No doubt everyone needs a family that is there to nourish and nurture them. And certainly, within a family, there should be a certain level of harmony and cohesion, as well as a particular degree of structure to help the family thrive and grow under normal and healthy conditions.
Today we talk about two family systems that seem to be on two polar ends when it comes to creating, following and ultimately, respecting boundaries.
These two types of family systems are known as enmeshed and disengaged. In such systems, familial boundaries are often shoved under the carpet and it is not preferred to talk about them.
So today, we are going to brush the dust off of these topics and look deeply to understand what these two kinds of family systems mean and stand for.
Surely you must have heard about enmeshment in families (most when it comes to marriages in them), and if you haven’t then you can easily guess that because enmeshment means entanglement and entrapment, an enmeshed family is one in which members are tangled and way too close to each other.
You must be thinking, so what? Aren’t family members supposed to be close to each other?
Isn’t a family supposed to be hunched together to live a healthy and nourishing life together?
Isn’t closeness in a family the measure of love that exists between them?
It is true that a closely associated family is ideal. Some people even wish for one because they believe if their children are raised in such an environment, they’ll grow up to support each other throughout all thick and thin and will secondly, also enjoy their childhood.
However, the famous saying “the access of everything is bad” is applicable even when it comes to the degree of closeness that exists within a family.
What exactly is enmeshment?
When it comes to an enmeshed family, the closeness we are talking about is just out of the roof.
The boundaries that are otherwise supposed to exist in normal and healthy families are either unclear or just don’t exist.
When such is the case, the family members lose the space for personal growth and the autonomy over themselves, as well as all degrees of independence at all are taken away from them.
This lack of autonomy goes as far as the parents maintaining a certain level of control over what their children think and do.
They fuel certain expectations from the children and this in turn puts the children in a conflicting state of mind where they cannot understand how to live their life according to how they want to and ultimately get frustrated.
Moreover, these kinds of parents may start to rely way too much on their kids for emotional and moral support and even find ways to live life through the lives of their children. This too, specifically through the activities that they kind of force their children to adopt.
What are the indications?
Perhaps the major sign of one being a part of an enmeshed family is the large black cloud of expectations that hovers above all the time.
Mainly, parents will mostly cultivate the expectation that their child will adhere to the same beliefs, practices, and traditions that they have.
And certainly, with such expectations comes the undeniable pressure to follow them.
These expectations can range anywhere from taking interest in something that doesn’t align with stereotypical beliefs (such as a little boy preferring to play with dolls which are otherwise considered ‘girl toys’) to choosing a certain career path or marrying out of race, religion, or caste.
This deprives the child (at whatever stage of life does he or she comes across such situations) of the room for personal individual development as well as possessing a will of their own.
Moreover, members of an enmeshed family, especially the children, are anticipated to treat family life as the sole centre of their universe around which everything else revolves.
And ultimately, they are pulled apart from things that please them and that they would like to do for themselves because anything apart from family is highly discouraged.
Even when it comes to personal well-being, these kinds of families expect their members to direct their worries and issues to the family itself as family in their belief, can be the only source of satisfaction, peace, and happiness and can be the only people who can provide real welfare.
Even if then a child decides to go against this and breaks the cage to tend to what feels right to them, then a whole series of manipulation and guilt tripping takes place which dissuades the individual from what they love. They are forced to make sacrifices which may include college choices, career aspirations, and even love.
In extreme cases, the child may even be financially cut off or worse, disowned.
All of this stunts personal growth as children eventually do not learn how to communicate or collaborate with others, or how to deal with conflict on their own behalf.
A rather common indication of being in an enmeshed family will be the lack of boundaries when it comes to privacy.
Parents think of it as their right to get involved into their child’s life and will definitely be infuriated if the child attempts at setting a boundary or even complaining.
Privacy is a basic right and if children don’t get it just because their parents think that being ‘open’ and ‘raw’ with their family is better for them, then let me tell you, those children will still somehow find ways to break out of these chains.
Last but not the least, is the aspect of parents treating the child/children as their sole source of consolation and emotional support.
Parents will often confide in their children and sometimes it can be information that the children technically shouldn’t have to deal with; and expect the child to if not come up with solutions, then at least deliver solace and relief to the parent. Even if the child itself isn’t yet capable of doing so.
Is enmeshment the same as closeness?
Of course, families that are very close-knit have a lot of benefits, for example, when family members are close to each other they tend to treat each other’s problems equally, thus there is generally a low degree of stress in such households.
