After 17 years of marriage, I was shocked when all of a sudden my whole life came crashing down around me. My marriage, my existence as wife and my life as I knew it was over. I had a choice to make. I could fill up my life with my children or I could be a great role model for them by filling my emptiness with goals that would make me whole.
When I first separated from my ex, I was just starting back to college to finish my bachelor’s degree. I also began running and was training for a 1/2 marathon. Before my impending divorce, I was a stay-at-home mother for 14 years. My ex and I had made the decision that I would stay at home with the kids, at least until they entered school, while he pursued first his medical degree, then a 5-year residency, then a fellowship, then he tried 3 different practices all in different parts of the country. Needless to say, even if I wanted to finish school or climb a career ladder, I couldn’t. Logistically it was impossible. (Note to self and to others who think that forgoing a college degree and/or a career is a smart idea: In this age of more than 50% of marriages ending in divorce, make the decisions now that are necessary so that if divorce occurs you will be able to financially care for yourself and your children).
As a single, divorced mother of three, like many mothers in my situation, I saw my children less than I had before the split. I found the transition excruciating, but I decided that like the other challenges I have had in my life, I was going to make the best of it. With the newly found time to myself, I began to find ways to fill it up so that my children did not have to fill that need for me. I was already in therapy and belonged to a divorce support group–Support system, check! With my school work, writing, and running, I began to fill up my time with and without my children with pursuits devoted to empowering my life and by proxy, theirs. Physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically–I began to create a balanced life for myself. My children began to have a role model that fit a modern woman; one that was strong, intelligent, happy, healthy, and balanced. I lost a significant relationship with my ex-spouse, but that hole was filled up by filling up my whole. Instead of using my children to substitute for the absence of my ex, I filled up my life with empowering activities. Developing your entire being rather than looking externally to your children or to another relationship to fill the emotional hole is a psychologically healthy alternative to the choice many people in the same situation in life have made which is to use their children or their relationship to fill up the empty places within themselves. For more information about this subject, read my book, Transforming Divorce.
I have encountered many parents who make their children the center of their universe after a break-up. Children learn through this type of relationship that they have an inflated sense of importance and power. Many of our children are growing up to be narcissistic, in part because of the lack of boundaries between parent and child. Because the parent has so distorted the relationship to fill their needs, the child becomes disoriented either becoming filled with a sense of self-importance or the other extreme is that they become a caregiver to the other parent abandoning their own childhood in a misguided and endless attempt (until therapy) to please a parent.
Enmeshment is a term that refers to the loss of autonomy because there is a blurring of psychological boundaries (autonomy means a sense of self-governing or of freedom; the sense that your actions are freely chosen and reflect your own true needs, not another’s, like a parent’s). A child’s growing sense of autonomy is an important factor of well-being and of the feeling of overall happiness. Enmeshment with a parent often occurs when one parent fails to have much of anything else going on in their lives except for their children. With few outside interests, the child becomes their main focus. The parent’s self-esteem, their moods, their feelings seem to hinge on their children, making it an unhealthy and co-dependent relationship. Some parents become uncomfortable with their child’s feelings such as anger or frustration and the parent swoops in to rescue them. They dote on them. They are afraid to set rules or enforce them by having repercussions, and they can’t set appropriate boundaries. Other children feel an unreasonable sense of obedience to their parent. Enmeshed kids face challenge after challenge when they eventually encounter the real world. Enmeshment will reveal itself over a lifetime of dysfunctional coping behaviors until it is addressed.
Some children don’t learn how to obey rules because there aren’t many in the home and they aren’t even enforced if there are any. This means these children also don’t learn respectful behaviors. A parent may become a model for disrespect which their child picks up on (for a great article on modeling versus mentoring your child, read “Parenting Tips”). Here’s an example: a single mother allowing her child to cuss out their father while on the phone with him. Respect is first taught in the home toward the parents regardless if they live together or not. Another example is of a divorced father who disrespects or disparages their mother to a child, blurring the boundaries between parent and child in an attempt to use the child as best friend and confidante. These alienating behaviors are also indicative ofParental Alienation.
In intact families, a common dysfunctional pattern is that of enmeshed mothers and disengaged fathers. Suffering from a lack of emotional intimacy with their partner, mothers will often turn to their children for fulfillment of this need. Many times in these instances, the fathers turn to their careers. Likewise, if a single mother or father turns to their child to fulfill their emotional intimacy needs, this also leads to enmeshment. When there is a lack of an emotionally intimate relationship in one’s life, a parent will often turn to their child or children to relieve the unconscious hole. When an individual or the couple goes to therapy and begins to heal internally, this need will subside. A healthy relationship with one’s self leads to healthy relationships with others; most importantly with your spouse or partner and your children. You won’t have a need to fill a hole in yourself with something external like a child, because it it will be filled by you already.
Children who become enmeshed with a parent often become depressed and withdrawn. Some are living the life their parents want for them and they may become overachievers, putting a tremendous amount of pressure on themselves to become “perfect” in their parents’ eyes. Many times they are reenacting their parent’s pattern for life rather than creating their own experience. Other children may feel an obligation to stay with a parent who has no close intimate relationships or lacks a career or other life interests to focus on. The child becomes a caretaker; part of the parent’s world, taking care of their parent’s needs instead of the other way around. Many times it becomes worse when the child enters the teenage years as the parent feels the inevitable tug of independence. Feeling a natural sense of the child wanting more separation and individuation, the parent will use subtle and sophisticated emotional manipulation to guilt the child into staying in the enmeshed relationship at the child’s expense.
A simple definition of enmeshment is when a parent is overly involved with their child’s life. If you recognize any of the signs or symptoms of an enmeshed relationship with your child, you have already take the first step of awareness. While many people may think that their close relationship with their child is healthy, when it is enmeshed, it is not. Children are separate from us and as such have separate needs, feelings, and experiences than us. It is healthy to have a child assert their independence and to see you, the parent, leading a healthy and balanced life outside of the child’s. If you spend too much time with your child, if your child does not have many friends or outside interests, look inward to see if you have an unhealthy parent-child relationship. If you lack an emotionally intimate relationship in your life and you have a child or children, assess whether your relationship with your child(ren) is enmeshed. Just like couples need outside interests besides themselves, so do children and their parents. Children do not benefit from becoming the center of our universe. As they age, it is natural to allow them to develop their own lives separate from our own; their own interests separate from our own; their own selves separate from our own. We do our children a huge disservice when they live a life we put upon them. What a huge burden to have to go through life living through the eyes of a parent’s instead of their own. What a huge challenge for them as they grow up to be confronted with a world in which they are not the center of the universe.