The Family Tangle: A Reassurance Trap You'd Like to Avoid

Are you caught in a family tangle? Here's what it is and how to get out.

Posted Feb 21, 2020

 Mohanned Hassan/Pixabay
Source: Mohanned Hassan/Pixabay

Research suggests that two common anxiety traits have genetic components: one is having a sticky mind, and the other is anxiety sensitivity (the fear of mental and physical symptoms of anxiety). 

When we see people seeking help for anxiety or OCD in our practices, one of our first questions is: “So which side of the family does this come from?” We know that intolerance for uncertainty, the stickiness of the mind (round and round thinking), and the tendency to avoid the experience of anxiety runs in families.  

We also understand that this is not just because anxious parents tend to overprotect (which they do), worry about and teach their kids to be wary of the dangers in the world (which they also do!), or because of their fear of losing control over feelings or behavior (another common aspect of being an anxious parent). It is actually an inherited predisposition. 

Often, parents first recognize their own anxiety disorders or OCD only after their child has been diagnosed, and they learn more about it. They may have always known they were worriers or a bit perfectionistic. Or perhaps they had a history of ritual behaviors or “bad thoughts” or panicky feelings as a child. But they are not obviously symptomatic as an adult, or they have just resigned themselves to their symptoms.

Families are systems of interactions in which causality is frequently circular. Each member of the family experiences themselves as reacting sensibly to the behavior of others. “I get worried and ask questions when my child won’t talk to me” may be a parent’s view of their own experience.  

On the other hand, that child may say, “My Mom is so intrusive that I have to pull away.” Or perhaps it sounds like this: “I have to lie to him because he is overly controlling,” accompanied by “I get worried and check on her because she lies to me.” Usually, when families are stressed by disturbing interactions, each person wants the other to change so that they do not have to react the way they do.  

It is most helpful to see that, whatever the intentions are, each person in the family may need to consider their own contributions to the circular patterns. And everyone will need to focus on enacting their positive intentions with different strategies.

One circular pattern we frequently see in anxious families is what we have called the Family Tangle.  This is the situation where two members of the family (most often a parent and a child) are seeking reassurance from each other and inadvertently fuel each other’s escalating anxiety. They are trapped in a pattern of checking on each other that can become habitual.  

It can look like two people who are “just so close” that they text or talk multiple times a day. Or it can be a tendency to expect the other to reassure or check-in or problem-solve or analyze the details of any challenges that come along. Or it can be a constant state of crisis management in which one seeks to save the other, and then gets anxious if there is not constant contact.  

Sometimes this reassurance trap can be called “enmeshment” or “codependency,” which sounds like one or both parties are immature, over-controlling, or somehow spoiled, and the solution must be to forcibly pry them apart by setting limits. 

But imposing external limits on one of the two people can be experienced as blaming, shaming, and therefore counterproductive. And trying to free oneself from this trap unilaterally may feel as if one is abandoning the loved one to unrelenting distress or bad decisions. Additionally, the uncertainty about the other’s concerns or safety—or the guilt one would feel if something went wrong—seems unbearable. So the joint occupation of the reassurance trap continues. 

Addressing only one part of the mutual process is not the answer.

The intention of the reassurance and ongoing contact may be love, loyalty, and assistance. But the unintended effect is exactly the opposite. Often, resentments grow when nothing seems to help for long. Without the understanding that both people are, in fact, continuously and temporarily alleviating each other’s anxiety, this kind of forced independence or separation can be excruciating.

In our most recent book, we illustrate this process: Your son, a freshman in college, is having a rough time. He tells you he feels worthless, even hopeless at times. You are understandably concerned. He calls and texts you often. You suggest he enter counseling, drop classes, come home, and spend long stretches “talking him down.” He feels better; you feel better.  

But then it starts up again. You don’t tell him how worried you are, concerned he might be suicidal, but you are sleeping with your phone and holding your breath between texts. You suspect you are overreacting, but you can’t take the chance of not helping if your son is in such distress. Another crisis passes, and you are both relieved. But then it starts up again. You and your son are caught in a trap together. 

The way out of the Family Tangle is to identify the repetitive process that is happening and for both people to sign on to the idea that they are inadvertently keeping the cycle going by anxiety-relieving checking that works backward to fuel more worries. This means cooperatively working out a strategy to withdraw from constant contact, empty reassurance, instant availability, and similar temporary comforts in order to de-escalate and disentangle.

Both people will likely experience some additional uncertainty, worries, and doubts. These will need to be tolerated independently until they naturally subside on their own. Some mutual agreements about how often, when, how, and what to talk about will need negotiation. And both may profit from learning how to proceed mindfully, non-judgmentally, and compassionately.