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Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Essays and Blogs Concerning Mental and Emotional Health

Boundaries and Dysfunctional Family Systems

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Aug 1st 2006

"I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again."

- from "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost

I'm returning to my ongoing essay series concerning the technical contributions of various schools of psychotherapy to the psychotherapy process. I covered psychodynamic, behavioral and cognitive-behavioral contributions in past months, and also the importance of non-technical aspects of psychotherapy. According to my plan for how all of this gets laid out there are two more key therapy schools to cover, these being the Family Systems and Humanist schools. Today's essay concerns the important contribution of the Family Systems school.

an open gate looking onto a fieldFamily Systems practitioners are the ecologists in my scheme for describing the various schools. Accordingly, we should start by talking about what it means to be ecological. To be ecological means to understand that creatures that appear to be independent beings aren't really independent at all, but rather are fundamentally interdependent on one another and on their shared environment for their continued survival. The term originated within the field of Biology when the study of living systems such as oceans, forests and prairies revealed how inseparably interlinked many species are. A simple and common example illustrates. Flowers require bees to pollinate for them so that they can reproduce, while bees require flower pollen for food, or whatever it is that they do with pollen. While a bee and a flower can be said to exist independently of one another, they do not occur that way in nature, and neither might survive for long if indefinitely deprived of the other. Though individual species are distinct in form, they exist in context of a "whole cloth" community of species no part of which can be unraveled without unraveling the rest. 

Though individual clinicians have grasped the intrinsically social and ecological nature of identity since the early days of therapy (e.g., Freud's idea of Transference, and contributions of lesser known but nevertheless important psychodynamic clinicians such as Harry Stack Sullivan), it was not until the 1950s and 60s that an organized and fully ecological vision of psychotherapy took shape in the form of what is today called Family Systems theory. In this very social vision of therapy, groups of people operating as units are the proper client to which therapists must address their efforts. Individuals exist, but problems they experience are not individual but rather are social in nature. Social problems can only be comprehended when viewed in their social context. Not surprisingly, the approach was pioneered by clinicians working with families and couples, and has been championed by the Social Work profession.

Numerous authors contributed to the development of the Family Systems perspective, including influential clinicians such as Virginia Satir, Murray Bowen, Jay Haley and Salvador Minuchin. In today's essay, I want to focus on one important theoretical contribution in particular, made I believe by Dr. Minuchin, which is the idea of boundaries, because, in my humble opinion, if you understand about boundaries as they exist in social groups, you have understood the core vision of the Family Systems perspective, and have access to a tremendous conceptual tool useful for understanding how to help patients (or yourself).

A boundary is a barrier; something that separates two things. Walls, fences and cell membranes are examples of physical boundaries. Psychological boundaries can be said to exist too, even though such boundaries have no physical reality. Psychological boundaries are constructed of ideas, perceptions, beliefs and understandings that enable people to define not only their social group memberships, but also their own self-concepts and identities. Such boundaries are the basis by which people distinguish between "We" or "I" (group members; insiders; part of "Us") and "Other" (outsiders and examples of what is "not-self"). Each person can be said to have a psychological identity boundary around themselves by which they distinguish themselves from other people. Like other boundaries, this identity boundary both separates people and also defines how they are linked together. This is to say that the act of drawing the boundary itself provides the basis for saying that one person is separate from another psychologically, but does so only by drawing a distinction between those two people, which implies a relationship, never the less. Self cannot exist without also "Not-self" existing, just as figure cannot exist without ground against which to contrast. Identity necessarily includes social relationships which are built into the self to varying degrees.

The member/non-member distinction that is afforded by drawing an identity boundary applies not only to individuals, but also to social groups. Boundaries are also drawn around committed couples, separating them from other people, and in the process making two individuals into an "Us". You could say that the commitment that two people share to be a couple is exactly the boundary they draw around themselves itself. Again, there is no physical reality to the boundary, but it is there nevertheless. Other sorts of social groups (co-workers, board members, etc.) are similarly bounded as well, making them into a cohesive group through the process of drawing a distinction between what they do together and what other people do.

Social groups of any size are seldom uniform things. Rather, there are frequently sub-groups that form within larger groups that have special status and power within the group as a whole. The prototype for this sort of power hierarchy is the nuclear family (e.g., parents with children). Parents function as a powerful and bounded subgroup within the larger group known as the family. Younger children function as a subgroup as well, but one with less power than parents have.

Other examples of common power heirarchies include the workplace, where almost always, an executive sub-group has power over a worker sub-group, and government, where a similar sort of executive sub-group governs a sub-group of citizens. These sort of hierarchies, unevenly sharing power amongst subgroups within larger social groupings is a normal condition.

I said that in addition to distinguishing people from one another that boundaries also help to relate people as well. There is a literal sense in which this is true, having to do with how boundaries function to regulate communications between people. A boundary around parents, for example, is what enables parents to have a private life separate from their children. Parents share confidences and sexual intimacy with one another, secure and trusting in the knowledge that such confidences and intimacies will remain private and not shared with outsiders (here including both "outside" outsiders such as true strangers, and "inside" outsiders (e.g., family members who are not parents, such as children). Despite there being a distinct class of information which stays within the boundary that parents draw around themselves, there is also an even larger class of information that parents are free to share with children. Parents do share their love with their children, for instance, talking to children freely about how they are valued, and providing guidance and discipline to help those children learn how to become responsible healthy adults (at least that is ideally how it goes). So boundaries function to keep some information private, while allowing other information to pass through unimpeded They are thus semi-permeable filters, rather than absolute brick walls.

Note again that boundaries have no physical reality, but exist nevertheless, being implicit in how people relate to one another. The boundary between two parents is built of mutual commitment and trust that neither parent will choose to share private information or betray a confidence with non-members of their "group of two" (e.g., their private committed relationship).

Having covered the preliminaries, we can start to get to the meat of why knowing about boundaries is important for effective therapy. There are ideal shapes that boundaries should have, and ideal filtering capabilities too. Psychological problems are very likely to occur when boundaries get bent far out of their ideal shape or cease to filter information properly.

Such an abstract set of statements as my last paragraph contains cries out for a concrete example, so here is one. Ideally, a family system (consisting of parents and children) will have a particular shape that works to help insure the mental and emotional health of its members. Each parent needs to be able to trust the other parent and feel secure in their mutual bond. The parents need to identify themselves as parents and function together to coordinate their children's upbringing. Parents need to keep some information away from children (such as information about their sexual relationship, or worrisome information such as the state of family finances, etc.), but be sure to communicate other information clearly (such as their love for their children). Children ideally need to be allowed an age-appropriate amount of autonomy, but not allowed to have so much autonomy that they feel neglected or not also reigned in when that is necessary. Most families decidedly don't manage to do all of this perfectly, but many do manage to pull off enough of these goals to make it work.

Then there are the families where there are significantly non-ideal and problematic boundaries. The parents who fail to nurture their children, or who nurture them so much that the children feel smothered. The parents who do not manage to keep their private business private; who sexualize their children before they are ready for that information, or who recruit children into adult confidant roles and confide their loneliness or anger towards the other spouse. The parents who divorce ungracefully and continue to fight after their divorce is complete, using their children as messengers. There are many examples of how boundary problems within families can create significant pain for family participants.

You already most likely know the term used to describe these families whose boundaries are seriously non-ideal. They are called "Dysfunctional Families". That popular term comes out of the Family Systems literature.

Enmeshment and Detachment

I said above that boundaries have an ideal shape, and an ideal information filtering ability, but really, if you think about it, a boundary's shape is really a function of its ability to filter information properly. A functional boundary (that works to make family members healthy and happy by keeping information appropriately hidden or available) will have a correct and more or less ideal shape. When the boundary doesn't filter properly (when all information passes through, or no information passes through), it will have a wrong shape too.

Any given group's (or individual's or sub-group's) defining boundary can be evaluated based on how well and how situation-appropriately it filters information. Some information needs to be kept private, while other information needs to be shared. Deciding what to share and what to keep private is a moving target and a balancing act, however. It is easy to inadvertently share something you're not supposed to share, or to withhold something that would be better to share. Good judgment is called for so that extremes of over-sharing, or under-sharing do not occur. Boundaries that chronically fail to keep people separated enough are typically described as "enmeshed", while boundaries that fail to keep people related enough are described as "detached". As a general rule, it is not a good thing to be too enmeshed or too detached. Family systems that can be characterized by consistently enmeshed or detached subsystems are likely to be Dysfunctional Families in the truest sense of that phrase.

Some examples of dysfunctional family systems will help to illustrate how over-enmeshment and over-detachment function and why it is problematic. Let's consider a common sort of scenario where two married partners with a child have marital problems. Perhaps one of the partners has had one or more sexual or emotional affairs outside the marriage, and this has not been disclosed to the other partner who only knows that something is wrong. Here is an example of a relationship boundary that has become overly detached, meaning that the boundary around the couple is failing to continue to distinguish them as a couple; the boundary's filter closes down, important information is not shared, and appropriate privacy is not being maintained. Early on, the failure is unilateral, occurring in the mind of the straying partner more so than in the mind of the faithful partner, but since it takes two people to have a relationship, if one partner fails, the relationship ultimately must fail too.

Now, consider that the couple divorces and splits custody of their child. The partner who has been left is perhaps bitter, angry and humiliated about the experience, and feels a great internal pressure to have someone to vent this emotion towards. If that parent is able to maintain a healthy boundary as a parent, some other outlet other than the child will be chosen and the child will be spared that role of "shoulder to cry upon". If the parent is overwhelmed and unable to keep the boundary between parent and child intact, then the child may be recruited as a confidant and exposed to a world of pain that he or she is not ready to process. This would be an example of enmeshment, where family members that should, for their own health, retain separate roles become instead fused together inappropriately and too much information is shared.

Now, consider a further twist. Let's say that the two parents cease to want to talk to each other, and start to do their communicating through their child. Every time the child transfers to a parent's house, he or she is told to tell the other parent a bunch of information. Even worse, each parent may start putting the other parent down in front of the child, in the process, loading the child up with conflicting duties and emotions. The child may even be inappropriately asked to choose one parent over the other. This sort of communication through a child is an example of Triangulation, which is a common shape suggesting unhealthy boundaries are present. In this scenario, the child's emotional life is hijacked and invaded by his or her parent's unhealthy agendas, and the child suffers as a result.

The Psychodynamic school of thought has a concept that makes sense to talk about here, known as "Introjection". Introjection can be said to be occurring when someone indoctrinates another person in a forceful or dogmatic manner, not allowing for any possibility of that other person choosing or not choosing to believe what is taught. Introjection is an ultimate sort of boundary invasion. When someone has been introjected, it is like they have been colonized by an invading army. The person's "native" ideas are suppressed in favor of the introjected ideas. Introjected people are not always aware that they have been introjected, especially when this occurs at a young age.

So – this is more or less how psychological boundary problems occur and what they might look like. Therapists who are boundary-aware (e.g., Family Systems trained therapists like Marriage and Family Therapists or MFTs and many Social Workers) will look for boundary problems as they evaluate a family or group they are working with. Their therapy will consist of an active effort to help reconfigure the family system so that boundary problems are resolved and restored to a more ideal shape.

How can a normal person learn to identify when they are experiencing boundary problems within the groups and family systems they are a part of? There are several tell-tale signs you can look for. One is that you feel invaded or somehow trampled or disregarded by the actions of another person you're in a relationship with (no matter how transient or informal that relationship might be). If this is the case, you might do well to seek out Assertiveness Training assistance, as this sort of thing will help you re-establish the intactness of the boundary you draw around yourself.

Another way to become aware of boundary problems is to look for points of unreasonable rigidity within your relationships. Healthy relationships have a certain amount of flex to them; they can bend a little bit without breaking. Enmeshed relationships or entrenched and detached relationships are generally more rigid in nature. Overly enmeshed people will talk about duty and honor as though they are defined completely by these things (which they may well be). They will be unwilling to compromise their duty to others even when it can be demonstrated logically and rationally to them that their loyalty is misplaced or exaggerated. Overly detached people will be unwilling to revisit relationships they have written off even when there is evidence that the underlying conditions that necessitated detachment in the first place have been addressed.

Please don't get the idea that all enmeshment or detachment is bad for you. For example, it is a healthy thing to detach yourself from some terminally troubled relationships and to never reconsider returning to them. This is definitely the case when you are in an abusive relationship. It may also be the case when you are in a relationship with a seriously personality disordered person such as a Narcissist.

What is your experience? Many people are proud to say that they have escaped "dysfunctional families". Are you one of them? Are you perhaps in one of them now? How aware are you of your own boundaries and those of the family and social groups you are a part of? How have your efforts to maintain your own boundaries helped you to cope or to grow as a person. How have your experiences with inappropriate family boundaries affected you? In general, what are your thoughts? As always, your comments are welcome, and being able to read through thoughtful comments helps make an essay such as this one that much more interesting.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Presently, he is an Oakland Psychologist (Lic#PSY25695) in private practice offering evidence-based acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and addressing a range of life problems. Contact Dr. Dombeck by calling 510-900-5123, send Dr. Dombeck email or visit Dr. Dombeck's practice website for more information.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Afraid of my brother, what to do? Please help! - Tanja - Apr 1st 2012


I am in a really difficult position and although I have been going over my options over and over again, I just don't know what to do.

I grew up in with an alcoholic father, enabling mother and obusive brother. My brohter is 7 years older and clearly there is something wrong with him. He has a difficult personality, does not get along with people, always thinks he is right and always frowns (also tried to commit suicide, was on drugs but now fairly stable?). I have a feeling he is jealous of me because I 'made it' (i.e. I look more succesful, people like me....although I have been having problems with depression and anxiety) in life.

I left my home country when I was 17 (got a scholarship in the US) and never came back home. Throughout the years I went back to visit and either did not tell my parents that I am coming (I just saw my friends) or went back with my husband so that he can 'protect' me in front of my brother whom I am terribly scared off (I think my fear of him is exagerated but it is justified in many ways).

I now have a good husband and 2 beautiful daughters. They keep in touch with my parents via Skype and both of my parents (now divorced) have come for a visit in the US. Now I am ready to go back to the Czech Republic and show my daughters the place where I have grew up. However, I do not want to hang out with my brother (who now has a family). But if we go we stay with my mom who is emeshed with my brother and will want to have dinner with him, invite him (and his family) over...with which I will be VERY uncomfortable. If I tell my mom that I don't want to see him she will freak out and may pout. Also, I am afraid if my brother finds out that I came for a visit and don't want to see him, he will get mad and do something to me (unracional fear?).

