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Does Your Family Threaten Your Love Life? Enmeshment Schema

Family boundary problems interfere with having an independent romantic life.

Key points

  • Enmeshment schema is feeling guilt, obligation, anxiety, and worry about your family’s feelings and approval.
  • Enmeshment interferes with a child’s opportunity to explore their own emotional maturity.
  • The foundation of boundaries is the need to accept and respect that others may not have the same needs or desires as you.

This article is one part of the Schemas: An Introduction series of 18 posts, covering each of the 18 schemas outlined originally by Jeffrey Young. You can check out this post for more background on the definition of schemas, which I call the "DNA” of your personality.

Enmeshment schema is feeling guilt, obligation, anxiety, and worry about your family’s feelings and approval.
Source: Superstar/Shutterstock

Do you get so anxious worrying about a family member’s feelings that it disrupts your day, and you can’t relax until your family member feels better? Have you been told that you’re “too close” to your birth family, and it gets in the way of your love relationships? If so, you may have problematic boundaries with your birth family and, as a result, be coping with enmeshment schema.

At first, this can be surprising to hear. Since childhood, you may have learned to adapt to a family system with a set of rules that weren’t so fair to you, meaning you were given an undue burden of emotional labor for others, usually one or both parents, and sometimes siblings as well (though you didn’t know any different until adulthood).

When one or both of your parents were anxious about something, hurt, or upset, it was everyone’s problem, and all the focus had to go on them. It’s one thing if a parent is anxious or upset about something when it comes to their child’s care. But this is different: When a parent is upset about something that should be their burden to carry and their problem to solve, but they make it a burden for others—you have enmeshment. And the reason it’s unfair to kids is they already have their own personal burden to carry—the work of growing up—and to put an adult’s personal worries onto them is just unfair. This experience becomes a kind of emotional training for the child to believe they have the job of making life easier for the adult and switching caring roles. This interferes with the child’s opportunity to explore their own emotional maturity.

Enmeshment schema is feeling guilt, obligation, anxiety, and worry about your family’s feelings and approval, with the idea that you may have to do some kind of work to keep the peace, even if that work is repressing yourself. This situation puts your enmeshment on a collision course with your need to be an independent adult.

6 Signs of Enmeshment Schema

  1. You feel anxiety around communicating with parents or family, as though you anticipate demands or feeling guilty. If parents or family are upset, you feel it is your job to help them feel better.
  2. Your parents or family are invasive and demand to know personal details about your life, and any resistance from you is seen as insulting and withholding.
  3. You have a history of your parents or family making decisions for you about personal adult decisions, such as work or love relationships.
  4. You are conflict-avoidant with parents or family because you feel it may get ugly and the blame always falls on you.
  5. You have difficulty knowing what you want out of life, what you value, and what you find fulfilling.
  6. Romantic partners are not welcome by parents or family, usually met with disapproval and demands. Also romantic partners are uncomfortable with your difficult family boundaries.

And, so, you may hear yourself asking a very common question: What’s the difference between caring about someone and being enmeshed?

It all comes down to boundaries. Having healthy boundaries means learning to cope with your own emotions without making them someone else’s responsibility. Healthy family boundaries involve respect for individual privacy and integrity and each person’s need to feel things their own way and do things their own way. Good boundaries are founded on the idea that we each have emotional needs and can rely on each other while respecting personal limits. But the foundation of all boundaries is the need to accept and respect that other people are different, and may not have the same needs or desires as we do. And to value our own individuality, we need to accept others’ individuality, too. It’s a contract that protects and values all involved.

5 Tips to Help Overcome Enmeshment

  1. When feeling threatened with guilt or burdensome feelings in contact with a parent or family member, you’re more likely to get defensive or argumentative. Remind yourself that you are in charge of your boundaries, and no one can force you to do or say anything: there's no need to fight.
  2. You can draw healthy boundaries in a loving, patient, and kind way, while still being firm: “Mom, you know I love talking to you, but I’ve said I don’t want to go into detail on this, I’m not comfortable with it. Can we talk about something else? I need you to respect my boundary here.”
  3. You have authority. You’re a grown adult, and you can treat this family relationship like any other adult relationship in your life.
  4. Conflict is often a tempest in a teacup. It’s OK for a family member to get upset with you when you draw a boundary, and their job to deal with it. It will usually blow over because they want to stay connected.
  5. Enmeshment schema can be complicated by cultural differences and differences in religion and other traditions, including around role expectations that happen between generations in immigrant families.

Having good boundaries can be challenging, but no less challenging than trying to live with the burden of enmeshment schema, and you will feel the benefits of good boundaries in your private life. Your loved ones and adult you will thank you for it.

Learn more in my book, Your Coping Skills Aren’t Working: How to Break Free From the Habits That Once Helped You But Now Hold You Back.

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