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Understanding Parental Enmeshment

Is a parent taking up rent-free space in your head?

Key points

  • Parental enmeshment is the overly intimate and opaquely sexualized emotional use/abuse of a child by a parent.
  • With parental enmeshment, the needs of the child are subsumed by the needs of the parent.
Shutterstock, Yuri A
Source: Shutterstock, Yuri A

Mark, a 34-year-old married father of three, and his 32-year-old wife Camille came to me for marital therapy.

Camille said that ever since their initial courtship ended and their long-term relationship began, Mark seemed increasingly distant and unavailable. At times, she blamed herself for this, wondering what she was doing wrong. “It feels like I’m all alone in this marriage. He spends more time with his phone than with me. And then he’ll spend all day helping his mom out at her house while chores at our house get ignored.”

For his part, Mark seemed genuinely concerned about Camille’s needs not being met. But he seemed confused about what those needs were and how exactly he might meet them. He also said, “Sometimes I feel like she just wants too much from me.”

Based on Mark’s emotional distancing and intimacy avoidance, along with his genuine confusion about the nature of healthy relational connection, I suggested that he and I do some individual therapy before he and Camille returned as a couple.

Mark initially described his childhood as a good one. “It wasn’t crazy or abusive at all, like some people I know.” But as we all know, childhood trauma doesn’t always stem from the obvious. That was the case with Mark. And after further questioning, we uncovered several deep issues, most notably an enmeshed relationship with his mother.

This issue came to light after I asked him to describe his connection with his mom. He said:

As a kid, I spent more time with her than with anyone else. I helped her pick out her clothes for the day, comforted her about her unhappiness with my dad, and spent time with her when she was lonely. My dad worked a lot, and when he was home, he mostly kept to himself, so I think she kind of used me as a fill-in. She would take me out of school sometimes, just to go to lunch with her or maybe see a movie. That was great, but it was also a little bit strange. And it bothered me that she would sit too close to me and want to hold my hand. Then, when I got older, she would comment on my body, and sometimes she would walk in on me when I was changing clothes or in the shower. That made me uncomfortable. But overall, we were really close. We still are.

As we explored this relational dynamic, it became clear that Mark’s mother, in the physical and emotional absence of his father, turned Mark into her surrogate husband. Unfortunately, Mark spent a lot more time meeting her needs than she spent meeting his needs, creating the type of relationship that is generally referred to as either enmeshed or covertly incestuous.

Like most mother-enmeshed men, Mark entered therapy with little to no idea about the fact that his mother had used him (and was continuing to use him) to meet her need for emotional intimacy. He had no clue how that had impacted (and continued to impact) him. In fact, he initially resisted the idea of his mother’s behavior as a form of abuse.

As we looked more deeply at his past and present relationships, however, he began to understand that the inappropriate relationship his mother forced on him was a primary driver of his adult-life intimacy issues. Over time, he was able to see that he was used to meet his mother’s needs, which created a sense of being smothered, which in turn created a need to distance himself from Camille.

What Is Parental Enmeshment?

Parental enmeshment, sometimes referred to as emotional or covert incest, is the overly intimate and opaquely sexualized emotional use/abuse of a child by a parent. In contrast to overt sexual abuse (actual sexual contact), physical boundaries are not crossed. Instead, the child is used for narcissistic emotional fulfillment by the parent. Basically, the needs of the child are subsumed by the needs of the parent.

The Consequences of Parental Enmeshment

Even though enmeshed relationships do not involve overt sexual abuse, they tend to feel “icky” to the child. Mark’s mother sitting too close and wanting to hold his hand, and later walking in on him while changing or showering, are examples. Unsurprisingly, such children respond in many of the same ways as overt-incest survivors, experiencing as adults one or more (usually more) of the following:

  • Emotional and physical distancing from adult partners.
  • Depression, anxiety, and similarly detrimental emotional states.
  • Hot and cold relationships (romantic, friendships, workplace, etc.)
  • Emotionally escapist behaviors (gaming, gambling, substance abuse, spending, escapist porn use, etc.)
  • Compartmentalizing love, family, sex.

Identifying and Treating Enmeshment

As pervasive and damaging as parental enmeshment is, it often goes unrecognized in therapy settings because it’s easy to miss. And even when identified, it may be dismissed or devalued. Basically, the therapist and client may think that if there’s no physical sexual contact, no harm has been done. As we see with Mark, however, nothing could be further from the truth.

When parental enmeshment is identified, effective treatment should focus on the following:

  • Identifying the nature and pervasiveness of the enmeshment.
  • Identifying and grieving unmet childhood needs.
  • Identifying the current impact of the enmeshment, especially as it relates to the client’s attachment style.
  • Helping the client create, implement, and maintain healthy boundaries with the enmeshed parent.
  • Working toward genuine relational intimacy with a spouse while identifying enmeshment fears and related behaviors.

If you want to learn more about parental enmeshment, there are three excellent books on the topic: Silently Seduced by Dr. Ken Adams; When He’s Married to Mom by Dr. Ken Adams; and The Emotional Incest Syndrome by Dr. Patricia Love.

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