So what's the solution? Go incognito? Then I will have peace but my children won't get to see their grandparents and I will feel increadibly guilty :(((

Help, please, I need to make a decision - I really want to go back home (have not been for years) but I am afraid of my brother. If he was gone, everything would be so much easier :(((

I guess the question is if my brother could really do something to me? I have fears that he is going to drag me away from a dinner table and kill me with a knife in the bathroom or something. I know it's grewsome but that's what my childhood did to me. So should I just face him and take Zanax to calm myself? Bcse most likely he is not going to do it

thank you - alex - Feb 12th 2012

thank you to the author for the article and to the commenters - it has been nice to read about others having similar experiences to me. In my experience there really is an "ecology" in my family, in terms of the way emotional boundaries are (dis)respected, that makes it different from the world outside of that family. Viewed in one sense, it is just different, but from the perspective of someone who has taken that pattern of behaviour and used it in the outside world, it is highly antisocial and undermines the dignity of others. It is very upsetting for me to have to reflect on my own behaviour in the outside world and see that (not deliberately or even consciously) my behaviour has really violated the emotional boundaries of others. This creates some fallout, which is very upsetting. I have had the "enlightenment" in my thirties of realising that my behaviour, all along, has really been dysfunctional. changing my behaviour has meant addressing a lot of things - my principles, values, who I really am and what I really want, how I want to treat others and live my life, how I became this way due to my dysfunctional family, and what I am going to do about it, and although an incredibly painful and tormenting and challenging experience, I believe it is all for the better and will lay the basis for me being happier and less stressed in the future. I am learning for the first time that if I identify my needs, and choose to take responsibility for addressing them, and take pride in finding the solutions to my problems, I can be happy for the first time in my life. I can achieve a sense of fulfilment that I have missed out on all my life. I want to contribute my point of view to others in the same situation that one should not feel guilty for bearing such scars from a codependent family, and not feel like a "bad" person - it is just unfortunate, and unfortunatley life did not have to be fair - bad things happen to good people - some poeple get cancer, and some are raised in to an envirnment withouth healthy emotional boundaries. I just feel like someone who has been wounded by this toxic family environment, and now, having seen the wounds I am choosing to heal myself and become a healthier and complete person. I dont think words can really describe the sense of being emotionally raped / incestualised by parents who take control of a childs inner world - who overstep boundaries to take on control of that childs relationhsip with themselves - who determine how that child will identify and respond to their needs, and in so doing really serve their own, essentially creating a slave- it is highly damaging, and I can say that the wounds are very deep and very sore. And it is complicated by the fact that it is conceptually really hard to understand, and really hard to actually identify, because for me it started I think from birth, and therefore became a part of me and is very insidious to uncover the reality. But here is where life experiecne comes in- having experiences, getting out of the "cult" of a dysfunctional family is probably the best medicine. I am at the point where, having joined a normal ecology, I am challenged to respect the boundaries of others and enforce the boundaries of myself. It is a positive experience to enforece ones boundaries and say "these are my problems, and I have the freedom to address them myself" "others dont ahve the right to make me feel guilty for how I choose to identify and address my needs" " I am enforcing my own freedom to live my life the way I want to". I think that is fundamental to life and happiness. And I think that disrespecting emotional boundaries undermines all of that, and that is why this is an important topic for those of us who have grown up in families where emotional boundaries are not respected- the ecology of Mars, perhaps, compared to that of our planet Earth!

Can enmeshment be diagnosed or proven? - - Nov 4th 2011

Is there any test to prove enmeshment?  A child psychologist states she perceives some level of enmeshment to be present between a mother and her son (age 8).   The mother has been the child's primary caregiver since birth and the parents divorced when the child was 2.  The child visits the father where he is exposed to drug use, sales, other criminal activity, has witnessed domestic violence between the father and girlfriends and has tried to intervene, complains of being bullied by father, name called , intimidated, interrogated, etc and says he is afriad of his father.  The mother raised these concerns to the child psychologist and provided court documents and sworn statements by adults who were present in the father's home corroborating the information.  The child psychologist is now asking for the mother to complete psychological testing to investigate suspected enmeshment.  Common sense would say the child has legatimte reasons to be afraid of his father and is drawn to or more aligned with the mother because she has been his primary caregiver, provides warm nurturing parenting and security, and a home where he not exposed to violence, power and control dynamics, drug abuse or criminal activity. How does one disprove false accusations of enmeshment?

living with enmeshed family system as a spouse - Brenda - Nov 3rd 2011

Im sadden to read some of the comments above, as many of us struggle our whole lives and relationships battling an addiction in our spouses or family systems. Enmeshed systems are a form of addiction, codependancy,  a silent marriage killer. 

As a spouse, we need to separate this issues as our problem. We need to free our selves and begin to live our own life instead of struggling to have one of our own with our "partner/spouse". and "their" family systems.

This family systems ripple through many patterns and cause much pain, anxiety, depression and low self esteem.

I can only paray that our 3 girls have the wisdom not to repeat this codependancy, or end up with a partener with it, but they learn of what they see.

Is there a support group out there for enmeshed family issues and spouses that have lived this problem for years?

is there a cure?  can change or hope be outhere?




We Cut Our Hair At Thirty - anon - Sep 26th 2011

That one sentence, hidden in the comments below, was the gut-puncher for me.  I have NOT cut it, will not cut it, refuse to cut it, do not CARE if that is what women are "supposed" to do, and that those who do not are doing something against the natural order of things.  Good grief.  I am sitting here reading my LIFE for the past 22 years- decisions made FOR me not by me, and those decisions I have made (like buying my own car) being denigrated.  For years.  Patted on the head and told not to worry my pretty little head about things.  Until every single fear came true.  Or almost every one of them.  Had my laundry done for me, because I didn't do it on the MIL's schedule.  Had the kids hair cut without my permission.  Spent days alone without the kids because THEY wanted to have them.  Had an absentee husband/father- who pointed out that his parents were willing to help.  Funnily enough< I did not marry them. Except I did.  Every time I got angry- even nice angry, funny angry, joking angry- and pointed out that WE were perfectly capable of figuring things out on our own, I was shushed.  Nice people don't fight.  Nice people don't get angry.  Nice people when they ARE angry do it in private and never show it in public, as appearances are everything.  So- I would endure hockey games, teeth clenched, sitting beside them, fake smiling, and afterwards I would be ignored.  Not often, but enough to know that this was how it was going down.  I would tell people, and they would stare blankly, saying- But they are such NICE people- and they would never believe it.  

I watched Everyone Loves Raymond with my kids at out 7 pm suppers- much to the disdain if the MIL who thought that was an ungodly hour to eat.  One day a kid commented- Hey- that is just like Grandma, when Marie did something to belittle Deborah.  It was like an allegory of sorts for our lives- a private joke, a touchstone, a way to get through the constant unrelenting repeating interference.  


Kids are married or early adults now.  Still has not let up.  The expectation of family dinner once or twice a week is there.  They now do it when I work most times, because I am so negative.  If it happens when I am there AT MY HOUSE- I am disallowed to invite people or cook.  Oh- except for rice.  I can make that.  SHE is the cook.  SHE is the queen.  We are all her subjects, and we WILL eat her cake.  



A Hunch Validated - Atterol - Jun 9th 2011

My narrative is one of detachment, learned early in life it has enabled me to live a largely solitary existence. At 57 years, I met someone with whom I felt I would risk intimacy. It was the information exchange, not the delight of mutual attraction, that was the beginning of a bond that we each referred to as love. But I remember the first of the misgivings I had; it was his pronouncement that he would be relocating to the city where his married son lives, but not until his mother had passed and he sold his house. Other nuances of the relationship he has with his son surfaced. The daily phone conversations, the knowledge he had of the most personal aspects of his son's marriage, and the influence his son has on his decision making. He told me that years before he had sold a house in Washington state to follow his newly-wed son to Alaska, where the son had been transferred for work. He is gone now. He bought a house 1/4 mile from his son's house, moved his then 89 year old mother to a senior's residence, and was fortunate that his house sold here within a month. I was invited to follow along but declined the offer. In truth, there would never be a place for me with him. 

detachment from emeshment in family - Tonya - May 6th 2011

I'm a recovering alcoholic 45yr old daughter of an active alcoholic father and a active co-dependent Mother. I say this now with acceptance of where I came from. I have finally accepted it all because I'm "recovering" from an illness that has been at the root of my up-bringing. This is the second time in recovery for me all because the first time I could not come face-to-face with the emeshment, lack of boundaries, and enabling behavior of both my parents and I went into the denial system surrounding my FOO. The first time I got sober, I would set the boundaries with my Mother~however it came out as a complete hatred for the way she behaved towards me and I expected her to change her behavior because I was trying to change mine. I expected for her to go to Al-Anon and learn how to make changes with-in herself in order for us to have a better relationship. Although, she "says" she has gone to Al-Anon...that may have been true..however her controlling, belittiling, and angry behavior was still there. She was not in recovery. My Dad has never been to AA, there has never been a real intervention on him, and he still has not addmitted to being an alcoholic. I had a major relapse after I had come to live closer to my parents and I stayed in active addiction for 6yrs. Last September, I got into treatment and now am attending 12 step meetings. The awareness starting setting in, I started realizing how damaging my relationships with my parents are. And just how sick and twisted my parents behave. I was always the troubled one, the victim, the ""child" "role" stayed the same each and every attempt to standing up for myself and make my own way in life. Until now

As I walked to my car, I aked God to give me strength to say the truth. To give me the guidance, and to not be fearful. I went to my parents house. I stood up to the both of them, told the truth, drew the line by saying I no longer want contact until they get help AND I left. Now, I have done this before...but, I went against it each and every time. This time, the pain and guilt that I have held on to for years completely disappeared and I felt new and changed. God is changing me and I'm doing the foot work. Mom still calls me, Mom still invites me to her house..This just happened Saturday. I figure she is not taking me seriously...that's okay, I understand. It takes alot of courage to detach. It has taken many years to get to this point..God was preparing me for this all along and I'm so very grateful that I have a realationhip with Him. Good article!


Family - Business Enmeshment - Woke Up Too Late - Apr 22nd 2011

I am 62 years of age.  I was raised by a mom who was raped by 5 different men on the same evening.  My mom was a foster child runaway at 12 years old.  She met my dad when she wa 17.  They got married and I was born when she was 18 and my father was 20. My mother left school in 6th grade.  My father graduated high school.  My mother was always sick since the time I was born.  By the time I was 18, she had about 30 surgeries.

My mother was supposed to be aborted by her mother then 15 around 1930.  My mother never met her father.  My mother was a rageaholic throughout her life, very kind, and then screaming and throwing dishes and knives. 

My father was an alcoholic since his teens...a perfectionist alcoholic.  Our home was perfect looking, and when people came to dinner (mostly family) huge fights would break out before the dinner, because my mother was so angry about not having a family of her own during her growing up years.  My father was a good provider, worked many jobs to bring the money in.  He did not go to bars or womanize.  He always was telling me and my one brother (7 years younger) that he was a virgin when he met my mother, and she was the only woman he "ever had."  My father was usually depressed over the medical bills incurred by my mother's various illnesses.  They fought terribly about them.  I believe my mother had all these surgeries and symptoms building up to various surgeries because she was thrown away by her mother, was supposed to be aborted, raped, ran away, did not educate herself, and never knew what a real mother or father was. 

My mother put all her eggs in one basket.  I was that basket.  My mother controlled me fiercely.  I could not grow my emotional intelligence under my parents' influence.  They had great money struggles, too.  My father was basically invisible even though he came home every night.  I did not have much of a relationship with him.  It was a huge mess.

I saved some money for a cheap nursing school course I took.  I met my first spouse, from India there.  He was a doctor redoing his residency in the USA.  He was 42 when  met him and I was 18.  I got pregnant from him.  My mother blew up bad, because she was abandoned and here I was pregnant from someone 22 years older than myself.  The doctor I married told me he was 35 years old at the time.  He went back to India, and I found out he had a wife there and a child.  He left her to come to America because his father said so.  His mother died when he was 3 years old, and he was raised by servants.  He expected me to act as his servant.  He did not marry until one year after I had the baby.  "I had to prove myself as a worthy wife to him."  My parents did all the things for him he would not do. They were his servants, too.  They did all the repairs at my house, built his first office, and my mother did all the landscaping while he watched tennis on the television.  I fought with my second spouse alot, and he was violent at times.  Ex.  He would not do a simple chore like taking out the garbage when I was pregnant and just about due.   During this first marriage, we had no sexual relationship the last 4 years.  I became a cleaning fanatic, talking on the phone with my mother twice a day and more.  My parents were always coming over or vice versa...I was enmeshed with them severely, as I learned in later years in therapy.  I stayed with this spouse from 19 years till 29 years old.  I went for a separation.  By the time, I left, I had 2 daughters, one 10 and the other 5 years old.

