How Enmeshment Ruins Parent-Child Relationships and the Child’s Autonomy

Enmeshment as an Adult

Case Study: Freda, Pearl, and Neta

In order to understand enmeshment, take a look at this case study of three generations of women.

Freda is a hardworking person. She budgets her money, so she can have what she needs and what she wants from time to time. This year, she wanted the Italian made knee-high boots that were all the rage. The boots were out of her budget, but Freda cut back on eating out and saved her money to buy them.

When they arrived in the mail, Freda knew she had made the right choice. The boots were beautiful! The artisan who made them had used the finest leather, and they molded right to her foot. Though they had a high heel, they felt comfortable to her, and she couldn’t wait to wear them.

Just as she had predicted, everyone who saw the boots loved them! Freda looked so good wearing them, whether with jeans or a mini-skirt. She received a lot of compliments from friends and strangers about how attractive she looked. Freda felt thrilled and loved the attention!

Of course, when she got invited to Thanksgiving dinner with the family, she had to wear those boots with a black leather skirt and white flowing top. She knew she looked good, and her attitude showed it. Freda looked like she belonged on a magazine cover.

She was an attractive woman, and the outfit highlighted that. She had even had her hair professionally styled. She had not seen her family in a while and wanted to make a good impression.

When Freda arrived at her mother’s home, she reached out to hug her mother.

“Hey, Ma!” Freda said excitedly.

Her mother reared back to avoid her touch and said, “Freda, what are you wearing? You look like a prostitute. Why you come here dressed like that? And your hair? Why don’t you go put it in a bun or something? You look like a wild woman with your hair all over your head like that!”

Enmeshment as an Adult

Freda was so embarrassed. All she could say in a meek voice was, “Hey, Ma.”

Her mother’s words cut her deeply and made her feel small and unworthy. Freda had not seen her mother in person for so long because of the pandemic. She thought maybe, just maybe, she would be nice and grateful to see Freda alive and well at the dinner.

But no, she was her usual overly critical, negative self that could drain a room of oxygen as soon as she opened her mouth.

Freda looked around at everyone else to see if they had a reaction to what her mother said. Did they think she looked like a prostitute too? Freda suddenly wanted to run and hide.

Why did she wear that outfit she thought? Freda was reconsidering her purchase of the boots, the outfit, and accepting the invitation to dinner. She begin to question whether or not all the people who had complimented her on the boots were lying and just trying to make her feel good because her mother wouldn’t lie to her, right?

By the time the family set down to dinner, Freda had borrowed a sweater from her cousin and had gathered her hair into a bun, so she was more presentable. She hardly touched her food or said much during dinner. She didn’t want to draw any more attention to herself. She felt like a fool.

I know you have a few choice words for Freda’s mother. But before you unleash on her, I want you to close your eyes and go back thirty years to Freda’s great grandmother Neta’s house. Freda is five years old, and her mother Pearl is 30 years old. Pearl is a very attractive young woman who compliments her beauty with her clothes. Her attire is always impeccable, classy, and fashion forward.

While they are waiting for dinner to start, Neta, Pearl, and Freda are seated in the living room. Neta is reading a book while Pearl is trying to converse with her. There are long pauses between the two as Pearl tries to keep the conversation going while Neta ignores her and brushes her off.

“How have you been, Mama? It’s so good to see you,” Pearl says.

Neta looks up from her book and says, “What are you wearing, Pearl? No respectable woman wears her skirt above her knees. You look like a streetwalker. You should go change. You have some presentable clothes in your old room.”

Pearl tries to disappear into the couch and looks as if she wants to cry. Young Freda sees how hurt her mother is and is angry at her grandmother. Pearl looks beautiful and until her mother’s words sliced through her self-esteem, she knew it too. But Pearl wanted her mother’s approval and felt ashamed of herself for her appearance that displeased her mother.

Pearl hardly touched her food at dinner or said very much for the rest of the evening. But she went and changed into some clothes that were more presentable to her mother. But that didn’t lighten her mood.

You see a pattern here? If we could observe Neta as a young woman, what are the chances that we would see her mother being harsh and hurtful with her, criticizing her appearance? That negative behavior came from somewhere, and with each generation, the women carried on the tradition of belittling and demeaning their daughters.

Now it’s Freda’s turn. Will she continue the tradition of mental and emotional abuse passed down to her by her foremothers? Or will she gather her strength and break those toxic generational patterns for good? We hope for the latter.

 What did you just observe? What is happening between these women? This is an example of generational toxicity that comes from enmeshment.

What is Enmeshment?

Enmeshment is a term used to describe a close, unhealthy relationship where one person’s happiness depends on  another. Relationships can be enmeshed when two people are so close that they cannot function effectively as individuals. They may feel like they cannot live without each other or that their individual identities are lost or blurred.

It can also happen when one person becomes so dependent on the other that they lose their identity and sense of self-worth. A major component of enmeshment is “enmeshed thinking.” This refers to the inability of one person to think for themselves because they are so connected to the other person’s thoughts and emotions. It’s often seen in codependent relationships.

We can describe codependency as an emotional, physical, or mental addiction to another person. It reflects an unhealthy dependence on the needs of other people. Codependency can affect people of any gender, race, religion, socioeconomic status, or age.

Enmeshment is also a term often used to describe the relationship between parent and child. However, the word can also describe relationships between lovers, friends, coworkers and more.

Closing Thoughts

In our scenario, Neta, Pearl, and Freda are enmeshed with one another. We saw how independent and outgoing both Freda and Pearl were on their own. But did you notice how they lost that confidence when interacting with their mothers? There is definitely some codependency in their relationship, and they have to analyze their interactions and ask themselves why they are doing this to one another?

They may never find the origins of their enmeshment, but they can certainly trace it back many generations. This level of neediness is  unhealthy, leading to problems with identity, autonomy, and intimacy. Healing an enmeshed relationship can be difficult, but it is possible to break free from the unhealthy ties that bind people together.

There are many ways to heal an enmeshed relationship – either by oneself or with the help of a therapist. One way is to first identify the type of enmeshment which you are working on—this could be emotional, physical or financial dependency on one another. Second, you need to create boundaries in your relationship by setting up rules for yourself and for others on what you will allow and what you will not. Third, you need to practice healthy communication skills and speak up for yourself in a non-threatening way.

You can break these harmful generational cycles and put your life on the right track, free from trauma and toxic patterns. It starts with one person who wants more for their life and refuses to follow the dysfunctional behavior they observed as a child. It starts with you.

To learn more about breaking dysfunctional generational patterns, pick up a copy of my book Choosing to Stop the Madness: Overcoming Toxic Family Patterns. In it I describe how I ended generations of dysfunctional family cycles and unhealthy parenting in my life. I can show you how to do the same in yours.

If you feel you need the help of a therapist to end enmeshment and codependency, reach out to for support.

Please share this article with those who can benefit from it. Subscribe here to receive updates from me

Together, we can help support and heal each other. What a wonderful world that would be!

Thank you for spending your time with me. I’m sending you peace, love, and light!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *