Marrying Into an Enmeshed Family

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Marrying Into an Enmeshed Family

Family dynamics are tricky, especially when you’re marrying into an enmeshed family. As a couples counselor and a premarital counselor, I’ve seen the unique challenges that arise when partners are striving to build their own identity when their in-laws are enmeshed. In this article, we’ll explore how to set healthy boundaries and that will help you navigate the tricky dynamics of an enmeshed extended family, while keeping your relationship healthy and strong.

What Is Emotional Enmeshment? 

Emotional enmeshment is a relationship dynamic where emotional boundaries are blurred or non-existent. In enmeshed families, members often struggle to differentiate their own feelings, thoughts, and identities from those of others. This can show up in many ways, such as over-reliance on one another for emotional support, lack of privacy, and an inability to establish healthy boundaries.

Another common trait of an emotionally enmeshed family is information flowing freely between parents and children, even when it shouldn’t. Children may find themselves catering excessively to their parents’ emotional needs, sometimes at the expense of their own. The theme here is that nothing is “off-limits” for family discussions.

Now, how does this impact a couple trying to carve out their space within such a family structure? Partners might discover that their in-laws expect an uncomfortable level of disclosure or frequent communication. For instance, a parent might call incessantly during a honeymoon, keen to check in on their child. Or they might inquire about the relationship in front of both partners, questioning if the other is treating their child right. These communications can strain couples. The partner who marries into an enmeshed family may get frustrated at the enmeshed partner, who becomes the safer target for venting.

The enmeshed partner can start to feel trapped in the middle, leading to heightened tension and strain on the relationship. The struggle to establish their identity as a couple is real, as enmeshment creates expectations that may feel intrusive or uncomfortable.

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Setting Healthy Boundaries in an Enmeshed Family

So, how can couples set healthier boundaries with their extended families and reclaim some autonomy? Communication is the most important tool. You can’t hold a boundary that you’re not both aware of, so having an open dialogue about your needs and expectations is vital.

I often use a fence metaphor to illustrate the different types of boundaries couples can set:

Think of a solid wooden fence — a clear and visible boundary known to both partners and their families. These boundaries might include things like not discussing the intimate details of your sex life or finances with family members. In an enmeshed scenario, you may have to communicate these boundaries overtly with your partner’s family. 

Then there’s the chain link fence — then there’s the chain-link fence, an established boundary, but one that still allows for a bit more visibility into your relationship. It’s the middle ground — it’s there to protect the relationship, but sometimes you might let family in on these areas a bit more. You and your partner agree on the boundary but only communicate it with family when necessary. An example might be deciding to visit sometimes for a birthday weekend, but not always. The boundary allows for some flexibility and negotiation, while you still get to hold on to your expectations. Sometimes you say yes, and other times you say no. 

Finally, the electric fence — an invisible boundary only known to you and your partner. For instance, you may silently agree to always go to bed at the same time when visiting family, creating a private space for connection. These boundaries don’t require you to make a public announcement, just to respect them within your relationship.

Getting clear about what your boundaries are together, and how and when to communicate them, will help you know how to respond when you run into difficulties with your in-laws in the future.

Advice for Marrying Into an Enmeshed Family

If you’re on the brink of marrying into an enmeshed family, my first piece of advice is to cultivate compassion for your partner as they navigate their enmeshed role. Remember, they’ve been dealing with this dynamic for years, and setting boundaries can be emotionally taxing for them. Patience is crucial as they work to create change.

Additionally, plan to check in with each other frequently during visits with family. Set aside time to connect with each other, whether it’s going to bed at the same time, discussing the day, or planning a small outing just for the two of you. These intentional moments strengthen your bond, serving as a lifeline amidst the challenges of enmeshed family dynamics.

Finally, get the right support. The transition into marriage can be hard, especially when you’re entering into a family system that’s enmeshed. High-quality premarital counseling from a marriage and family therapist helps you ask the right questions before marriage and avoid potential problems before they start. It can be a transformative experience that helps you grow as individuals and as a couple, while laying the foundation for love that lasts a lifetime

If you would like my support with preparing for marriage or navigating the challenges of an enmeshed extended family, I invite you to schedule a free consultation


Dr. Ben J., PhD, LMFT, MFTC
P.S. — You can find more answers to common premarital counseling questions here.

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