I Began Healing Enmeshment by Building My Own Family

In Black families, flexible family roles increase the risk of enmeshment. Fixing this dynamic is hard. But it’s possible.

Mother hugging her four children on the beach

Erin Brant/Stocksy

I hadn’t realized I had been holding my breath until I finally exhaled. I sat in my new apartment on the green futon couch my mom had bought me and waited for her response on the other end of my phone. After I nervously explained what I thought I wanted to do, she finally resigned, “You made someone a promise. I will let you honor that.”  

“Thank you, Mama,” I almost exclaimed with a large grateful smile. “Thank you so much for understanding.”  

I was so relieved. At 24, I received her permission to marry my fiancé. My mother sighed, and I talked more, telling her how wonderful and understanding she was as a mother. I was mostly responsible for myself, working for AmeriCorps, and old enough to make my own decisions. But I felt so lucky to have her because my fiancee’s announcement to his mom had not gone as smoothly. I'd witnessed friends have a tougher time telling their moms that they couldn’t answer their call because they were taking a shower than I had when announcing the engagement.

In comparison, I thought, this is not so bad. I didn’t know at the time that even though things weren’t as bad, I was still enmeshed because my mother’s feelings deeply affected mine. In enmeshed families, there is no emotional independence or separation between the parent and the child. And when enmeshment blurs boundaries between a parent and a single child, it is the same as emotional incest.    

I also felt guilty, which was another sign of our unhealthy dynamic. Before my mother told me the engagement was okay, she shared that she wanted to leave her husband but needed his income to survive. Her solution was that she live with me and supplement her disability check with my AmeriCorps stipend. At the time, I lived by the narrative that my mother had sacrificed so much for me. She often told me about my dad cheating during their marriage before leaving her to raise three small babies on her own. She bought us whatever we wanted, and until I lived in the apartment I was speaking to her from, she had paid all of my bills. So while I did not want to live my young adult life as her roommate, I felt like a bad daughter for telling her because I felt I was betraying her. I wanted my own life.

The confusion I felt is common in adult children from enmeshed families where personal boundaries are not respected. “We often see adult and young adults who grow up in enmeshed family systems have difficulty making decisions for their future—where to live, where to go to school, what career to choose, and who to date—based on the lack of boundaries and opinions from family members,” says Erica Tatum-Sheade, a licensed clinical social worker and owner of Integrated Mental Health Associates.

Tatum-Sheade is a child, adolescent, and youth specialist who focuses on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), play therapy, shame resiliency, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Tatum-Sheade notes Black families are more likely to have intergenerational households and blurred boundaries outside our immediate families for many reasons. Close family dynamics andflexible family roles are common aspects of Black culture. Black families are disproportionally economically disfranchised. All of these contribute to rates of enmeshment. “This could be role confusion between parent and child, or a grandparent and child role confusion.” Common examples of role confusion in immediate and intergenerational Black households are:

  • A parent relying on a child for emotional or financial support.
  • A grandparent depending on an underaged grandchild as the primary in-home caregiver.
  • Parents who expect older siblings to care for their younger siblings in ways that a parent or guardian should.
  • A parent who shares romantic details of their life with their child or asks for relationship advice. 
  • Several family members joining together to convince an adult child to take a job offer and make a parent happy. 

In my example, after my mother verbally conceded to my choice to marry, she expressed her dissatisfaction to other family members. Once that happened, they either committed themselves to convincing me not to get married or refused to celebrate with me.

One time, I declined to write a paper for my aunt’s friend, and it led to an argument. She responded with an overzealous accusation that I was not progressing and was tying myself down and throwing my life away. It didn’t matter that at the same time, I also had a full-time job and was pursuing a master’s degree. In their minds, I was making a mistake by growing in a different direction than they were, and they made their disapproval known. I was in love, so I got married anyway.

“We often find that when setting boundaries in enmeshment, there is a level of pushback,” says Tatum-Sheade. “There is nothing wrong with having a close relationship with family members. But if you start to find yourself making decisions based out of fear of how they will react or if they will withhold emotional support from you, you may want to look at the boundaries or lack of that have been established in that relationship.”  

Black people may find it challenging to get out of enmeshed family relationships. But it’s possible. Tatum-Sheade says spending time focused on developing your sense of self is the first step. And “it may require working with a licensed professional to help you address the impact growing up in an enmeshed family had on your development.” It is important to understand that setting boundaries in families take time because everyone won’t be ready to change when you are. However, setting those boundaries is a necessary form of self-care. “If we are taking care of ourselves, we hold those boundaries that are leading us to a more healthy sense of self,” says Tatum-Sheade before citing a Prentis Hemphill quote to illustrate healthy boundaries. “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” 

I searched for a total of eight years, from the moment I announced my engagement until I birthed my 5th child, for signs things would improve. Unfortunately, I didn’t find a single immediate or extended family member who was willing to change. If I had not dared to get married and build my own family, I’m not sure I ever would have changed either. I know my commitment to the safety and well-being of my children and their need for a safe and stable environment pushed me to seek healthy relationships. My connection to my family threatened that in almost every way, so I’ve had to disconnect indefinitely. Now, as I navigate life without them, the challenge is to change family patterns. The goal is to give my household the freedom to be itself. And the work is to give me the space and time to heal.

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