The tradition in enmeshed families is miles apart from close-knit families. Members of an enmeshed family may feel emotionally oppressed, and tend to sacrifice their individuality for the sake of their families which isn’t the case when it comes to healthily close-knit families.
Healthy families create an atmosphere of warmth, intimacy, and nourishment, all while respecting each other’s boundaries and privacy.
They support each other when it comes to following what one’s heart says and also award their members to carry on with a life outside of home.
But only when the family is healthily bonded together, with a certain level of closeness that does not seem to be affecting the personal welfare of each family member.
Disengaged families are quite literally the exact opposite of enmeshed families.
While enmeshed families contain nothing on the name of boundaries, members in a disengaged family are way apart from each other.
Like way apart.
And I’m talking as far away as not even knowing what is going on in the other member’s room, yet alone life.
To put into simpler words, a disengaged family can be described as a bunch of people sharing a house, rather than a healthy family bound with the essence of love.
In such families, strong boundaries exist between members of the family and a diffuse boundary around the whole family unit. All family members are separated from each other.
What are the indications?
While it’s pretty simple that whatever happens in an enmeshed family, the total contrast will happen in a disengaged family, there are certain signs that hint at the disengagement in such families.
While parents are too involved in their children’s lives in an enmeshed family, parents in a disengaged family will often have no clue about what is happening in their children’s lives.
They won’t mostly know what is going on in the child’s life. How is he or she at school. The kind of friends he or she has. And what sort of people does he or she hang out with. What are their activities.
The parents won’t know, and perhaps some may not even care enough to know as they believe that parents have a separate life that they are responsible for while the children have the right to whatever they want to do as long as it’s their decision to do so.
Family members may come and go out of the house without other family members being aware of it, and similarly other people may come over to visit the house and leave, often without some members not even knowing about their visit. This is because whenever someone comes to visit, it is not a family rule to come greet the guest.
There is an air of independence- may be even too much- and personal pursuits are often easily followed without any interference of parents, yet alone other family members, unless that certain pursuit may somehow be related to the parent or a particular family member. But that too, is not always necessary.
Parents often don’t care if the interests of their child don’t align with their personal interests.
Similarly, the child is free to follow his/her dreams, whether they be about career paths, profession choices, marriage, and whatnot. If a child wishes to marry out of religion or race, then he/she will be encouraged to do so. If a girl is interested in something that is considered predominantly “masculine” like boxing or if a child wishes to leave the country to study abroad, then they will be supported instead of being criticized and judged for those things.
Call it freedom or lack of care, whatever u think.
Respect towards privacy, whether of the children or the parents, is the number one rule of a disengaged family may be without even its intentional imposing.
No sharing of rooms with other siblings or parents, everyone has their own space, where they do whatever they want to. All of it is respected, and sometimes it is so extreme that family members will not even know about stuff that has been happening in the other’s life.
It is never compulsory for all family members to attend family events. If anyone doesn’t feel like going for whatever reason, it is usually not looked down upon.
Parents in such families stay out of hindsight and are not such heavily imposing figures as well, which is why later in life, when children from this family are put out into the society then they do not accept guidance, love, and intimacy from anyone as they are obviously not used to it.
Even though you must be thinking, okay, so what’s the problem here?
The problem is that the lack of any kind of check on children can cause them to get involved in activities that they otherwise shouldn’t be a part of, such as drugs because children start to misuse their ‘freedom’ and they certainly find it easy to do so.
Family members are so disconnected from each other that one won’t know what is going on in the other’s life. Problems will be encouraged to be kept to oneself, instead of being openly discussed to come to any solution.
All the members will treat the other as a separate unit, rather than a blood relation with whom they need to have some sort of connection.
While some children may find it better that they get to make all their decisions for themselves, some may deeply need some sort of guidance to do so which they normally don’t find in their families.
Apart from that, the ability of make decisions for themselves can cause children to often make wrong ones that can be harmful or not beneficial for their lives.
The conclusion to this is simple. Both of the family systems are polar ends of the same boat. There are several differences between the two. One may think of the other as way too extreme in its practices, however to each one, they are themselves pretty normal.
We cannot declare which one is better since both of them are totally opposites. However, a fact which stays true to both the family systems is that the children they raise into the society are somewhat different than normal, if not flawed. It’s because of what they have seen all their lives growing up, hence that’s what they’re going to enforce when they become independent citizens in the society.