enmeshment n. a condition in which two or more people, typically family members, are involved in each other’s activities and personal relationships to an excessive degree, thus limiting or precluding healthy interaction and compromising individual autonomy and identity. (APA)
The texture of something is most usually that which can be described by the touch (as in cloth) or the sound (as in music), or in visual terms (as in art). The texture of enmeshment, is that which can be described in psychological and emotional terms, as the experience of the relationship between people. Thus, when I talk about the texture of enmeshment, I am talking about the way in which the enmeshed parent and child, are experienced as being without boundaries, close to each other in a way that most parent/child relationships are not.
When I talk about the texture of enmeshment, I am also talking about the boundarylessness of such relationships, where a parent is overly close in emotional and psychological terms, to the child and distant in places where one would expect a parent to be. In real terms this is evidenced by the parent who cannot experience their child as being separate from their own selves and then absent in terms of setting healthy boundaries for the child. Such parents will say that children know their own minds and can make their own decisions, even at times when the child is clearly not of an age where making their own informed decisions is possible. The texture of such relationships, gives a sense of a poorly woven sense of parenting, where the adult in the role of parent, appears confused about what their responsibilities are. One moment suffocatingly close, intrusive and incapable of determining who is who in the parent/child dyad, the next moment, distant in mind and sometimes body, absenting themselves from the responsibility of ensuring that the child, is provided with the care to which they are entitled.
In divorce and separation, children are exposed to the pressures placed upon their parents as they progress through the psychological change from together to apart. Children in such circumstances, are wide open to the pressures which cause pathological (hyper) alignment and rejection dynamics, however not all children fall into the use of defensive splitting, a curiosity which continues to appear in my clinical work, where even in the same family, one child will capitulate and others will not, almost as if the capitulating child is taking the brunt of the harm done whilst the others escape.
Johnston and Roseby (1997), demonstrate that where a child says no to a relationship with parent who was once loved dearly and who has not contributed anything which might cause such a reaction, one only has to have three ingredients present.
- A vulnerable child, likely one who has experienced early developmental trauma.
- A parent with control over the child who has uncontained and often uncontainable psychological material.
- A parent who is placed at distance and unable to parent due to the control over the child wielded by the other parent.
In such circumstances, the vulnerable child is rendered helpless and is often, in the run up to the onset of defensive splitting, seen to be struggling to cope with the pressures being placed upon them. (One of the reasons why we carefully curate the events which lead to the onset of splitting, is that we know that when we understand what happened to cause the child to enter the defence, we can better understand how to alleviate the pressures which caused it in the first place).
On closer inspection, what is seen to be happening in the relationship between the vulnerable parent and child is a range of pathological behavioural responses in parent and child, which include enmeshment, abandonment threat, identification with the aggressor (Howell 2014 ), (where the child splits off the awareness of sadistic and intrusive/controlling behaviours in the influencing parent and instead of resisting those, mimics them and then projects them at the rejected parent). The child in these circumstances, is a victim of that parent’s control and intrusiveness and a perpetrator of the same kind of sadistic and vindictive behaviour they have witnessed.
The uneven texture of the enmeshed relationship between an intrusive and controlling parent and a vulnerable child, is one which requires as much illumination as possible because it is this which lies at the heart of what is popularly called parental alienation. In our work in the family courts, we so not use the phrase parental alienation, because we do not need to, even though it is accepted in case law in the UK. We do not use the term parental alienation in our clinical practice either, largely because it is unnecessary and unhelpful to do so. Instead we use the clinical literature to articulate the underlying harms that are seen when children are seen to be using defensive splitting, we assess for how they came to be using the defence and then we intervene using psychotherapeutic programmes to test whether a parent can or cannot, will or will not change the behaviours which are causing the child to align with one parent and reject the other.
In an enmeshed relationship, the child is often prevented from knowing that they have an independent self and alienated children in divorce and separation are often pre-prepared for the alignment and rejection behaviours which are seen in alienation via what Kerig (2005) called boundary dissolution.
The breakdown of appropriate generational boundaries between parents and children significantly increase the risk for emotional abuse.Kerig, (2005) Revisiting the Construct of Boundary Dissolution: A Multi-Dimensional Perspective. Journal of Emotional Abuse ,5, 5-42.
In such a situation, there is a little in the way of generational hierarchy, meaning that children are seen as being friends or even allies during the period post separation. In a wider context, the idea that family hierarchies, generational or otherwise, should not exist at all, is one which is promulgated by some ideological campaigners.
Within this environment, work to resolve the dynamics which cause the split state of mind in the child is often futile as it simply circles around competing belief systems. Enmeshed parents will find others who support their belief that a child should be in charge of the decision making about who they do and do not have a relationship with and will carefully seek out professionals who might align with them. Many a case of alignment and rejection, will feature the enmeshed parent who is busy weaving professionals into their worldview, directing the gaze of naive practitioners towards the parent who is being rejected. This is the warp of the enmeshed parent, the weft is the sometimes frightening, always threatening, decompensation into a furious and vengeful state of mind in which complaint, allegation and litigation will soon follow.
This work is not for the faint hearted. Helping children who are enmeshed with a parent to recover their right to a sense of self, requires intervening and being able to cope with the backlash which that brings. One only has to look online to see the kind of attacks that those of us who do this work have to cope with from ideological campaigners who unleash their own uncontained material in our direction from time to time.
Enmeshment is one of the underlying harms in alienation, there are many more. Articulating those so that what lies beneath alienation of children in divorce and separation is properly understood by the outside world as child abuse, is an ongoing task.
Howell EF. Ferenczi’s concept of identification with the aggressor: understanding dissociative structure with interacting victim and abuser self-states. Am J Psychoanal. 2014 Mar;74(1):48-59. doi: 10.1057/ajp.2013.40. PMID: 24603172.
Johnston, Janet & Roseby, Vivienne. (2005). In the Name of the Child: A Developmental Approach to Understanding and Helping Children of Conflicted and Violent Divorce. Family Court Review. 36. 317-319. 10.1111/j.174-1617.1998.tb00511.x.
Kerig, (2005) Revisiting the Construct of Boundary Dissolution: A Multi-Dimensional Perspective. Journal of Emotional Abuse ,5, 5-42.
Family Separation Clinic Evaluation
The work of the Family Separation Clinic over the past twelve years is currently being evaluated by a UK University to provice an evidence base for the model used by the Clinic. An accredited training which is based upon the outcome of the evaluation is currently in preparation. Linking the outcomes of the work with the model used, will provide practitioners all over the world with a route to intervention in cases where children are alienated. Voices of children who are over the age of 18 now, who were moved in residence transfer, will form a core part of this evaluation to illuminate the reality of what happens when the Court intervenes in serious cases of alienation. Articulating the harms done to children who are alienated is also part of the evaluation programme.
Results from this evaluation will be available in 2022. This is a separately funded project to ensure that the independence of the evaluation is protected.
Coming Home – A Podcast from the Lighthouse Project
In September I will be interviewing a father whose children were moved to live with him in residence transfer in 2016 to provide a unique glimpse of the recovery journey of the alienated child, the use of therapeutic parenting and the FSC model in supporting long term recovery of residence transfer children. The podcast will be available on my Anchor Channel and I will let you know when it is ready.