My neighbor girlfriend told me she would teach me the ropes about meeting men after the divorce.  And so she took me to the local disco club.  I was very immature emotionally, and thought at the time that if I met anyone in the club, they would see what wonderful "wife material" I was.  Please know that the feminist movement just passed me by.  I had never worked much in my teens due to an serious eye disease that left both my eyes intermittently blind.  I realize now, I did not go through many important life passages to grow seeds of wisdom.  (Did lots of therapy on and off over the years)

My neighbor girlfriend was cheating on her spouse, and I found out he was cheating on her, too, at that time.  In any event, I married my neighbor's husband.  He was from Greece and two years older than me with a 10 year old son, the same age as my older daughter at that time when I was 29 years old.  We had a wild and passionate relationship.  He had gotten married at 17.  I was told by a therapist, that the two of us relived our teen years early on in our relationship.  We did lots of clubbing, drinking, sex, and marijuana.  I would laugh alot, and we were supposedly deeply in love.  It took him 3 years to marry me.  I had to prove my womanly worth to him, too.  He would not wear a wedding ring, and I tried to act like him, and did not wear one either which upset my family.  He did not seem to care for his son.  His son was not handsome and my Greek spouse had a big ego...a kind of on the edge entrepeneur.  I did not understand why he did not care for his son more, and tried desperately to create a family bond with my two daughters.  I also made sure that my first Indian husband had weekend access to my two daughter, and visititation during the week.  He came at special times for breakfast, or a dinner invite...and my second spouse would be very polite to him and my girls.  I felt fragmented.  On one hand, I was trying to be Betty Crocker, and have an organic, holistic family relationship, and on the other...during eves and weekends, be the sexpot my second spouse wanted.  I always felt split about asking for money from both men.  During this period of a 25 year marriage to my second spouse, I did try to go to chef school, did a part time job for one week or so, and attended college for one year around 40 years old.  I had no inkling of what went on in the world outside of meeting my mother during the week for lunches, and caring for my home and family.  During this marriage, my second spouse started a manufacturing business of great proportions monetarily, but we did not have savings.  He borrowed from Peter to pay Paul...and that is how he built it, until he was in financial trouble.  He grew his business to 100 employees, and then borrowed 2.5 million from an unscrupulous businessman.  To make a terrible story short, he lost the house in his name we lived in with my daughters, his business, cars, and the IRS and state came after him very hard.  He then rebuilt a second business and told me he would use my name.  I gladly "gave my name away."  I became the President of his new manufacturing firm.  I was studying English literature in college at the time (40), had no idea of how the world worked, was very scared of the world and performing in the world.  My mother did not like the fact that I was starting to grow.  I was starting to hate her, for having tentacles deep within me which I felt I could not free myself.  Yet, I felt deep pain for her lot in life.  She suffered terribly...even in her death.  My second spouse was resented by my father, because he was a sort of big shot, bought fancy cars (on credit in my name), and bought things my family of origin would never have gotten.  At some point, during this era in my second marriage, my second spouse told me to ask my father for $25,000 to "buy steel for the mafia man."  Dutiful wife, I went to my parents and did.  My father chastized me, and I promised that I would pay it back (did not know how), and my second spouse gave the money to the mafia guy who used it to pay off some union.  So, my spouse would tell me not to worry, the money would be paid back and he did pay it all back slowly over two years.

As President of his second manufacturing business, he took out 20 credit cards in my name to start the business.  Can you believe that I would sign them gladly for him and continue cooking the dinner or washing the dishes?  I felt, I was doing the right thing for my husband who needed help desperately in business.  I also guaranteed all the vendors he abused and did not pay in his first business according to what he said I must do to make the second business a success. Long story here, but I spent 10 years in the basement of my house, working MY FIRST AND ONLY JOB, for my second husband.  I was the PRESIDENT of the company and he was "the General Manager."  I was taught how to use the computer, and a bookeeping program by a teacher who came in, and my spouse had an accountant teach me what documents I would need to prepare each month.  So, now besides 20 credit cards, my second spouse was taking out business credit lines at banks, while I attended these meetings as PRESIDENT.  He would do the talking and I would do the signing.  During my entire marriage, my second spouse declared himself a deadbeat because of the loss of his first business.  He told the accountant to put my name only on tax docs.  AND I NEVER BOTHERED TO LEARN THEM!  Instead, I went and bought the best lamb chops I could find and cook the best meals, and pick up his clothes at the cleaners, polish his shoes, and sign more machinary leases and car leases for his salesman that I was President of!!

I became addicted to credit cards, shopping and buying gifts for self and others.  I also became addicted to going to the gym, and running.  During this period, there was a 2 year juant of using marijuana and cocaine my spouse purchased...for weekend recreation.  I started going to therapy more, and he did not think anything was wrong.  My mother was getting emotionally sicker, my older daughter was not close with me, and my younger daughter also got involved in drugs...was a loner in school.  I started throwing the drugs down the toilet bowl, and he would buy more a month later.  We had sports cars in the driveway of an old split level, and then he bought a motorhome for $250,000 in my name at an RV show.  And AS USUAL, I SIGNED EVERYTHING HE PUT IN FRONT OF ME.  But I was getting emotionally sicker as time wore on.

I am skipping lots of the story here but getting to the end soon.  How can I put 62 years of enmeshment into a comment box? 

I started studying yogic self realization around this time on and off.  I would sort of sneak out of the house early evening to go to class.  Make sure my spouse had a perfect dinner, the dogs were walked, and desert and coffee were ready on a tray.  Pretty sad for me to write all this.

Anyway, let me move forward to 50 years old.  My mom got nasalphryngeal was horrible to watch her suffer so bad.  My father got drunker during her dying time.  I was still working like a crazy beaver as my spouses accountant President!  When my mother died, when I was 50, I burnt my legs taking a chicken I had just cooked for my dogs, out of the oven.  I went into a deep depression for one year...gave most of the items in my house away...and my spouse paid no attention.  I taught my younger daughter the bookkeeping.  I could no longer do it.  Any of it! 

My father died 6 months after my mother from liver disease due to alcoholism.  My spouse and I left on a trip to Florida's wealthy section where my spouse wanted to visit. During this time, he cajoled my son-in-law, just out of law school into his business (about two years before my parents died).  Somehow he taped my son-in-law up in his business dealings and doing his court cases from the prior business failing.  My son-in-law was also a perfectionist.  He was like a drill sargeant...never late for anything, got the best marks and was very good looking...kind of a perfect guy.  My son-in-law learned the business fast, and the beat went on...lots of debt in my name, and I lived in denial.

Deep in a depression now that my parents passed, and studying yogic self realization, during the trip to Florida, my spouse says we should buy a condominium there.  A golfing/tennis community...swimming pools and the life of leisure.  I agree and sign the document.  I use the money my father left to put the down payment.  We go back to where we live and my spouse says, now that my son-in-law is "involved" in the business, we can take off some time in Florida rich land.  One day, I tell my second spouse, that I would like to go to the Florida condo on my own for a month.  I was starting to change after years of on and off therapy.  I was feeling to learn how to drive around a bit by myself, and have a few experiences of my see if I could do it.  I had no desire for meeting other men, or cheating or anything of that nature...but to experience myself somehow.  I told my daughters, and spouse.  They did not like it.  My spouse drove me down to Florida and STAYED.  I never got to be alone there for awhile.  Instead after 10 days there, he called my attorney son-in-law and said, he wants to sell the business to him.  They started having violent fights on the phone.  In the meantime, I found a Buddhist group I started sneaking out and attending to these studies.  My son-in-law finally agreed to buy the business.  Basically, he paid for our lifestyle in rich land.  This is in itself a book to write.  I was also made 50% partner in a building for the business my spouse and son-in-law agreed that the business needed to be in rather than pay rent.  LONG STORY.  I signed documents without READING for the building and for the SALE of the business to my son-in-law.  The payout would be for 3 years while we lived in rich land Florida.

Deep into Buddhist studies, I became enmeshed emotionally with the guru teacher...did everything for him to run the I did in my marriage.  I got sicker and meditated more and more.  One day, I came home from meditating, and my second spouse and son-in-law were screaming on the phone about the business.  My second spouse was cursing...which he always did anyway.  I turned toward him, and looked him in the eye, and said, "I am leaving you."

It was horrible.  I left that day, found an apartment for me and the two dogs.  My spouse demanded I give him 3 credit cards in the divorce.  LONG STORY HERE.  Anyway, to make a longer story shorter, my second spouse gambled with my son-in-law at my divorce mediation over the 50% shares I and my son-in-law held together.  ( The docs I never read or cared to).  I was $500,000 in debt in rich land Florida, addicted to credit cards severely, going to zen meditation now 4 times a week, studying zen like crazy, and enmeshed workwise with the zen guru.  I felt I was cracking up.  I was losing my older daughter...she was married to the attorney son-in-law, and my younger daughter is another long story.

Conclusion here:  I left Florida, got the divorce, and my attorney-son-in-law got my shares in the building at the divorce mediation.  I moved to another state - paid for a driver to drive me there with my dogs and 14 boxes I took for my new life.  I sold the fancy house, paid off every debt.  Cost to me:  I have lost both my daughters permanently estranged.  I am living alone last 5 years without any family relationship or job.  I have one person on my resume:  my former spouse!  I receive money monthly for a number of years from my son-in-law.  I have 3 grandchildren who I am not involved with.  I will not go to the state of my children.  I have now studied zen for 10 years...continued in the new state at a retreat center and finally left for good.  I am my OWN THINKER NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  I depend on MYSELF for self nurture, compassion.  I do not trust men.  I do not mix with them at all.  I have few friends, and spend my days very quietly.  I do lots of studying on various subjects I am interested.  I voted the first time in my life in the last election, and study humanism, Krishnamurti, biographies, poetry, and various environmental, animal advocacy, and political issues.  I am a voracious reader now.  I am learning to live frugally, and that has been a huge job for someone like myself...but I am proud of the changes i have made.  I attend Al Anon once a week and do journal.  I did overdo in the animal advocacy.  I spent much money on saving animals and wrote thousands of letters over the last 5 years on their behalf.

Balance is a very important word in my vocabulary now.  I am very saddened that at 62 years old I have no relations with my children or grandchildren, but I will not acquiesce to be the way they want me to be anymore.  My older daughter is severely passive aggressive toward me. My younger daughter, a codependent gal, who visited me once in 5 years where I moved, recently asked for help monetarily for her divorce.  I first said yes, and found myself listening daily to the pain and suffering she was experiencing in her need to separate.  I had to rescind my offer to lend her money because I felt there would be no end to the lending of money... as this separation proceeded.  I am also saddened that she is enmeshed working for my attorney son-in-law who is now very wealthy.  She does not make a ton of money in the "family" business I was once the creator and president.  The entire step family - family - is shattered glass.

At this point in time, my younger daughter sent me an email stating NOT to contact her anymore...ever.  I wrote back that I would abide by her decision and that nothing is ever written in stone.  Everything changes.

I am done. Cooked.  Tired.  I do not take medications, live a clean life, all my debts are paid, and trying to spread my funds a long time.  There is a deep sadness within me...but I make certain each day, to look long and hard at the suffering that exists in the world.  Many people are suffering way more than myself.  I have deep gratitude for my parents, and even though I am estranged from my family - for the lessons I learned about human connections.  Now you may think this is offbeat, but I have learned that the only reason humans communicate is that they "have a need."  I have learned that love is not a Hallmark card, that all of us love and hate each other in different moments...according to what we are experiencing in mental formations, physically around us.  I use alot of reorienting myself to the Present Moment to keep my balance.  Obsessive thinking about the past is not conducive to a quiet serene life. 

There is so much more to my life story, and I thank you for the "comment box," here.  I was able to do a quick draft of 62 years of living within hypocrisy.  The problem being the human need to comb one's ego, have more power, greed and desire, consumption, and the conditioning each of us experience is a world full of delusion.  It has been quite a life journey.

Dysfunctional boundaries - annisd - Mar 26th 2011

I found the artical most helpful to my own situation.

It is one thing to know something is wrong but quite another to know what is wrong or how to alter it.

By reading the information here (I will put the suggestions into practice) I should be able to impliment some useful changes :-) I remain hopeful

My parents/siblings wonder why I suffer from Mood swings when I am around them or other difficult people. I think its repressed anger or not able to be myself.

Thank you for writing this and other blogs-you have helped me more than anyone else- even myself (I think it is difficult to see abuse/hate from someone who keeps telling you how much they love you-even though you sense and feel unloved)

Kind regards

my enmeshed story - - Mar 24th 2011

So I went to a different forum to describe interactions I have had with my wife's parents and family, and was told it is an enmeshed family.  Well, we have spent years and years away as a married couple with children.  We made the mistake of moving back with them for about 9 months while we are waiting to move again for graduate school.  Since we have been back, they have done all that they could to try to encourage/force us to assume our old roles as their kids.  They insist on all meals at their house.  My wife is staying at home while I am working before we move, and they stay at home with her every single day, for one because they don't have friends outside their home and secondly because they HAVE to have that control over their daughter and are trying to control our children as well. 

My sister in law is over at their house every day, 6-7 days a week, despite her being married and having 3 kids of her own.  Well, I realized she married a guy that is very quiet, travels a ton for work, and doesn't object to anything his wife says.  Even on days he is in town, she will be over at her parents house and maybe around 730PM she will pack her kids up and drive 30 miles to her house so her husband can catch a glimpse of their kids (these are token gestures).  I think she married a wallet/sperm donor who will let her do what she wants and not object. 

We are staying in our in laws basement and it is a daily struggle to spend time with our kids.  Either my wife feels compelled to go upstairs and spend all day with her parents while we are in the basement or we combat constant interruptions while we are in the basement in the form of everyone feeling like they can come down and hang with us without asking. 

Well, a few months ago I told my wife we are not getting the individual time to grow as a family without constant interruptions.  Either that or we always are getting guilt trips from IL's for either not being at the house when everyone else is there or taking our kids out of the house to go to movies/library,etc as a family while SIL or MIL are in the house and can't understant why we want to be alone or why we don't involve everyone else in our daily plans.  I told her enough is enough, and I would like to move to a temporary place before we make our ultimate move a few months later.   My wife immediately became tearful and started to cry????  I asked her what was wrong.  She told me by moving out, no matter where, she was afraid her parents would be insulted and NEVER TALK TO HER AGAIN. 

Please whoever is reading this, understand this is a sign of an enmeshed family.  My wife has been told any sign of independent thought/action that differs from what the family believes is a rejection of the family.  Why would we move out?  Even if it is good for my wife and daughters to grow as a family, it is seen as a rejection of the core beliefs of FOO(family of origin).  In other words, you were raised by us to believe everything we do, how on earth can you later in life develop an independent though that differs from what we expect you to believe. 

When confronted with the option to move, my wife immediately became scared.  She was scared they would shun her, scared they would take her moving as a sign of rejection.  I thought it was because she just thought it was a bad idea, however she could give me no valid reason, other than how moving would affect her parents.  Please, if any of this sounds anything like what you are going through, talk to your spouse about it.  This is an enmeshed family, which believe me is not healthy for you, your spouse, or your kids.  Do not play a part in it.  The enmeshed family will LOVE an in law who accepts them as their family, will enjoy hearing "I didn't have a close family growing up, now I have a real family."  Don't fall for this.  In becoming a part of their family, you will become a thing for them to control/indoctrinate, and it will be near impossible for you to have an independent thought or action without it upsetting everyone else who thinks like the matriarch.  Be very careful

Moving away - Sue - Feb 25th 2011

I can really relate to "never ends" story. Our families seems the same, l would love to know the answer to that one.

We are moving away next month from our family and l thought we were always a very close family and still do, l adore my parents, they have given so much finacially and emotionally, but at times have taken it all away if l don't do what they want me to do. My parents are in kind of a sect religion, they call themselves true christians, but they are not meant to have anything to do with me as l do not attend there sect, so my parents have always helped me and seen me, but only behind closed doors , just in case somebody from there sect finds out. It they did find out, they would be thrown out of the sect. My mother has often told me she loves god more than me, and my place to go where she is, and that is the only way she will ever truley except me. I am now 40 years old with twin girls and l have always lived next doorto my parents, which was hard many times as they would just come over every night, until l stood up to them in a kind way, eventually they got the message. Often mum would just walk in without knocking. My husband was outraged. He said, what if l was walking around naked, she would be deeply offended.


