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Enmeshment is a concept in psychology and psychotherapy introduced by Salvador Minuchin (1921-2017) to describe families where personal boundaries are diffused, sub-systems undifferentiated, and over-concern for others leads to a loss of autonomous development.[1] Enmeshed in parental needs, trapped in a discrepant role function,[2] a child may lose their capacity for self-direction;[3] their own distinctiveness, under the weight of "psychic incest";[4] and, if family pressures increase, may end up becoming the identified patient or family scapegoat.[5]

Enmeshment was also used by John Bradshaw to describe 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.[6]

The term is sometimes applied to engulfing codependent relationships,[7] where an unhealthy symbiosis is in existence.[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 also[edit]


  1. ^ H. & L. Goldberg, Family Therapy: An Overview (2008) p. 244 and p. 467
  2. ^ Virginia Satir, Peoplemaking (1983) p. 167
  3. ^ R. C. Schwartz, Internal Family Systems Therapy (1997) p. 162
  4. ^ Robert Bly, Iron John (1991) p. 170 and p. 185-7
  5. ^ Goldberg, p. 239
  6. ^ John Bradshaw, Reclaiming Virtue (2009) p. 390
  7. ^ Bradshaw, p. 272
  8. ^ R. Abell, Own Your Own Life (1977) p. 119-22
  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 reading[edit]

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

External links[edit]