Friday, August 15, 2008

The Enmeshed Family

Christians weighing in on Botkin Syndrome:
Excerpts from "Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves" by Drs. Stoop and Masteller.

From pages 85 - 87:

The Enmeshed Family

Enmeshed families are characterized by an extreme sense of closeness, so much so that almost any expression of independence or separateness is seen as disloyalty to the family. This kind of false loyalty is a very high value in an Enmeshed family.

Take Marti as an example. She expressed a great deal of hostility toward her mother. But then she was overwhelmed with guilt at her “disloyalty.” How could she speak of her own mother that way?

Marti had very few friends growing up. Her mother dominated her use of time and energy. Marti felt obligated to check everything she did with her mother, to run all her plans and ideas past her for approval before proceeding. Even after she grew up and got married, Marti felt compelled to seek her mother’s approval for decisions she was making about her family. On one hand, Marti greatly resented this state of affairs; she knew it was a way for her mother to keep her under her thumb. But the thought of breaking free from her mother terrified Marti...

Where does one person’s business, one person’s identity, one person’s life, end – and another’s begin? Within the Enmeshed family, boundaries are virtually non-existent. Everyone experiences his life as almost totally “overlapping” with everyone else’s.

Interestingly though, Enmeshed families tend to have remarkably rigid boundaries vis-`a-vis anyone outside the family. Marti said her mother never tired of warning everyone that “family business was family business” never to be discussed with outsiders.

Enmeshed families can look attractive and inviting from the outside. Take George’s family, for example. George had built a successful bakery business in his town. His three grown sons were all very active in the business. Together, George and his sons had established a virtual monopoly on the baking business in their area. They had also established a virtually monopoly on one another’s lives.

Consider Tim, the oldest son, who wanted to get married. He was almost thirty years old, and had cancelled three previous engagements because his family did not think the girl would “fit in.” Finally he found a girl that everyone approved of. She was quiet and docile, and came from a family in which people were aloof and uncaring. “I finally found a real family.” she would say, and Tim’s parents and brother would smile contentedly.

In time, Tim’s two brothers also married. As tieh Tim, their wives came from highly detatched, uninvolved families. Each was quickly absorbed int their new clan and into the bakery business. This is a classic example of a moderately enmeshed family – not quite suffocating enough to cause the kinds of discomfort that Marti experienced, but enough to blur the individual members into what one family researcher calls an “undifferentiated ego mass.” (Quote sites Murray Bowen!)

From pages 89 - 90:

The Attached Family

While the Enmeshed family feels suffocating, and the Disengaged family leaves the individual feeling isolated, the Attached family strikes a healthy balance. There is a sense of individuality without a loss of connectedness. People in an Attached family enjoy being together and doing things together, but are able to relate to people and be active outside of the family as well. When they are away from the family, they do not feel guilty or disloyal. They are able to share outside experiences with the family, knowing other family members will understand and accept their choices.

In the Attached family there is a mutual respect that allows freedom of activity, without any hidden agendas that trigger guilt. There is support for individual uniqueness, coupled with shared appreciation for one another’s accomplishments. Like all delicate balances, it is difficult to find and maintain, but it is well worth the effort.

Excerpt from
Dr. David Stoop & Dr. James Masteller's
"Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves:
Healing Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families"
Regal/Gospel Light, 1996 (Servant, 1991)