 My husband and l have decided to move 2 hour plane trip away. I am very scared and feel so guilty leaving them, and it hasn't been an easy decision to make. I built up enough courage to tell them we are moving, and mum started crying over the phone and telling me that our bond will be forever broken and how can l take the grandkids away and that she will learn to forget me,  she will never visit us, we are making a big mistake, and everything she and dad have given and sacrificed for us, how could l do this? I got off the phone feeling so sad and guilty, and very seriously thought about not going, but then through so much thought and therapy decided l have to do this for myself. I told her, l love her and l have to do this for my family. Again, she just keeps saying l am being selfish and her grandkids will forget her.

Its hard for me to speak to her, and tommorrow l am seeing her and am worried she will just make me feel like l am neglecting them, she cries and l understand she will miss me, and l will miss her, but l need to break away. I know l will miss them and it will be hard for me,  but for some reason l just need to do this.



Psychological boundaries - Kenf - Dec 31st 2010

I thought you limited the discussion on boundaries to interpersonal relations (age appropriate sex education, etc) as opposed to psychological boundaries and differentiation.  An example of the latter might be a family system that represses anger as a way to maintain equilibrium.  When the child enters into a mature adult relationship they would more than likely continue to repress anger and use transference in an intimate relationship to manage the internal issue externally.  For example, if there was an 'internal' issue that might provoke anger, he/she might externalize it by becoming angry at something their significant other did or didn't do and when the other person reacted to the transferred anger, the repressed feeling could now be externally 'managed' interpersonally (just like the original family).

To me, having good boundaries (higher differentiation) is catching the transference before it is internalized (think cortisol) and reacting compassionately with the understanding that the other person is angry and responding with active listening "'re upset that I didn't take out the trash...something must be bothering you want to talk about it."  A person with little or no boundaries might respond "...No I DIDN'T take out the trash because I was busy cleaning up the mess YOU made in the yard yesterday....and didn't clean up! Like you do all the time!"   And away we go...just like the original family.  

Anyway, in the future, a discussion of transference, countertransference, boundaries with active listening (think Hendricks) as a tool to help identify and improve boundary problems would be interesting.

Thankful - Sandy R - Nov 30th 2010

Thankyou Dr. Mark Dombeck for posting this article. Thanks also for the posted feedback.

I feel grateful to have worked my way out of the deep bondage of the craziness. I feel affirmed in reading the technical reasons as to why it was all crazy, and why the choices I made to leave make sense.  It has been a long strange road, but I am happy. I pray for my family members, but keep the boundaries in place. I have healed. I am changing the pattern with my own family. I am free from old patterns of entering other dysfunctional systems voluntarily. Everyday is now a gift. The old monsters have lost their steam in my life. I will be reading more of your published work to continue to name and shed light on my past, and to remain vigilant that I continue to make the right choices.

I Am The Walrus - Lonnie Ekstrand - Nov 5th 2010

Thank you for shedding a brighter light on the issue of boundaries.  I am one of triplet brothers born in 1954 before individualism and boundaries were known; certainly not to a poor midwestern farm family.  We were the last three born to a family of six--8, 10, and 16.  I only knew my Father as suffering from Parkinson's disease; and my Mother worked outside the home to provide for her enlarged family while leaving us in the care of our older siblings.  She had much resentment from this trying situation.  We became extensions of our parents; and we were never celebrated/valued as individuals, only what was common to all three of us; birthdays, catechism, graduation, but not individual accomplishments.  We also were dressed alike until 7th grade.  In retrospect now I realize personal boundaries were arbritrary or non-existent.  There also was an unsaid expectation to be the same, act the same, treated as the same.  I remember walking downstairs for school wearing something different from my brothers, and asked where I was going dressed like that.  Being the first one born of the three, I had become the trail blazer be the first to get married, buy a house, etc.  I was more outgoing, confident, and successful than my womb mates.  I have often felt resented by my siblings for my ability to take risks and make good decisions for myself.  The anxiety I felt experiencing new things as an adult came from previously experiencing new things in the safety of a group.  Who discovered this, who broke that, etc. is fuzzy for me/us.  I can remember it was always a strained relationship between my identical triplet, but at the time it was normal to feel this stress.

After the recent loss of four close family members including one of my triplet brothers (age 51 sleep apnea), I became aware my identical surviving brother showed many symptoms of NPD, narcissistic personality disorder.  He cares for no one but himself; and I've recognized he projects his unwanted truths about himself on to me.  It's must be quite easy to do when we look much alike.  I have no communication with him; and he has tainted what few family relationships that are left.  It saddens me to know he will likely always be that way; but it is what it is.  Accepting who he is means accepting also I can't change him, and need to protect myself; not accept the abuse. 

Wonderful Description - Gretchen Smith - Nov 5th 2010

This is probably the best distilled explanation of CBT I have ever read. I printed it out to include in my resource binder (with credit, of course). Thank you!

Awakening - Thank You - Eyes Shut - Oct 6th 2010

 This forum has served to validate many decisions.  Something I needed.

I have a long history of abuse of many sorts.  My trust issues are deep.  My detachment started by the time I was approximately 5 years old as a means of coping with a rage-aholic father, sexual abuse and who knows what else -- I have a lot of memory loss.

I have come to think that what separates us is that something -- personality/intelligence... we are born with.  I am strong, intelligent and have always enjoyed clear self-awareness and intuition. These traits earned me the title of "bitch" all of my life.  

To those who have met someone and see signs of dysfunction I say walk away.  Pay attention to those red flags they are there to protect you and nothing you do will change others.

I met my mother and father two years ago though of course, I lived with them all of my life.  But my coping mechanism  - detachment - left me blind.  I found peace in simply being absent in order to continue coping with the dysfunctional dynamics of a complicated life.

My father being emotionally/physically absent, verbally abusive, rarely but on ocassion brutally physical, a womanizer -- I clung to my mother who is the triangulator in the family.  Her love is mighty and I owe her for a good self esteem as she does this well.  But that is the only way I allowed my mind to see my mother until recently.

I found out I was married to a sex addict, triangulator, manipulative and emotionally abusive person after 25 years together!   So strong is my ability to detach.  But also because like my mother, his abuse and manipulation was cloaked in love.  I am too emotionally injured to ever accept even the most minor obvious/outward abuse.  To say we never fought and lived a perfect family life is true.  But he was two people in one.  Like my mother.

Shortly after that traumatic discovery of my partner, I caught my loving mother speaking badly about me to another sibling.  This was the first awakening.  Of course she had been doing this with my other siblings all of my life but I was -- blind, not there.  For to see her clearly would have meant giving up the only person I trusted and the person whom had shown me the only love I knew.

I woke up to a nightmare.  I had allowed my siblings to emotionally abuse me all of my life but I did not feel it really.  I was taught to love them out of family loyalty.  I had in effect been my mother's weapon.  The perfect ally.  I was the good girl having turned my life around early but having moved away far early on.

Today I am not with the husband.  I have a polite but distant relationship with most of my family (exception of one sister) who are angry because I won't play along with the dysfunction. Or as I call it my mother's emotional circus)   I wish to say that I am happy but I am not. I don't trust anyone.  I have no friends -- I believe I suffer from dysthymic disorder, a form of depression.  I mind my business, I hurt no one but yet I am the bitch, the bad one.  There is this sense of unfairness that has no resolution.

 The good news is that I sleep well at night.  I have put an end to the cyclical emotional abuse from the family and I am aware enough now to work on myself and not repeat these patterns with my children.  

But I am far from perfect and I must constantly monitor myself.  I am aware that I have learned behaviors that sometimes escape me.

Thank you Mark Dombeck for this generous article and all who have participated.  You have helped me see a little more of myself and cleared some of the stony path to my own emotional health.

enmeshment - Laura - Sep 27th 2010

My sister and I have always had a troubled relationship. She has been angry and abusive towards me when I have tried to maintain healthy boundaries.  She is very insecure and vulnerable underneath and desperate to be in connection with me. She rings me up frequently even though I have told her its too much. If I am quiet and trying to protect myself from her invasive questions she gets angry. If I dont answer the phone she takes it personally and gets upset. I would like to have a relationship with her but I feel as if she is controlling and greedy to know and connect with me even though we don't have much in common. Apart from cutting her off completely which I think would be destructive for her I dont know where to go as I have tried to put the boundaries down and she hates them being there!

Trying to Cope & Understand? - Ann - Aug 29th 2010

My niece who is 25 years old called me recently to tell me of the horrible anxiety attacks she was suffering and I told her something must have triggered them.  She needed to go to counseling.  She confided in me since I also experienced them since my 20's.  I reinforced to her that she needed counseling.  She did attend counseling and realized she had to voice to me what had happened.  Come to find out her step-father had tried to hook up with her while her mother was on vacation.  This brought out a bunch of past experiences of the mothers boyfriends molesting her and her sister when they were younger.  My sister was not real maternal to her kids.  She had her first baby when she was 17.  She got married after finding out she was pregnant to a physically abusive man.  2 years later had a second child with him.  After another male showed interest in her she decided to get out of the marriage and was only 19 and ended up moving in with me.  I was newly married at 21 myself and now had her and two children living with us.  After two years of living with us she got public housing and got an apartment.  She had a boyfriend move in. The children had been complaining to me about his behavior towards them.  I got involved again and got him out of there.  Then the kids were left alone over night.  She stayed out all night.  I took the kids to live with me.  My sister and my relationship has never been "normal"  I have always been there cleaning up the messes.  She finally meets a guy who is 22 years older than her and very wealthy. (Rags to riches if you will)  They marry and buy a house.  He does not understand why her kids are not living with her.  They were in jr. high and high school and wanted to be with their mom. So I let them go.  Here we are almost 10 years later and my 25 yr old neice calls me because of the anxiety attacks and confides not only that horrible story, but that boyfriends from the past had gotten with her and her sister when they were little.  I WAS HORRIFIED. My neice asked me not to say anything to her mother since she was trying to muster the courage to bring it to her attention.  I felt she was taking the right steps by saying what happened out loud and moving out, which she did.  She finally met with her mother and told her, the mother said she was going to need a couple of days to figure this out and she would call her.  Two days later she called my neice to tell her that she confronted the step father and he said he was drunk, he doesn't remember anything, but if he did he was sorry.....Her mother then tells her she is staying with him and do you really think that is what he was doing to you? Since then my sister did not mention it to me.  My neice did share this secret with my mother who lives in an inlaw on my home.  My mom is blaming my neice for talking about this and making a mess of things.  My mother tells me that she knows that I know.  I told her I was not discussing it.  She was showing alot of anger towards her granddaughter/my neice.  I knew this was going to go nowhere.  My mom tells my sister that I know and my sister emails me and says I understand that you and *&^&* have talked.  What kind of advice did you give her.  I told her yes I did know and I told her to get counseling.  My sister went on in her email stating that I had a nerve not calling her and asking if she was ok and gave me advice on how to better handle these situations in the future.  He is being made out to be an some kind of attacker.  She has cut me out of her life and told my neice that it is going to take me apologizing to her before she can move forward with a relationship with me again and this goes way back in time.  I really feel after all these years in a dysfunctional family it is time to stop this nonsense.  I don't have the strength anymore to do this.  I also feel that everytime that I experience any joy, pain or whatever in life, I don't have any one of my siblings there fore me.  It is always about them and my mom is the same way. They, all of my family is very narcistic.  I have never met a more selfish bunch.  She is now working very hard to get other family members into the mix to be against me, but she is not telling the whole story.  I feel that she can't because she has chosen to stay with him.  Help me better understand her thought process. 

enmeshed family - SALLY - Jul 6th 2010

I have been married to a wonderful man who comes from an enmeshed family. Outsiders are not welcome. Out of 4 children my husband is the only one who is married. His siblings have made it very clear that they don't approve of his relationship with me. His mother died a few years ago, but she was the matriarch. My father in law was a non entity. My brother in law would accompany my mother in law to all social functions as the surrogate spouse. They never had any company outside of family. The children were expected to spend their weekends with their mother, remember we're talking about grown men and women in their early and late 30's. My brother in law drove every weekend 5 hours to be with his mother. There is no such thing as friends. Appearances are very important, and I'm sure most people would think this was a "lovely Christian" family. There are NO boundaries at all. My father in law still showers with his almost 12 year old grandson, and allows him to sleep in bed with him. One sister in law had an affair with the other SIL's husband. My MIL asked my husband to check up on his sister because she hadn't had contact with her in over 3 hours. Not 3 days, 3 hours. I can't stand to be around these crazy people, and I refuse to spend any time with them. I also hope my marriage can survive these lunatics.

enmeshed families an lack of boundries - connie c. smith - Jul 4th 2010

Bill J...... You seem to be heading forward in your quest for contentment. This is a ''rare'' gift. You have seen the light. Diconnecting with a loved one is difficult. I always say'' sometimes our friends are the family we choose'' of luck.... connie

email me - Connie C. Smith - Jun 28th 2010

bill J... e-mail me with additional information..... I have 24 years of experience with the enmeshed family..... c

to a tee - bill j. - Jun 13th 2010

Re: connie c.

I relate to much of what you are saying and identify with most of the characteristics.

I'm 39 and expect to be "healing" for the next 5 or 6 years....been working things for a long time but not really working them only talking.  Now actually am getting to the core of many crazy beliefs and an irrational past reality that didn't make sense.

Realized that a lot of the problem is due to myself trying to make sense out of a situation that isn't supposed to make sense because it was sick.  Trying to "sample" the outside environment one person at a time and add this up to make a "normal" in my head didn't do me much good either.  Stuff like this.  Try putting each of individuals you feel enmeshed with in a circular "cage" of your mental making and then dump everything they ever said, did, believed, thought, etc inside this.  A good starting point.

Boundaries and dysfunctional family systems - Connie C. Smith - May 3rd 2010

I have been reading many ''blogs''from people involved in dysfunctional families.

The ''Anger'' permeates through every word,every sentence, These people could write a book.

When does it end?






surviving the ''enmeshed family'' - connie c smith - Apr 21st 2010

Many articles have been written about characteristics of the enmeshed dysfunctional family.

Very few offer advice on HOW to survive.

