Individuals who do not come from enmeshed family systems can become very confused when exposed to one. Enmeshed family systems can feel controlling and unbearable to individuals from connected or disengaged families. They wonder why any individual would allow “other people” to have so much access and power over their lives.
In order to understand enmeshed families we must first understand the circumstances that surrounded their development. Enmeshment is typically the result of a pattern of behaviors that are influenced by and/or a reaction to larger economic and social realities-past and present. In Southern Europe and many Eastern cultures enmeshment wasn’t necessarily a family model but a means of survival. In southern European agrarian communities, for example, people didn’t have kids just so they would experience the joy of parenthood. That was part of it for sure, but kids also meant labor, stature and permanency of the family name. Governments were typically disinterested in the plight of families but would certainly tap into familial wealth or resources to support a host of ambitious and usually harmful experiments and whims. Families could count on only each other and the Church for survival and support. The Church, however, was a community responsibility- the community needed to build and maintain it. It’s purpose was far greater than providing a place of prayer or ritual- it provided a pool of support families could tap into when in need and it worked to reinforce the family structure necessary for survival in its teachings and guidance.
In other words-the family was all you got when the feces went down.
As a result, individual needs were de-emphasized out of necessity and an individual breaking away from the “contract” would mean putting themselves in a pretty vulnerable position. It would also represent a great loss and cost for the family in ways we may not fully understand. Today being “disowned” by your family does not carry the same set of consequences it would in those communities, cultures or time periods. Being disowned meant you had nothing and re-starting your life with a “family by choice” was near impossible. Other families would not want to take on the risk of welcoming someone into their family through marriage they believed couldn’t hold up their end of the deal. Marriages were a vehicle for social, financial and familial stability – they sought to perpetuate and reinforce the survival strategy. Being disowned and looking to get hitched was sort of like going to a car lot without any money.
Looking at enmeshment through a purely clinical lens pathologizes what started out as a valid response to a real need. Centuries old patterns are difficult to break and are not evidence that individual members or systems are “sick”. It might be important to keep in mind that what we consider a healthy and adaptive family system today would have been viewed as strange and dysfunctional 60-70 years ago in what are now modern societies. In some communities it may still be viewed that way today.
Does this mean that enmeshment should not be challenged or “fixed”? Before answering that question I guess I would need to know a little more about the context the family is operating in, whether individual members have a problem with the system and whether that problem is solvable in ways that don’t require a system overhaul. Enmeshed family systems are certainly capable of causing a great deal of harm to individual family members and within the current social framework they are not ideal but they are also capable of extraordinary acts of love, self sacrifice, forgiveness and generosity. In my experience it is a lot easier to initiate change in enmeshed families than in other types because the fundamentals are there.
Before we go tearing things down we may want to consider whether the problem requires or would even be responsive to interventions that see the family from a lens of pathology and pushes for radical change.