Enmeshed Family System Vs. Distant: How to Deal

Having recently binged Six Feet Under (2001-2005), one of the best TV dramas I’ve ever seen, I’m left with a myriad of thoughts about its depiction of mental health issues and therapy. One major theme, for example, involves being the adult children of therapists—but that’s a topic that’s already been covered on this blog. One topic I haven’t covered, though, is the concept of an enmeshed family versus a distant family.

Although this post is not specifically about Six Feet Under, series viewers may recognize that the therapist Chenowiths (Robert Foxworth, Joanna Cassidy), the parents of adult kids Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) and Billy (Jeremy Sisto), are said to represent an enmeshed family system.

On the other hand, the funeral directing Fisher parents (Frances Conroy, Richard Jenkins), with adult kids Nate, David, and Claire (Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Lauren Ambrose), represent a distant or disengaged or detached family system.

Enmeshed Family

Margaret R. Rutherford, PhD (Psychology Today) describes some aspects that can be representative of the poor boundaries of enmeshment:

One parent shares too much; another one lives through a child’s success. A child gets the message that it’s not OK to be independent. Instead, you’re expected to be a parent’s confidante. Your life isn’t your own. It might never occur to you not to include your parent in your daily comings and goings or even your decisions.

Dr. Pat Love‘s 1990 book The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to Do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life is cited by Rutherford. (Emotional incest is Love’s term for enmeshment.) From Love’s website:

…(T)hey rob their kids of the experience of learning and teach them to be helpless, dependent, incompetent, and entitled. If this doesn’t alarm you enough, over-functioning parents rob children of two of life’s most important skills: emotional regulation and mastery. When parents ease a child’s anxiety by taking away all stress, struggle, responsibility, delayed gratification, the child learns that other people have to alter their behaviors in order for the child to feel calm. They fail to learn emotional regulation—one of the most important skills in life.

Sharon Martin at Psych Central offers some suggestions for breaking free from the effects of enmeshment. (Go to the link for further details.)

  1. Set boundaries.
  2. Discover who you are.
  3. Stop feeling guilty.
  4. Get support.

Distant Family

One of the few experts online who describes the distant, detached, or disengaged family, Maryann Paleologopoulos, MSW, LICSW, says the following about this type:

…frequently characterized as having poor communication both in frequency and quality and has no established patterns or norms to provide effective support and guidance to one another. Family members tend to be isolated from their overall family system, or may form small and isolated pockets of connection within the larger system. Some members of a detached family system are ambivalent to engage or confront one another in order to offer or receive support for fear it will be considered intrusive or a burden, while others may see it is as easier to be avoidant and seek the path of least resistance when situations arise.

Possible effects from being raised in a distant family, per Paleologopoulis:

…long term ability to form healthy attachments and relationships into adulthood is compromised….paves the path for broken relationships, an inability to understand the world, and an overall sense of victimization and a stagnant development…become people pleasers in order to avoid conflict, discover alternative, unhealthy patterns of behavior in order to get their own needs met, and ultimately lose out on experiencing intimacy and trust with those closest to them.

Various forms of therapy can help. However, “It is difficult personal work and requires the fortitude and desire to make the changes necessary to successfully break the cycle of detachment.”

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