Maybe ..... you cannot.....

Comments Welcome.

enmeshed families an lack of boundries - connie c smith - Apr 18th 2010

Boundries . Imagine a line. The ''line '' represents personal space. In enmeshed dysfunctional families... there is NO line. If there is NO line..... there is NO respect. For ANYTHING. Your ''stuff' is ours.... you are part of ''us''. There is NO autonomy here. Self actualization is ''thorted''...... . The most important gift one should give to thier children... personal growth.
Enmeshed families are selfish families.

characteristics of the enmeshed family:

1. We are selfish . The ''good mother'' will change the baby's diaper before the child feels the stench of the odor. Mom feels good. But child never learns how to use the tiolet. Why should he?........ The ''good mother '' does it for him. Hence.. learned helplessness begins.

2.We are ''shame based''. Anything less than ''picture'' perfect is quickly buried. We need a wider rug and a larger broom to hide our imperfections. ( a true self actualized individual ''rises'' to imperfection''  and is respected for it)

If an emeshed member recieves a DUI... we must fumigate.

3. We ''guilt trip'' our kids. This is a form of child abuse. ''guilt tripping'' is a form of control. ''After all I've done for you'' ... ''you always'' ''you never''........... Again, there is NO respect for the child's sense of autonomy. In essense.... ''how dare you think for yourself! this impedes the childs developement. Forever.

4. We are afraid of anyone who thinks for themselves, for they are not like ''us''. ( imaginary )

5. We are ''special'', gifted, with a sence of entilement !Although we have never ''earned'' anything. We know this because our parents told us so.

6. Consequences for ''bad'' behavior are never warrented. Accountabilty is never pursued. We can do as we please. We can prove someone else is to blame. After all......... we must preserve the ''picture perfect'' image.

7. We trust nobody, but the primary enmeshed family.

8. We are black and white thinkers. We always wear the hat our parents did. We cut our hair at 30. We attend the same church. We share the same beliefs. We are afraid of anyone that does not share our values.

9.We are abusers. Although we play the ''victim'' role to a tee.

10. We are ''phoney's. We have no idea who we are. We need each other to validate our exsistance. We pretend.





Evil enmeshments - - Feb 3rd 2010

what about that guy who moved to florida from n j apparently giving up a sucessful career, to care for his dad and ended up killing his wife and kids?


talk about the ultimate enmeshment.

Psychological code breaking! - Caroline - Jan 18th 2010

The solution...........write a letter to those concerned, explaining my choice to "step back" from anything I regard as being damaging to my wellbeing.

Acceptance...........that I have a responsibility for my own wellbeing as does each individual.

Totally subjective solution, but so far so good, my stress and anxiety levels have fallen.

Wishing all readers well with lifes challenges.

Kind regards


Psychological Conundrum - Caroline - Jan 1st 2010

Thank you for providing an informative site which has helped to rationalise some challenging perceptions. Doubts abound in relation to my own mental capacity, tenacity, and desire to find some form of acceptance for the emotional turmoil that I seem to live my life in. I accept that I hold a responsibility to develop and maintain an approach to lifes challenges that is positive and affirming. However, currently I find myself in a state of sheer mental exhaustion and frustration with the same old question i.e. what is it I need to do to maintain a healthy mind set and negate the negative influence family members appear to have on me.

I require a solution or acceptance, preferably both.

Dysfunction - Jenn - Dec 29th 2009

  I come from a dysfunctional background.  My father's mother died when I was three and my father had 3 brothers plus himself with nobody holding them together. My father was a mess, but since he was taught that boys don't cry and to be tough--he maintained this persona for a very long time--and to the extreme.

  Grandma Betty was the life of his family, and little by little, the dysfunction started showing through in each of the 4 brothers in the form of alcoholism, addictions, bad relationships, etc. This pattern was kept alive through the children. I am one of those children.  My advice for anyone seeking: Be the person who breaks this cycle, your family may not know you've done it, but it will create success in future generations to come.  That is all the thanks you need. 

  My father was always angry and yelled when anyone crossed him.  He was a really angry guy with low self esteem.  He was hit by a car when I was 10 and soonafter my parents divorced after 19 years together (BTW he did survive).  My mother tried to commit suicide on Christmas a year after and I took care of her that day without calling anyone (it was dumb but I was 10 and didn't want her taken away) until she became conscious again. (I do not endorse doing this--its not safe!).  This was traumatic for me.

  A very important point of my story is that my mother and father are both better people now--it took them 15 years to do this.  However, I believethey are at a comfortable point of being receptive and the way I am living my life has them calling me to offer advice.  This helps not only them, but me too.  Also,  I moved back home and for two years I have been getting to know my father again--in a different way. My mother is in a different state, but she is with her mother and happy too.  I am married and have two daughters who I cannot say enough about.  Theyboth  know my father, their grandfather as Papa, who wouldn't hurt a fly.  This is an ideal, I know not everyone ends up with this situation, but fight hard for what you want, take those risks, and set those boundaries.  I always tell myself to take it one step at a time.

  Dysfunction suffocates people and their families, but if you as and individual choose to live your life for the positive things--and not hate, but rather avoid the negative aspects--you can handle the problems you encounter in stride.  However, if someone is abusing you or your family members--don't wait to see what happens, just find a way out asap--create those boundaries discussed in this forum.  I believe alot of abusers are not bad people, they are just sorely hurt or were treated bad and they need to seek help, but will never do so without a reason, so you give them a reason, or you just move on to better days--

  I will not lie and say that I'm perfect now--I struggle with the pain, but I find ways to express myself and the story of my life, just as everyone has the ability to do.  I manage my emotions by eating well and taking care of myself.  I think about what makes my daughters, family, and friends happy so that nobody feels left out.  I used to yell at people and now I focus on my points rather than how loud I can be--I don't need to prove anything if I can communicate to others.  I used to smoke in the Navy and haven't for 7-8 years (I'm not counting).  My life is my own and anyone who lives in dysfunction has the power to change it. 

My biggest problem was mustering up the will to take that first, and even second or third step.  It is an everyday battle, but everyone is in it together.  Even those peeple who have to stay "tough" need a friend or two.  Honestly,   I wish more people would reach out for help and express their need.  Even me--I haven't told this story to many people in the way I told it on here.  Thanks for the inspiration Dr. Dombeck.  Great information.

Enmeshed VS Detached siblings dealing with parent's death - mary - Aug 29th 2009

My mom passed away recently. I was a somewhat detached daughter living pretty far away. My siblings, all younger, lived near her. I have felt for a while that she may have had narcissitic personality disorder--but then again maybe there are blind spots I have dunno..

I do know that my siblings deeply resented my detachment--I would still talk to mom weekly or bi-weekly by phone but I seldom came to visit from across country & didn't really help out when she was not well--which I do regret--but I didn't realize things were that bad--and I think my siblings also have regrets--also I have to say--those who did help her were taken advantage of in huge ways and left footing a bill that is way over thier ability to deal with. She was a shop a holic and irresponsible and I guess really treated them like servants as they did and did for her and got nothing but complaints for pay.

Anyhow--i am now just confused. Feeling guilty and upset--but also feeling like--what else could I have done but gotten away? And I have my siblings undercurrent of resentment to deal with--which errupted during the funeral week--one sibling who was particularly enmeshed with Mom thinks I had the problem--not my mom--inspite of what I think is very real evidence that mom was mentally ill in obvious ways.

I would have liked to have had a less detached relationship but how? I could never trust one person in my family for a minute. I could never live my own life if I remained near them. Yet I feel guilty. Very frustrating situation.

Sorry for long post! - Dr.T - Aug 25th 2009

Hi Chan,
I read your comment yesterday and I wanted to reply to you. My mother had a similar relationship with her mother. It was quite the dysfunctional relationship indeed, yet there was still a level of love involved. What seems to make a relationship dysfunctional to me is the constant ups and downs. One minute your loving and the next your an enemy.
     The pain and hurt came to a final stop when she realized just how conditional their relationship was and just how much her "dysfunctional" mother caused her psychological and emotional turmoil. 
Family units can greatly influence the overall productivity and development of an individual. Unfortunately because of close cultural and social ties within the family, it becomes difficult to separate, even when they are causing you pain. That's why it is important to seek some source of strength so that separation can occur or perhaps a remedial plan can be pursued.
Have you considered family therapy? While I sense from your post the inability to communicate the simplest things to your mother, you may be able to get her to consider therapy. The reason I mention family therapy is because its basic principle is that a change in one part of the system will lead to changes in the entire family unit. In other words, if your mother makes a change, perhaps your father will. If you make a change, perhaps your mother will too.
     A family therapist will intervene by enabling you to deal more effectively with significant people in your life. This can also happen without your family present in therapy. Maybe you could gain the strength you need in dealing with your family.
If all else fails, I would encourage you to seek life without them. That's a sad reality but sometimes a healthy one. Family, because of the close emotional ties, can almost destroy you and your love for life. Because our society encourages sticking with one's family, it makes it hard to see life without them. However, family can be our worst enemies! We can sometimes find a more functional family system (who values who we are) within a group of friends or strangers. :)  I consider myself a "believer" of God and I'm a firm believer that He will send you the "family" you need if you ask him.
     My mother had to learn how to "fly on her own" and because she did, she became a very strong woman and quite independent as well. and click on "find a therapist" if you're interested.
Editor's Note: Therapist listings are also available at Mental Help Net here

Dysfunctional Hell - Chan - Aug 24th 2009

Wow. I guess I wouldn't be searching the web for any article on "Dysfunctional Family" had another terrible episode of dysfunction not taken place.My parents are the worst parents in the world or at least one of them .My father has allwasy been an absentee father who never fails to remind us that he never wanted us. He has no problems breaking his promises to us.

Sadly, he has a son, my brother whom he has no relationship and today my brother has such rage whenit comes to dealing with emotions.

My mother, an ex special-ed teacher used to tel me I was Bi-Polar and I had a chemical imbalance. Yet, she never ever took me to see a psychiatrist to diagnose me ad to help me get treatment if she cared so much. She loved putting me down. loved it. I was the "problem child".

 The interesting thing is that I am emotional and it hurts when I canot seem to have a healthy give/take relationship with my family. We all seem so angry. My mom always used to say " she prides herself in withdrawing when things too heavy" Basically she does not talk out her feelings . And God Help me, if I wanted to tak to my mother. It never worked and she'd tell me I'm too emotional or I have Bi-Polar .

At one point in my life, after she hit me so hard, I slapped her back in my own defense. My mother called me to the livng room and told me her plans for me and it entailed committing me to a Juvenile Hall at age of 14 and she further explained that when I turn 18, she will request that I be transferred to Adult Prison. These were threats. Why, a special-ed teacher would threaten her teenage daughter with such an ordeal makes me think that something must be wrong ith my mother mentally & emotionally.

At 23, I remember making an attempt to rationalize my thoughts to my mother. I pleaded with her to please give me a chance. I asked to be patient withe me and to communicate with me. I asked my mother why she was so distant, violent, angry at me? 

Ofcourse, she will do two things, tell me I'm crazy or ask me to get out of her room. I was the bad child. The problem. It hurt.

Today in my early 30's , I don't have a realtonship with my mother. The last straw was when I'd given birth and out her rage that I'd asked the father of my child to see his child. My mother got so incensed that she asked me to leave her home withmythen 3 month old child. It was rough.I was unemployed and had no support system.

dys boundaries - jh23 - Aug 10th 2009

I've had and still have problems with personal identity because of boundary issues growing up...38 years old now also but it's never too late I suppose.

I blame most of the circumstance of my father and his side of the family...he came from one of those strict, very religious, black and white, distrustful, perfect, hypocritical, know-it-all type families which impacted me severely.  The type of family where one of his brothers would look you square in the eye while drinking his 12th beer and say "don't get married to an alcoholic"...what?!  I refer to his family as the Kennedy's without fame, fortune or education.  Truthfully, I do believe they have narcissistic issues and that family is littered (i repeat LITTERED) with fake people - narcissistic men with co-d wives living in their shadows.

What's helping me today regarding boundaries is actually visualizing everything about the other person (EVERYTHING) staying within the person's physical being - I mean everything...their words, emotions, behavior, their boundaries, etc, helps me  a little as far as gaining a sense of self.

enmeshed family - - Jun 21st 2009

I've lived in an extremely enmeshed family.  Growing up I was who my mother constantly discussed her marital problems with, and was constantly asked if my parents separate who I would pick - even though they never broke up, just fought all the time.  My father's parents were enmeshed with our lives.  We moved to live close to them, as children we were expected to help do their house/yard work, and we went on most vacations together.  I married young, and of course my husband was never liked.  My parents always wanted to "help", and were constantly around and offering money.  Constantly we were made to feel we "owed" them - they did everything for us and we were indebted for life.  Never did they take into account anything we did for them, and we did and did and did.  Definitely guilt tripped to death.  Over the years they tried to break my husband and I up, and blattenedly slammed us and everything we were doing to our children.  Unfortunately we've had real issues to deal with over the years with our children and that openned the door for them to enable - drug use and other unhealthy behaviours in the children.  It's like the worst nightmare possible - your child is flaundering, and yet it's your parents enabling them.  It's very difficult to get your head around.  This behaviour I believe now is virtually impossible to change, and it's too late for me to find this out.  I hope someone reading this in a similar situation will see it doesn't get better, you have to take charge and make it better - ie. move away and limit contact.

Put downs and bounderies. - dysfunctional - May 19th 2009

I too struggle with bounderies and my parents thinking that they are smarter then me and treating me like a child and calling me "not normal". When I tell them about me interests they imply that the only smart ones in the family are them. I'm 26 and am not a child anymore and my Mom stopped critizing my hairstyle and when I refuse my Mom's suggestion about who to vote for, she goes beserk.

