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Enmeshment is a state of cross-generational bonding within a family, whereby a child (normally of the opposite sex) becomes a surrogate spouse for their mother or father.[1]

The term is also applied more generally to engulfing codependent relationships[2] where an unhealthy symbiosis is in existence.[3]

Family characteristicsEdit

Salvador Minuchin introduced the concept of enmeshment to describe families where personal boundaries were diffuse, sub-systems undifferentiated, and over-concern for others led to a loss of autonomous development.[4] Enmeshed in parental needs, trapped in a discrepant role function,[5] a child may lose its capacity for self-direction;[6], its own distinctiveness, under the weight of psychic incest;[7] and, if family pressures increase, may end up becoming the identified patient or family scapegoat.[8]

For the toxically enmeshed child, the adult's carried feelings may be the only ones they know, outweighing and eclipsing their own.[9]


Clarifying boundaries, putting the generations in separate compartments,[10], and finding a better balance between involvement and separation,[11] are all useful remedies.

At the same time, it is important that the therapist avoids becoming enmeshed in the family subsystems themselves[12] - the unconscious enmeshment of helping therapist/needy client.[13]

See alsoEdit


  1. John Bradshaw, Reclaiming Virtue (2009) p. 390
  2. Bradshaw, p. 272
  3. R. Abell, Own Your Own Life (1977) p. 119-22
  4. H. & L. Goldberg, Family Therapy: An Overview (2008) p. 244 and p. 467
  5. Virginia Satir, Peoplemaking (1983) p. 167
  6. R. C. Schwartz, Internal Family Systems Therapy (1997) p. 162
  7. Robert Bly, Iron John (1991) p. 170 and p. 185-7
  8. Goldberg, p. 239
  9. Terence Real, I Don't Want to Talk About It (1997) p. 206 and p. 360
  10. R. Skynner/J. Cleese, Families and how to survive them (1993) p. 93 and p. 213
  11. Goldenberg, p. 410
  12. Skynner, p. 93
  13. D. Sedgwick, Jung and Searles (1993) p. 113

Further ReadingEdit

Robin Skynner, One Flesh, Separate Persons (London 1976)

External linksEdit

Enmeshment: Symptoms and Causes

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