Boundaries are a big deal when it comes to abusive families because they can be distorted in so many ways. The type of boundary problem that most people recognize as abuse involves neglect when the boundaries between parents and children are so marked that the children feel unloved and ignored. A more misunderstood boundary problem is that of enmeshment. It’s often misconstrued as an enviable closeness. In reality, we struggle to assert our autonomy.
Enmeshed families completely blur the boundaries between parents and children. We essentially become extensions of our parents. Enmeshment is a kind of emotionalized sexual abuse, and in fact I suspect there’s some covert sexual abuse going on in many enmeshed families.
In enmeshed families, we’re not allowed to maintain reasonable boundaries. It’s seen as cruel treatment of our parents and a betrayal. Their enmeshment in their eyes is a proof of love, and we’re ungrateful if we resent it. This myth is further reinforced by society. Loving parents are interested and involved parents, and this is what enmeshed parents appear, on the surface, to be. The thought that the interest and involvement could be excessive doesn’t usually occur to people.
I think enmeshment can be a way for parents to extend themselves and make up for the many disappointments in themselves and in their lives. They can accomplish things they could never themselves accomplish through their children by over-involving themselves in their children’s lives. Many actresses, for instance, had to contend with over-involved mothers who experienced fame and fortune through their daughters as compensation for not having experienced it through their own efforts and talent.
Some enmeshed parents may have grown up with distant, egocentric parents and want to show they’re completely different by being too involved in their children’s lives. My mother, for instance, was raised by a narcissistic mother whose entire life revolved around her needs. In an effort to be completely different, my mother became over-involved in her children’s lives to the point of obsession.
One price we pay for enmeshment is confusion over our identity. We identify with our abusers’ thoughts, beliefs, feelings, needs, and desires to such an extent that we can’t always figure out which really belong to us and which don’t. My sister, for instance, recently told me of an interesting problem she ran across when looking for a new apartment. She realized she was resisting choosing a smaller place, even though they were more suitable for her, because of our mother’s influence. I reminded her that our mother grew up in a crowded home which two families shared and at least 10 people living there at one time. The need for space was an issue my mother had dumped onto her as if it were her problem when really my sister had no such problems. This kind of confusion is typical in enmeshed parent-child relationships.
Intrusive parents are constantly in our faces. They give advice for every choice we make. They have something to say about everything. They have an opinion on everyone who’s involved in our lives. They believe they’re acting as wise guides, giving us the benefit of their years of experience. What they fail to realize is that the role of guide changes as we get older. The strong guiding parent when we were 3 becomes an aggressively intrusive parent when we’re 23 and 33 and 53.
Enmeshment and intrusiveness are a little different, although they play off of each other. In enmeshment, we’re seen as an extension of the abuser, so there’s a sense that we’re the same as our abusers. We feel the same, think the same, believe the same, and want and need the same things. Intrusiveness is more about control. Abusers direct our lives, making us feel like they know best. They keep us children forever, which boosts their self-esteem but makes it difficult for us to live an adult life.
Role reversal or parentification refers to parents who look to their children for support as if the kids are adults and the parnets are the children. They may feel overwhelmed with the parental duties that they’re supposed to fulfill or have too many unfulfilled emotional needs to be able to look beyond them. The role reversal doesn’t stop when the kids have grown up. Abusers who looked to us to take care of them when we were kids continue to do so until we forcefully draw some boundaries.
This isn’t uncommon in families with parents who are substance abusers or have mental health problems. An example is a 15-year-old teen I once met on an abuse message board. His father was an alcoholic and also emotionally, physically, and sexually abused him. A severe car accident, caused by his intoxicated father, killed his mother and younger brother and sister and almost killed him. His father completely went to pieces and spent the better part of the day drinking. His son had to forge his signature on checks to keep the bills paid and take care of all domestic duties. He essentially was no longer a teen; he had been placed in the role of an adult.
Kids tolerate parentification for many different reasons. Researchers Ofra Mayseless and Miri Scharf reported that some kids see parentification as a way to gain some degree of closeness to their parents, which they crave. Their connection with their parents is essentially based on the parents’ dependency on them. The situation doesn’t change when we become adults. Checking in with our parents daily, cleaning their house and cooking for them, taking them to doctors’ appointments, buying them things, and any number of other things that mature adults should do for themselves can make us feel like our parents care about us because they need us so much.* We may feel like we have control over our relationship with them, but it’s really them who have control over it.
Anne Shaffer and L. Alan Sroufe identify two other problems with role reversal where a child is expected to parent the parent. First, this is mature behavior (nurturing) that a child isn’t developmentally capable of, which can lead to frustration, feelings of shame, and low self-esteem when they inevitably fail to “make everything right.” Second, the child’s own needs are being ignored, further making the child feel neglected, angry, and confused. They may see their friends’ parents fulfilling appropriate parental roles and wonder why things are so messed up in their family.
These two problems extend into adulthood. Although as adults we’re capable of administering nurturing, we may still feel an obligation to “make everything right.” When our dependent parents complain, as they inevitably do (and some quite often), we feel like we’ve let them down when really they’ve let us down by making us take care of them in ways we shouldn’t have to. We also will often find ourselves neglecting our own needs, just as we did as children, in order to fulfill theirs. Sometimes we even neglect our partner’s and children’s needs in favor of our abusive parent’s needs.
Spousification is another role reversal situation where we’re expected to make up for problems our parents are having with each other. Essentially the abuser searches for companionship in the child as a substitute for the companionship that they’re not receiving from their partner. This includes things like seeking advice from the child about marital problems, using the child as a sounding board for marital complaints, and making the child fulfill roles that a spouse should fulfill, including as a sex partner.
Another aspect of spousification involves expressing hostility towards a child based on perceived similarities between a child and the other parent. This is called a spillover effect. When there’s tension between our parents, the abusive parent will identify you as being just like the other parent and direct the anger, frustration, and disappointment that they feel for their spouse towards you.
This can go hand-in-hand with the other type of spousification in that the negativity that’s directed towards you draws you closer to the real culprit of the negativity. You may even feel a bond with the other parent, as if you’re special and that’s why you’ve been made into your parent’s confidante. This is emotional manipulation because you’re essentially being used to fulfill needs you were never meant to fulfill. The fact that you may get some comfort and attention from it doesn’t change that.
For example, my mother has been abused for over 50 years by my bullying father. She was convinced I was just like him, so I had to endure her hostility that was really meant for him. My father, in turn, tried to turn me into a surrogate wife because he was convinced I was a female version of him and therefore understood him. I played along as a teen and young adult because I was convinced that what they said was true. It took me years away from my abusers to realize that I’m not like my father and never was and that I’d been sucked into the games they played against each other.
Healthy parent-child relationships maintain appropriate boundaries. Adults are adults and kids are kids. Everyone recognizes that everyone else is an autonomous human being. All boundary violation is harmful, whether we’re treated as things to be shaped into whatever our abusers want us to be or placed in inappropriate roles. Whether we’re 10 or 30 or 50, enmeshment is an insidious form of emotional abuse that damages our sense of identity.
* I’m not, of course, talking about elderly parents who have trouble functioning because of physical or mental problems. I speak here of parents who are perfectly capable physically and mentally to take care of their own needs but choose to manipulate their adult children into taking care of them as if they were the children.