Detachment - - Mar 1st 2009

After going through a life or death situation with my father, alot of things have become clear to me regarding the dysfunction in my family of origin.  My mother who is verbally abusive ended up using threats of blackmail (with my father's life) to extort money from me.... She would have caused him undue stress, pushing him over the edge claiming it is "God's judgement" whether one lives or not.  Sick mix of dysfunction and misplaced religiosity, not to mention the constant put downs.  I have come to the conclusion, that I wish that family all the best, but I will no longer get involved in their emotional turmoil (enmeshment patterns).  I choose the path of detachment, and it is definately the right thing.  I have been lucky to raise my own family in a completely different manner and chose healthy role models while growing up and even now.  I think that helps tremendously.... My first solution was to live across the world, but having the family of origin around even for a week is so unhealthy for me.  After revisiting an eating disorder (crying with my head in the toilet) very briefly, caused by stress from my mother's putdowns, I decided that enough is enough..... It is about time, EPIPHANY!

slaves to dysfunctional patterns - Lisa - Feb 26th 2009

I simply replaced the dysfunctional family with my parents with another dysfunctional family (my husband). He is very narcissistic and my ideas are always "stupid" because he has extensive knowledge about the flaws of Theology (he is an atheist) and therefore my belief in spirituality is illogical. I think that for the most part there isn't any hope for individuals who have become slaves to dysfunctional patterns.

dysfunction - Rach - Feb 18th 2009

I've been struggling with boundaries, internal and external, for years now! Having set a boundary with my mother, no contact for now, for the first time ever, I am under immense pressure from all other family members and my mum's friends to 'snap out of my madness' it is really hard to cope with this! I attend support groups and am in the process of finding a good therapist but I'm tired of defending myself constantly! I related to what someone wrote about being ignored because my family 'isn't so bad' in comparison to others...something which my mum (a counsellor) has tried to drum into me since birth! I just wish they could accept me for who I am but it's never going to happen...I'm the one who has to change how I react to them if I want to continue to have a relationship with them!

is enmeshment considered enough in family court officials? - julie - Feb 6th 2009

Thankfully, my daughter left her  enmeshed and abusive partner taking their 9 month old son with her. Enmeshment within this family environment meant nobody functions individually or is allowed a personality or opinions of their own seperate to the partners mother (who also has other mental health problems). Every special occassion xmas, easter, holidays, days out etc it was expected the mother, father, sister, brother -in -law , baby niece and aunty would tag along. She was never allowed time just her, the partner and the baby. Everyone obeys the mother's wishes. Games were constantly played to test the love and loyalty of other members failure to make the grade resulted in sarcastic putdowns, humiliation and rejection. My daughter was raised to be independent and self-suficient and found the lack of privacy and outright disregard of her as a person extremly claustrophobic and unhealthy. When challenging the lack of boundaries, particularly where this affected the baby's rights, her partner became extremly distressed at having to challenge his parent's and risk upsetting them and this resulted in domestic abuse in the form of screaming in her face, ignoring her for days on end punching walls etc. and finally spitting in her face. Almost all these occassions were due to the expressing a differing opinion to the demands of this family. Enmeshment is so great not only do all members go everywhere except work and sleep together, her partner thought it appropriate to give keys to their home to all family members so they could let themselves in anytime they wanted without knocking. My daughters refusal of this meant in the end it didn't happen but he felt she was the unreasonable one and she was punished accordingly. When pregnant on their son and suffering severe sickness which meant even sittin up would induce violent attacks of vomiting he felt it was more important to spend from 6 am to 11 pm at the hospital with sister whilst she gave birth. Of course she also had her partner, mother and father present!  Her partner and his sister show behaviours including depressive tendencies which suggest psychological disorders and the baby of his sister who spends all her waking hours in this enmeshed family cared for by a carer with manic depression whose word is law, is showing signs of insecure attatchment which will probably lead to similar problems to her mum and uncle. My daughter is now facing a court action to overturn her insistence that contact following seperation should be supervised to prevent psychological or developmental damage to her son by these  damaging family dynamics whilst he is so young. Despite the huge amount of research and evidence suggesting her concerns are well-founded she is finding professionals involved quick to dismiss the relevance of both the enmeshment and the childhood neglect and abuse of her partner and its relevance to his behaviour and parenting ability.

sums up my family beautifully - Lily - Dec 1st 2008

Ameeras comment sums up my family beautifully 

What I find interesting is how a dysfunctional family system will argue against a person's right to HAVE boundaries.  In my family, the very thought that one can have their own opinions, speak their own mind, refuse to engage in certain conversations or behavior is unacceptable and highly criticized.  Threats of expulsion or out and out isolating behavior is always the result of any attempt to erect healthy boundaries.

What really screws my head up is that I have never had love and continually had toxic relationships and friendships because I thought that was real love and friendship

My family constantly tell me I am a 'bad' person, a failure, stupid, always sick and needy yet I realised the women in my family are cliquey, competitive and constantly put down my appearance, career, salary, skills, knowledge and are secretive and put me down at every chance when I try to be assertive or be heard as an individual.

I am mortified I have really rubbish emotional intelligence because I was always criticised for saying how I felt-this was 'selfish, mean and hurtful'. Even when i tried to top myself all i got was how I had affected my sisters exam grades and put her in stress, given my ma the runs and put my pa in a bad situation. I am to blame also for her current dperession and she vents her anger out on me on every occassion which my family condones because I deserve it for staying on her floor for three years with a neck injury for which she constantly put me down and asked me to get out, give her whatever I had and condone my friends.

Shocking still is the fact that most my current friends are like my family so is any wonder i go to counsellors to offload shit. I saw my friend afte a breakdown and she told me not to talk about it and that I should find some old people would could act like a grandma and grandpa-WTF! And I sit time after time hearing her woes. Im just peeved as at least i would have made money had I been working as a counsellor. 

They carry on with this behaviour even in my thirties that its so hard to see healthy normal people as that because I have wasted time with idiots and for the first time when someone told me it was ok to think with my own brain I cried because no one had ever allowed me that before and I feel its really hard to take that control now as I am depressed and dependant and for my family-that means 'controlling' the dependant person. Im lucky enough to have intervention which has improved some of my familys behaviour but I cant stand them.

I realise forgivess and understanding are required but they are so ignorant I cannot take anymore. I had a fantastic nurse counsellor at 16 who taught me to be emotionally intelligent whixh was fantastic until they wore that layer down and I keep attracting the same behaviours they possess in other people-gahhhhhhhhhhh!

I want to get away from them and what I am. If I could be reincarnated and start again I truly would. I think all parents to be should get psychological testing as a national requirement as well as pet owners and potential partners. If people came with care labels life would be so much easier.

Sorry theres so much ranting/anger on this message.


graduate student - gina - Nov 10th 2008

In my experience, enmeshed, dysfunctional families bread guilt & shame. the guilt can be debilitating at times. In enmeshed families - parents create an environment of guilt and shame. When the child desires to follow their own wishes & dreams that deviate from that of the parents the child is overwhelmed with fear for having to "confront" their parent and shame & guilt for having thoughts that deviate from their parents.

- Ameera - Sep 8th 2008
What I find interesting is how a dysfunctional family system will argue against a person's right to HAVE boundaries.  In my family, the very thought that one can have their own opinions, speak their own mind, refuse to engage in certain conversations or behavior is unacceptable and highly criticized.  Threats of expulsion or out and out isolating behavior is always the result of any attempt to erect healthy boundaries.

Very interested in all aspects of BOUNDRIES - Colette Giovanniello - May 27th 2008

I just became familiar to this web site, I would love to keep up with the material and make professional contacts. - Colette Giovanniello M.A.

confusion - Jeff - Apr 22nd 2008

Coming from an alcholic family, I grew up in a chaotic, unpredictable environment.  The sad thing is that I understood boundaries but it seemed that my parents did not have a good understanding of family dynamics, boundaries, how to relate to others, etc.  It was frustrating because he had more "power" (I do think that there is no such thing as "power", but he had influence).  But he had power in his mind because he owned the house and thought he had the inherent right to make rules that applied to everyone.  And because of this, he really got into my head in a bad way.  I feel that I'm trapped inside my body (true self) and fighting to get out (as if those oppressive rules are pressing in from the outside of my skin, trying to get inside of me).  It's like those old house rules are still pressing against the outside of my skin, trying to cave me in from the outside and I'm on the inside pressing out.

I was really confused by him and his mixed messages.  It seemed he was happy when he drank (free or something) and when he didn't, he was miserable.  This dysfunctionally taught me that reality must suck!

I don't hate him I don't think...mostly a lot of anger at him because of his limited views and generizations of the world.

Some of the other CRAZY-MAKING talk includes:

Don't trust anyone - I was thinking..."but you're not in a relationship with anyone else...other people are stangers...they are only truly applies when you have a relationship (superficial or deeper) with somone.  To go outside and claim to not trust anyone doesn't make sense on this planet, dude.  What planet are you from again?

It was stuff like this that I boiled inside at.  And with responsibility...he would say "I'm responsible for you" when I was in my teens.  What is this?  You are responsible for paying bills, for putting gas in the car...I'm a are not responsible for me - do you get it?  A lot of frustration because he came across like he knew it all and would try to pass of his personal views and opinions and the law of the land for all to adhere to.  I just wanted to reach over and slap him due to his stupidity at times.

One day he would preach "don't trust anyone" then the next be hanging out with friends...what is going on here?  Then he would have the balls (after being an alcoholic, wife abuser at times, verbally & emotionally abusive) to say "I don't trust you" (looking at me).  What?  You're the one who beats, rages, drinks like the sky is falling, looks out the window like someone is coming to take you prisoner, says one thing one day and another the next...I used to walk around like I had NO idea which way was up due to listening to his utterly foolish nonsense that changed from one day to the next.  I could never put a guage on him or really knew how to connect with him as a child, so my entire development (as a person) got put on hold (psychologically and emotionally).

And the most immature, childish, sickest behavior I've ever seen.  If he was angry at someone, he would frown to himself, walk around stomping with big strides hoping someone would notice that he was upset.  It was sickening and I just felt like throwing up watching him.  He didn't understand a lot of things when he was younger (and I was a child)...I gave up for a bit, but now am communicating with him more and have more of an understanding.  The rage is still inside me and is difficult to get rid's been there for 30+ years and I still have INTENSE feelings of anger (to put it mildly) when I think about him.

And he would try to pass off rules like "don't talk back"...what?  Are you for real?  After you say "don't trust anyone" and other things like "friends will bring you down" or "I'm responsible for you"...are you kidding or what?  The last thing I ever let him do is be responsible for me in any way, shape or form.  This probably sounds like a lot of scapegoating and blaming, but it mostly is venting.

And what hurt a lot was my parents so-called "values".  I come from a appearance oriented family that emphasizes achievement or "doing" rather.  And both my parents kind of held this mentality - so I felt I had to battle with two people.  I wanted to be valued for a person, obviously, not for what I did or how I looked cuz I didn't really care.  They cared and I felt powerless, helpless, and voiceless at times because I can't just CHANGE their personal "values"...a lot of intense anger.

When I was 8, I saw my parents as 13 or 14 (emotionally) when they were actually 29 or 30.  I felt I had to be the mature one who didn't place emphasis or value appearance and achievement.  And becaue they BOTH valued appearance, I kind of thought that others on the outside may be the a LOT of panic, feelings of helplessness, social phobia, etc.

Have a better understanding with them today, but it seems they still hold a lot of superficial baggage.  Ahhh- done venting.

Adult Child - Cal - Mar 23rd 2008

I am an adult child of a dysfunctional alcoholic family. I still experience problems with intimacy, boundaries and knowing my own feelings.

I have created a website to help others that share these problems.



emmeshed relationship - b - Mar 21st 2008
I have been in a relationship with a 53 year old man for 5 and a half years. I am 44. He works in the construction field and is on the road alot. When he divorced from his wife his mother took over doing his business books as he did not have time. His mother also has Power of Attorney. His mother however also does all of his personal banking as well. She is aware of a gift I am going to receive before I am. I have asked him repeatedly to keep his mother out of any joint/personal business we have. EG: when he got really sick we had to fill out forms for insurance for the bank, this is our joint acct, he had his mother complete the forms, I had to give her my bank card number. I have been at an appt with our banker who has advised that his mother called the bank and advised to forward all of his stuff to her, I was extremely embaressed. She once asked me how much I liked a ring I got for a gift, when I said it was great she responded with "you should for how much it cost". She has told me "Mike doesn't do anything and I don't know about it". At his bithday party it was his mother by his side opening gifts....not me. We are in therapy and he continually denies or minimizes what his mother does for him. His mother buys him clothes and even cooks for him to take on the road. I know this is a sick relationship and there appears to be no boundaries, Mike does not say anything to his mother but "do not say anything aroung brenda". I feel so betrayed and lied to. It is like she is his spouse and he likes it that truly is sickening. He says she does his books because he is on the road, I say I am here, it does not matter. I am not able to be in a relationship with a third person. Mike will have to marry his mother.....I am sick of it and do not see a way out

narcissism at it's best - Jeff H. - Feb 27th 2008

I'm still trying to recover my inner child's voice at the tender age of 36.  It feels as if I got steamrolled when I was small and vulnerable.  I vowed to never let anyone get to that child again and I felt it was a personal mission of mine to protect this child from the outside & get back at others that I couldn't stand up to when I was younger.

I felt powerless...I didn't have a voice that "mattered" it seemed and I kept going around trying to prove shit as a way of life.  I think it started because of how my dad was...being around him was like being around someone who just talks at you and tries to teach you...I wondered after a while - am I here too?  So when he would say something, I felt that my inner child's voice didn't count and I wanted to be older or be someone that he respected so that I would have a voice around him.  Some weird shit went on in my head (and still does) in a fantasy sense...

I want to explain this to get it out of me...I saw him as being very narcissistic and "fake" outside the home - and I saw my mother as being like this to some extent also...I was SCARED shitless as a child.  Inside the home, they didn't really have personalities so I thought that people outside the home with personalities were FAKE and weren't being REAL.  I saw it as my personal goal to see what was REAL.  I thought (ha ha now) that others had the POWER to change your personality! "-)  I didn't know and I was a very confused child...why do my parents change outside the home?  Are others that powerful that they can do this to them?  The both seemed to be scared and reactive.  I saw others as very powerful and as a kid, felt like I had people in my head telling me what to do...very scared of the world and people...very.  Didn't want to move, be seen, or nothing...just leave me alone cuz I'm scared.

But based on my outside appearance, should I be scared?  I mean, I was one of the tallest in the classroom as a kid and I felt that I "shouldn't" be scared...well, that was a lie.  I grew up in fear and I used to think things like - a boy or adolescent or grown man SHOULDN'T be scared...but I was horrified.

Honestly, I used to think I was going to die because the world was so dangerous and powerful (according to how my parents interacted with it and others)...and I think the child inside died to some extent.  Can't always put it into words but it feels as if others personalities implode in on me as if I don't exist.  The way I looked at it was like "if my parents are powerful and they cave in to people outside the home, this leaves me (child) in a world of powerless shit".  If other people outside the home can "change my parents personalities" and my parents are supposed to be strong, where does this leave me?  And it seemed they didn't want to talk about their behavior.  I felt 2 inches tall inside and still do...I feel as if others people and their personalites implode in on me.

