feel about themselves, and vice versa. Both generations need each other's approval more intensely than families with less-enmeshed boundaries. Both tend to get so involved with the other's problems that they lose sight of their own feelings. A client reports that when her son got a DUI, she was so worried that it would cost him his job that it wasn't until the threat was over that she realized how angry she was that he'd gotten himself into such a jam—and that it never occurred to her not to rescue him.

In enmeshed families, parents can't analyze the difficulties their kids are having without becoming personally involved. After a fight, they can't stop replaying it over and over in their head. And when something either good or bad happens to their kids, it feels as if it happened to them.

The more enmeshed family boundaries are, the closer parents may feel to their children. But it's important to consider how much harder enmeshment makes it to let go and let grow, and for them to find the place on the continuum between intimacy and independence with which both generations can live.

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