I looked to school to give me a sense of "self" - tell me anything...give me something - tell me about me (not in a selfish way, in a DESPERATE way).  I need a self to counteract all these powerful forces that are imploding in on me! :-)

Some weird shit that went on (and still goes on in my head) in a fantasy sense...I felt in order to have a voice around my dad that was "heard" I needed to adopt some of his values and views on if he said "don't trust anyone", I'd be the first one to go beat up the biggest guy at school - stupid shit like this, but I was just scared shitless.

Some weird shit that I did in fantasy in order to HANG ON BY A THREAD was to invite my "friends" inside me and project them outward onto othes as if "can't you see that I have power too"?  Basically, I was scared of my parents and fearful of the world at large too...the only "voice" I had was either to rebel or go along.  They both treated theirselves as object to some extent outside the home, as if this was how they fit into the world.  A lot of weird shit went on and I thought I had it all figured out as a kid!  What a joke that was...I still live in my head thinking I know how things go, but am slowly coming to terms with reality and it feels great!!!

Due to the fear of abondonment, I felt like I "internalized" their voices or something strange to "talk to them".  After a while, I just shut them out completely.  A lot of pain growing up with two VERY IMMATURE drama-ridden individuals who I was afraid to confront at times because they might "leave".  Neither of them had a real sense of "self"...and I could hear it in their conversation...neither of them said "I" too many times and it became clear that neither had a "true" self...only a false self that they presented.

It became clear that they were only a product of what they did and how they looked and what others said about them.  And it's not just sister had bulimia so I KNOW I'm not the only person with this view.  I didn't trust either of them early, so now it's hard to trust anyone.

Hate wasn't a strong enough feeling or word to describe the sense I had about them but am slowly coming to terms with life.  It's not all about me, but they are HORRIFICALLY dysfunctional...and I mean sickly, horrifically, horrifyingly dysfunctional.

Messed up family? - Joy - Feb 6th 2008

All my life I have been told that my family was not a messed up family.  Friends and other family constantly down-sized my complaints and told me, "every family has their kinks."  Just because our family was Christian and beacuse there was no sexual or physical abuse, I was put in the box of a child in a normal family.  this was wrong.  sadly, I was not heard.  the only time I was heard was when another older relative close to the situation decided to empathize with me, then, afterwards, she dumped all of her problems on me and tried to get me to join a "resistance" against this particular family member (I was only 16), instead of getting help as would have been appropriate.  She controlled me and lived vicariously through me.  After this incident, I went running back to my mother, who was still messed up and angry. 

I had no boundaries. finally, by the grace of God, I got help and found a way out of the situation.  Right now I am almost totally emotionally cut off from those two people in my family- the other people are "non-existent" types.  The relative who severely abused me says "Good thing you found that counselor" when really she should be saying- good thing you came to your senses, or good thing you found God.  After all the denial and enmeshment, I have discovered that I don't have to be a part of that family anymore in the toxic manner that I used to be.  You can only be hurt and exploited so many times before saying goodbye.  I want to see my family again but fear I am still too weak because one of the adults passive agressive behavior is SO difficult to monitor.  None of my family has truly changed and turned around to give their lives to the Lord, except my father, which is a different story.

Right now I am trying to stay strong without my family.  I don't need that enmeshment anymore.  I am trying to find other friends and ways of support.  I am reaching out to people I know won't hurt me like them.  My mom is beginning to show some signs of change, but my grandmother is stubborn as ever.  I told my counselor, "I will not throw myself instantly back on the flames. I have to protect my emotions and wait to see improvment on her part."  my counselor said, that's a good idea. reading "boundaries" by dr. henry cloud and townsend was AMAZING. I am also going to a class at my church. Before I thought I was lost forever but now I am beginning to get through this.  I am closer to the Lord and now I can easier spot boundary-less people.  I have had so much anxiety going through this but I am starting to see hope and am not suicidal any longer.

I never knew how minipualtive my mom was until a week ago...I was over at my old house (I am only 20 right now...I moved out) and I was looking for spiritual support but instead got a slew of hate comments toward my grandmother. never again...

upon leaving, I realized something.  my mother's belief that our family is her way of survival has affected me a lot. her undying hopes for a different family has severely scarred me. I have begun to take in and believe this lie. my eyes opened to the fact that she believes that, without her family, she will die. this keeps her hanging onto a bad relationship with my grandmother. finally, I began to see that this irrational fear was keeping me clinging onto my family and not onto good, healthy relationships instead.  this was keeping me tied down there. this is a ridiculous fear. if she clung to this fear very strongly to minipulate me into staying in this family for her, I don't know...

In essence, I am learning to forgive in my heart (only between God and I) and love my family as they are, instead of trying to force them to have a good relationship with me. that is an over-stepping on my part. Only they, can decide they want that.  this is a severe loss and it has been hard to let go, but Jesus has been by my side every step of the way.  I hope this encourages every one who's reading, because it is SO true...

Things are still hard. why else would I be writing on this discussion board? I am still trying to figure some things out. "I want relationships" is just something that has entered my mind throughout this 3 year drought/3 months spent healing ordeal. I was that hurt. I was AFRIAD of people. but if you have good boundaries, on can have good relationships, with good people. we can be encouraged, hold onto our identity, freedom and have a thriving relationship with our creator. amen? God is good. it just takes a while to get there... and new relationships, counseling and classes are part of the healing- but most of all, God. 

I was severely abused mentally and emotionally.  The people who said no to me were either blind or selfish. no one took the time to invest in me and figure out the truth, or see in my eyes that I was pleading for some emotional slice of love- aka, spiritual advice and human support. but God is in control.

just because you were not abused sexually or physically, it does NOT mean your boundaries were not SEVERELY infiltrated. I was depended on A LOT when I was only 13 years old. this is when I became concious to the fact that I was my mother's only reason for living. big burden eh?

but familiarity and lies from satan kept me snug in that family, and did not help me stand up for myself.  sometimes I feel as if I was molested. the deepest parts of me were trampeled on and exploited.  I have known hell. Pure hell is to be controlled by someone and betrayed by someone you trust most dearly. especially, when you are a child, and have no control. I was born into this situation and control was used to keep me in it. my family thought they had the right to control me, because I was their child and grandchild. a person is not to be owned, but loved, and cared for.  We must learn to trust the RIGHT people. don't let familairity keep you locked in hell. this is not wanting God's best for you.  I believe that God wants us to have beautiful and thriving relationships, not sick and twisted ones. 

right now I am just battling with- do I stay away? or go back? I don't have a whole lot of anger against them anymore, but I get scared and frusterated when bad things happen when I'm around them. does this just mean that I need more time to develop support and love from people and the church? I think it maybe might. but I'm not sure. I feel bad because my counselor said that she is not a fan of total emotional cut off, but I am not completely cut I not giving a second chance?  I am just confused about and townsend also said in their book, "safe people", the true test is when you practice boundaries, but what if I don't want to be in a relationship with them at all. they still haven't changed. I am very confused about this.

dysfunctional family of mine - cont. - Jeff H. - Jan 24th 2008

Also on the dysfunctional family of mine...

It is mostly my father who is dysfunctional and just wreaked havoc within the family (there were 4 of us, him included).  It's difficult to put into words how strange he actually is...but let me try:

* He behaves and talks like he's 8 or 9 and thinks he's normal

* He walks around (outside the home) and just tries to control people like it's normal...he'd have no qualms about it

* Outside the home, he puts on a front like he's normal, friendly, etc...when in actuality he's the meanest, creepiest person I've ever met and is NOTHING like his public person...he beat the shit out of his wife and children (mostly me) behind closed doors and enrages...he treated my sister better, probably because he wanted to get a piece :-)

* He used to treat me like a was 2 years old when 10 or 11...for example, he would talk real slow like he was talking to an infant and think he was "relating" because he was "coming down" to my confused the SHIT out of me and enraged me.  A lot of mind control games like this...and the sad thing is he didn't realize he was doing it...he's not really "there"

* He is the weirdest person about food, money, people (children especially), and going to bed (he tries to put children to bed) and behaves like he's 2 when he tries to do it.  For instance, he'd get drunk and then talk to me like I was 2 and tried to put me to bed (he's very sick, yes) and would talk like this - "IT     IS      TIME      TO      GO       TO      BED."...

Just creepy shit that just scared me to the core when I was younger...I was confused, like - am I supposed to be relating to you like this?  Are you supposed to be talking to me like you are?  If I had those questions in my head and doubted things, I was probably right inside about my instincts...he's an abuser.

He thinks life is a "game" and that everyone is untrustworthy and everyone is a bullshitter, etc...but he's the biggest culprit of all - calling the kettle black, man.  And what frustrated me, is that he didn't want to hear any feedback or have any resistance about the way he treated others...he must have been called weird a million times.  And NO, I don't feel guilty or self-centered or selfish because he put a roof over my head and provided (with much guilt at that)...he's an abuser, and there is no excuse for that, parent or whomever the hell it is.

And I'm 36 now and think I have problems with narcissistic traits, borderline PD, etc, etc.  And I still have difficulty being myself around him...I tend to become how others treat me and that in itself, is messed up.  I was very afraid of hurting his feelings cuz I seen his rage and violence and creepiness inside the home and what he was capable of...I honestly thought I was going to die if I said anything, but did anyhow :-)  I thought if I die, it's on his shoulders.

dysfunctional family of mine - Jeff H. - Jan 23rd 2008
I was also raised in a dysfunctional family with very weak boundaries.  My father was the worst...he doesn't seem to understand boundaries, only hierarchy.  Some example of boundary violations were 1) if I was out with him, he felt compelled to speak for me 2) he would purposely make my business his 3) he was afraid to stand-up to grown men, but had no qualms about treating his wife and children (me included) like pieces of shit just because we were dependents...on and on.  He's the type of guy who is a kiss-up, kick-down person...and is prejudice, discriminatory.  It doesn't seem like he can think for himself either, but references things that others said or things that are on the radio or news and mostly talks about facts in order to be "right" or not having to look bad because he is just "the messenger".  A horrificly tragic person to have to make into any kind of role model...I can't seem to get over my anger and borderline hatred of him, but he just doesn't know any better and thinks he can just go around pushing people around...I was young and felt helpless around him because he is just a bully without any real sense of what he was actually doing.  I have put him in his place many times and slapped his hand (verbally) like he was a child, but it seems it doesn't stick with him and he's got a learning disability or something.

Yet Another Case of In-Laws - - Dec 13th 2007

I have been happily married for 3 years and with my wife for a total of 6, and we have worked together to try and come to terms with a noticeable amount of dysfunctionality within her family.  Boundary recognition is clearly at the heart of it.

Her mother is an Orthodox Catholic who is very manipulative, attempting to control events and individuals using money and, oddly enough, her camera (she's addicted to picture taking).She doesn't recognize boundaries and tends to infantilize her adult children, who are all in their 30s and early 40s.   My wife and I brought twin boys home from the hospital in July, and since then, her mother has become obsessed with our children, despite having several other grandchildren.  She goes so far as to refer to them as her "babies," rather than her grandbabies.   My own mother attempted to point out this distinction to her during a recent visit. 

Before I met my wife, her family had an intervention with her mother, which ended up backfiring.  Since then I came to understand such things as the idea that my mother-in-law doesn't apologize when it's brought to her attention that she has done something wrong or hurt or offended someone.   I consider this a major character flaw.

With all this, and having now become a parent myself, I wish to make sure that boundaries are enforced when necessary, so that my wife and I can raise our children in as healthy a space as we can create.  We have communicated openly and honestly with each other about the dysfunctionality that is around us, and I believe have a good shot at keeping it at bay.


enmeshed - - Oct 15th 2007
I am in a rel. w/ a woman who is enmeshed w/ her adult and nearly adult children. The conversations and information-sharing are so wildly inappropriate...example: one son gave the mother a vibrator for christmas on year...I care a great deal about the woman but am totally frustrated about the boundary violations that continue to go on...mostly about information-sharing, but also around issues of decency, respect and her smothering/creating dependency behavior (e.g., she warms up a towel for her 15-year-old son before hsi shower every day). So should I run, not walk to the nearest exit? I try to separate the rel. and have my own connections with her and with the children. Nonetheless, it is very awkward at times in that group. Thoughts?

Your artical really discribes my entire life. - Dreamcatcher - Sep 4th 2007
I was raised in a Christian family.And yet very disfunctional.My Mother suffered from depression but she contributed it to being oppression from the enemy "satan" and felt all she had to do was pray it away.And as a result when growing up with depression myself i was also directed to go pray about it,but unfortunately this caused me to feel God was not hearing me or that i must be unworthy for him to answere my prayers.I come from a family of six children.We were slao raised by authoritarians and were physically consequenced for our misbehaviour that were dissaproving to our parents.And i was the "lost child"in our dysfunctional family.We were never praised for doing well but rather recieved attention for nagative behaviour.I was taught that we were hear to serve others and not taught to set boundaries when it comes to saying no.Saying no was not an option.And while being taught that i was being sexually molested by several people .My parents being christians opened their home to anyone in need of help.And then when i grew up i married a narcissis.I was married for over ten years and i finally broke and went into a deep depression.I began to act out crossed my own value system.I divorced and that is when the healing began for me ,for a while and then depression reared it's ugli head again.I'm finally in a some what healthy relationship,i say some what because i still have depression and i tend to lean back into the role of the "lost child",this is what i know and it feels safe to be invisable.When does the "fun" start in dysfunctional familys.How do i break the cycle.I did finally learn boundaries after my divorce and some councilling.I now know how to say no and give consequences if my boundaries are not respected.I am trying to find a way to work around depression and still maintain a healthy relationship with my children and my husband.I also try very hard not be my parents.Which brings in another point, i live my life completely opposite of what i was taught.My children are allowed to express them selves and we have open conversations and we communacate all the time.But i am probaly guilty of sharing too much information hoping they would not make the same mistakes i did.I try to teach them to be empthetic with others.I fear my eldest son has inherited his father's narcsasistic personality.But i strive not to force my opinion on him this i keep to myself and try to encourage healthy thinking.And my youngest has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Any ways i could go on but i won't i guess i agree with what i'v read so far i can identify myself and my life.Thank you for sharing your knowledge with me:Dreamcatcher

re: Terrible situation wife+kids vs. me. I lose - Kevin - - - Aug 5th 2007
I am one of kevin's children. Kenin is diagnosed with PTSD. I also believe on my own opinion, that he is a Narcissist. Kevin has been in a mental hospital 4 times in the past 2 years. the last hosptilization was due to a scuicde attempt. going back to kevin's comment, my mother deffinitly does not tell me anything about their sex life, and yes there is some financial discussion, due to the fact he just lost a job, and money is even tighter than ever. Trust is extremely difficult considering he stole 500 dollars from my personal bank account. Now onto discipline, the claim that my mom won't support him on his discipline on certain occasions, is true but, for rational reasons. one example is that my, and my brothers thoughts and opinions are not to be considered on a given subject, and that we have no independent thought. for obvious reasons my mom does not support him in this. Assertiveness? are you kidding me? all he does is force his opinions on me and screams and yells over the littlest things, just to be right. he is extremely aggresive, throws things, cusses, get physical if you start to give a reasonabale rational arguement, and screams all the time. My mom has talked about divorce, and custody would be shared equally. I do agree that there is emeshment in our family, and i do know what it means! he just thinks that no one else is intelligent. his opinions on tv shows are right, and no one else's opinion is regarded no matter what! It would not be the first time he has had an affair, and anything brought up as a rattional arguement is dismissed with him screaming, and throwing things around the house, and hits people. he is extremely abusive, and he continues to get away with it. does any one have any advice?

Terrible situation wife+kids vs. me. I lose - Kevin - Aug 4th 2007
I am in a terrible situation.  My wife does not allow me to have anything of my own. My wife will tell out children everything bad about our marriage (sex, finances, trust, etc.).  Whenever I try to discipline our children she irrationally takes their side and yells and screams at me and of course the kids join in.  I am treated less than the dog.  Assertiveness just causes WW III and if I leave, she threatens that I have abandoned the family and I will forfiet my visitiation rights to our children.  I have tried to explain emeshment to my 17 and 18 year old to no avail.  I cannot even have an opinion about a tv show without being wrong!  I am thinking of having an affair, I am so lonly and miserable.

boundries - Jim - Jul 15th 2007
I've met a woman who feels that I haven't set boundries with my children.  The one thing that she says is wrong is that my daughter has given me a hug, (after not seeing me for a year, and she is 27), she sat next to me, with a number of people in the room, hugged my arm with both arms and laid her head on my shoulder for 5 seconds, saying that she missed me, and was so glad that she got a chance to see me.  We  have always been  close. It appears that this woman is jealous of them, as this woman had a terrible relashionship with her father when she was young.  As their father, through a divorce, my two daughters decided to live with me, partly because of abuse by their mother, and I did most of the caregiving, cookig, cleaning, running them for errands, etc.  I have always respected my children and have had a close relationship through their whole lives.  So, is it wrong for this behavior on my part?  My whole family is a very "huuggy" and I don't want to hurt my children. Any comments?

boundaries/rigidity - p.smith - Jun 22nd 2007
I can see how unhealthy boundaries were a part of my family structure.My father awas a duty bound person ti the extreme. He ended up to become a workaholic and there was neglect experienced in every family member as a result. We went to family counseling,but I don't think either parent was able to grasp what healthy family boundaries were about.That was because the duty thing in my fathers mind took precedence. It is very hard to back off of this duty bound conviction in the persons mind.Especially when his working staff and community reinforced it as a good value to be commended.My Mom was real good at roping us in to be her confidants...Dad was never available to talk to!  But it was very damaging to us children to have to play into the disfunction. My brother became very high strung and tense,with anger episodes and poor sleeping habits. I was always sick and had emotional coping issues that isolated me from my peers.

Bundries : my favoret subject - Jo - Apr 17th 2007


I will never fortet my first co-dependantcy suport group. We read Dr. Henery Clouds's book on Boundries. It opened up a whole new world to me. I came from a home of three children. I was in the middle, and none of us knew who are father was. There was a lot of drinking and violence. Later living in a few foster homes I could not understand why I could never fit it. I was what specialasit labled the "skape goat" and in my eyes I was invisible. When I began to grasp the idea that I had a beggining and a end and was responsible for what was in my yeard and while I could offer sympothy to others I was not responsible for what was in their yard. That was the begining of the end of my co-dependance all to understand a basic principle of life as sure as gavity: I have permishion to be alive and have a responsiblity to that gift. I AM NOT however responsible for others boundries, only that I respect them and that is the kindest thing anyone can do to someone. It sets them free from the merry-go round of co-dependency and enabling into a world of grouth and productivity. Your artilc is encouraging , thank you.

Response to Diane - - Apr 4th 2007

re: Family Systems vs. Family of Origin - Diane - Dec 8th 2006

This article briefly mentions Murray Bowen, however I think that his work would be very relavant to your question. Bowen felt the most effective way to work on family issues was to work with individual family members helping them to recognize the impact of family of origin issues & multigenerational patterns.   You may wish to visit for more info. 

Family of Narcissists - Di - Mar 20th 2007

I have recently been diagnosed with refractory depression and PTSD. I have been treated on and off for depression since school. What is becoming increasingly in therapy is that CSA may be one thing, but being brought up in a family of narcissists is quite another.

For years I would defend our family fiercely - I was the expert mediator in times of family strife - my expert 'mirroring' techniques were so well refined that I found it impossible to put myself first in any relationship. There was no room for a sense of self, I was to busy empathising with others. Co dependent, maybe - invert narcissist, perhaps. The point is that being enmeshed in a dysfunctional family with absolutely no boundaries to speak of can be totally soul destroying - somewhere along the way I lost my voice.

After 2 suicide attempts, the world is slowly beginning to regain its colour - I still have far to go, but I am determined to be heard.

Educated family - - Feb 3rd 2007

I just don't understand why families of people with mental illnesses abandon loved ones instead of educating themselves on mental illness.


Great article! - Lisa - Dec 21st 2006
I thought this was well written. I have recently entered into a family that had absolutely no boundries. It would dive me crazy. It's been almost two years and finally my husband and I have acquired healthy boundaries with family members. Of course it was an uphill battle and I looked like a bad guy but they know we mean business now. Especially our children. My husband has custody of his four children and I have one. His ex is still out of controll and is all over the board when it comes to boundaries. She has none with her children in every aspect. It's very frustrating but we remain supportive to the children and try very carefully not to cross into inappropriate boundaries. The ex is in a state of denial and is unwilling to set boundaries with anyone. Her idea of setting boundaries is calling the police on people, even for ridiculous reasons. Fun huh? Well it was great to read something with substance. And will help us in gaining more tools to maintain healthy boundaries. Lisa, MN

loyalty bind - Michael Castaldi - Dec 18th 2006
Great article...I like to think of divorced parents who continue to argue and use there children as tools for their fight as "placing their children in a loyalty bind". Children love both parents...regardless of parents behavior... and therefore struggle to accomadate the needs of waring parents. Children will feel like they are being forced to allign themselves against one parent to satify the needs of another...NOT GOOD....anxiety levels skyrocket...children begin acting out...substance abuse to quell the anxiety ect..... Parents who find themselves engage in the above behavior [as long as they are reasonable] will usually attempt to stop when it is pointed out to them in the therapy room.... again ...nice article on boundaries....

family systems - Margaret - Dec 17th 2006
Ive just read your article on family systems and i find the whole area of enmeshed/detached quite confusing ( this must be a sure give away). Im unsure as to what is too detached and what is enmeshed. Is it possible to have an enmeshed family system yet appear on the outside to be a self automonous group ie say in relation to grown up siblings, mother, father or other wider family members etc. ive Just experienced two situations recently both pretty similiar. In the lastest, i had arranged to go out with a cousin of mine, id arranged a child minder and contacted her on the morning to sort out arrangments. She txt and said she'd ring later. She didn't and i subsequently rang her. She said she was with a friend and wouldn't be back to later on and she would contact me then. As time went on ( we where going to the cinema) i got a bit annoyed as i felt as if i was left to wait until she decided regardless of the uncertainty for me. So i rang the cinema and found out the times for the show. I had decided that if she didnt ring by a certain time i was going to go on out. As it happened she txt and said she was now at home and i could call up. i txt back and told her the time of the film. She replied ok. I left and drove to her house. When i got there she had her coat on and asked me if id got her txt as she'd sent me one. ( i'd received it on the journey to her house but didnt know). The txt said that a male friend of hers would be calling and my be staying over and that i could still come up but it would be for a cuppa and tv. sorry. And i wonder 'is it me'? How can she think so little of me to behave that way. Iwas mad. She was still in the kitchen and i said 'right im away' she said 'you're going to the cinema on your own ?' and i said 'yes' and got up and left. I said to myself she wont spoil my night and i sat in the car park for about 5 mins feeling the anger and rejection and then went into the cinema. That won't happen to me again. I chose not to confront her with it although when i speak to her next time she will know how i feel. Was it wrong to feel the way i did? I dont think so?

Editor's Note: Sounds like you handled it pretty well, actually. Most anyone would feel neglected under the circumstances

Family Systems vs. Family of Origin - Diane - Dec 8th 2006

I will try and make this short . I just read your article on family systems as Ihave read many others and simply love and remain very commited tothis being a viable means of seeing Families, and also helping them get well. However most of the literature seems to come at it from the perspective of a family living together right here and now. then on the other hand is Family of Origin Therapy, which we hear alot less about (some may nderstand it better when it has a more familiar ring, like "Adult Children of alcoholics" etc. I guess first I would like to see you eloborate at little on the difference perspectives here. Also when I wanted to know more about Family of Origin Therapy I kept coming across information on Family Systems Theory and again it was more about helping Families as a unit, which I do understand the benefit. But I guess what I am trying to say is a person can also get well by understanding the Family they come from, and the role they played there, and may even still be playing in that family and in other relationships. Aspects to Systems Theory, like Boundaries, etc. all come up in Family of Origin therapy, but the difference being one can get well without the Family there in therapy, or even willing participants. The more I write the more difficult it is for me to articulate my question, maybe you can help me and the readers understand better the differences and also if you know of any really great books, authors, etc who write about Family of origin work I would be very grateful. I really love all of your articles and analogies (I also love reading more about analogies and metaphors in psychotherapy, again any suggestions?). thankyou so much for your generous spirit and sharing.

Editor's Note First off, thank you for the compliments. I'm glad to know that you are enjoying and benefiting from my writing and from Mental Help Net more generally. With regard to your question, the psychotherapy that deals with family of origin questions most of all is psychodynamic psychotherapy. The "analysis of transference" is more or less about discovering conflicts you have with past relationships as they impact the present. The aim of interpreting transference is to help you become more aware of how past relationships have impacted you, so that you can take control over how that past experience is allowed to inform your present.

Your distinction between past and present-oriented family therapies is very good - I guess I'd never thought about it in that way before. But since I'm not aware of any past-oriented family sytems authors (as you point out, most seem to deal with the family in-front-of-them, not the family that used-to-be), I'll refer to you read about transference.

You might also be facinated by the object relational school of psychotherapy. This comes out of the psychdynamic approach, but there are today also cognitive behavioral approaches that are informed by object relational ideas (Schema Therapy is one - I hope to write about that shortly). Object relations therapies deal with "person-schemas" - relationship memories that people have in their minds with past and present people, and how these relationship memories define and constrain personality and mood. While not explicitly about past family life, that subject is contained in this approach.

Boundries - Val - Nov 21st 2006
I've had to seperate my self from my family,a few of my inlaws and the only best friend I had.For a while I thought it was just me being over sensitive.It's not.There is alot of drinking,pill taking and other drug usage involved.They won't admit it.The closet drinkers,the pill poppers and the meth users all have a way of blaming you for everything.Well,I'm just not doing it anymore.No more toxic relationships,no more friends who can't be loyal and trustworthy.I'm not anyones problem.Boundries are a fact of life.Keep out the bad,protect the good within.I'd rather be all alone and have nobody than to have untrustworthy people sucking the life out of me.I gave everything and got nothing.Thats what happens when you don't have boundries.Your wide open to the world.Oh yeah and when you think you have that very best friend she'll take everything you said and twist it and tell everyone your secrets.Remember that.If you need a friend to talk to go pay someone to listen that has a degree.People will stab you in the back.They will let you down and you will get hurt.Boundries,it's a good thing.

It never ends... - - Nov 13th 2006
My wife and I are trying desperately create healthy boundaries for ourselves and our children with my in-laws. Whenever we have to make a decision big or small and we mention it to them they tell us what to do and what is expected of us according to their family rules. If we voice any opinion that doesn't agree with theirs, they launch into attack as if we are stupid and don't know what we are doing. It's both nasty, hurtful and it disrespects us as adults and parents of our children. As a result we now don't tell them when we are thinking about decisions we have to make because their irational inteference and negativity is counter productive to our journey in life. When we have made a decision we inform them of it and they then launch into attack again about how we don't know what we are doing and we are stupid and they know everything and on top of it, we're secretive and make these decisions behind their backs!? Unfortunately, there are a bunch of other siblings that feed this dysfunctional family and as a result they have no concept that they are overstepping boundaries so chronically. They can't see that it's inappropriate to aggresively tell me what and where I should be working so it doesn't rock their family boat of enmeshment. They can't see that it's inappropriate to go behind my wife and my back to convince our children that what my wife and I are considering is a terrible thing and they need to be told how horrific it will be so that they are terribly upset and we are then forced to do as the family want us to. This has been going on so long it's just not funny. Generally trivial decisions about anything from face cream to diet to choice of holidays turn into an emotional battle for survival, needless to say significant life decisions that we have to consider turn into open war. It's not pretty, it's abusive and yet we feel guilty for considering putting physical space between us to help us in our attempt to grow healthy boundaries? They use the outcast tactic to try and draw my wife back in, abuse her and push her away out the 'family circle of trust' as in Meet the Parents so that she can feel the fear of their rejection and what it will be like to spend the rest of her life as unacceptable to them. That way, she'll come running back and know her place. Family are so important for a balanced life but finding that balance with uncooperative family members is so very difficult. Is it acceptable to put physical distance between us to help detach from the chonic enmesment we are in? I don't see it as running away as much as I see us running towards a healthier emotional life, which is something we need and deserve.

Thank You - LeRoy - Aug 3rd 2006
Me and one of my sisters took in reaclentymy baby sister. She was adopted and the lady had her for seven years and she is now fourteen and the lady said she is too much to handle. So i guess in the sense we are a D.F. family. I sometimes get overwelmed and start telling her about my finacial issuse and loose my boundries. I thought youre essay is very helpfull to me i never thought about boundries. But now I will try very hard to keep them seperat.Thank You.

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