Enmeshed families are families where there are no psychological and emotional boundaries between the family members. The family members seem to be psychologically enmeshed or fused together.1
While enmeshment can occur in any relationship, it’s common in parent-child, especially mother-son relationships.2
The enmeshed child fails to develop a separate identity from their parent. They’re exactly like their parent.
Healthy vs. enmeshed families
Being close to your family members is not enmeshment. You could be very close to your family members while still maintaining an identity of your own.
In enmeshed families, family members have no boundaries, and they keep invading each other’s space. They keep over-interfering in each other’s lives. They live each other’s lives.
In parent-child enmeshment, the parent sees the child as an extension of themselves. The child exists only to meet the needs of the parent.
When a mother is enmeshed with her son, the son becomes a mamma’s boy. He’s exactly like his mother. He has no separate life, identity, or values.
The enmeshed son cannot separate from her mother even as an adult. In his attempt to cater to his mother, he’s likely to ruin his career and romantic relationships.
Let’s look at the signs of mother-son enmeshment to get a clear picture of what it looks like. You’re likely looking at mother-son enmeshment if you see most of these signs in a mother-son relationship.
I have listed these signs assuming you’re a son suspecting you might be in an enmeshed mother-son relationship.
1. You’re the center of your mother’s world
If you’re the most important person in your mother’s life, you’re likely in an enmeshed relationship with her. Ideally, her partner should be the most important person in her life.
If she has said that you’re her ‘favorite’ or ‘best friend’, this is a red flag for enmeshment.
2. Your mother only cares about her needs
In parent-child enmeshment, the parent believes the child exists only to serve the parent’s needs. This is pure selfishness, but the enmeshed child, blinded by enmeshment, cannot see it.
An enmeshed mother wants her son to be there for her at all times and can’t handle the separation. If he wants to leave town for education or a career, she’ll insist he stays and not ‘leave the nest’.
3. She can’t stand you being different from her
If you’re enmeshed with your mother, you have her personality. You talk like her and have the same beliefs as her. If you were to differ from your mother in any way, she wouldn’t be able to stand it.
She’d guilt you for being your own person, calling you disobedient or the family’s black sheep.
4. She doesn’t respect your (non-existent) boundaries
It’s mainly because the boundary between you and your mother is blurred. That’s what enmeshment is. You hardly have a boundary with her, and she almost lives your life.
She over-interferes in every minor issue concerning you. She invades your personal space and asks you to share the most intimate details about your life with her. Things you don’t feel comfortable sharing with her.
She doesn’t want you to keep anything secret from her. She wants to be involved in everything you do, making you feel suffocated.
5. She keeps you dependent on her
Your enmeshed mother wants you to remain dependent on her, so she can keep depending on you. She does things for you that you, being an adult, should be doing yourself.3
For instance, she cleans up after you and does your dishes and laundry. She gives you money to buy things even though you could easily buy those things yourself.
6. She competes with your girlfriend/wife
Your girlfriend or wife is the number one threat to your mother’s position as the most important person in your life. So, your mother sees your girlfriend or wife as a competition.
She comes between you and your partner. She makes decisions for you and your partner that your partner should be making or at least should have a say in.
Of course, this makes your partner feel alienated; she feels like you’re married to your mother, not her. She feels insecure in her relationship with you.4
In worst cases, this competition takes an ugly turn where your enmeshed mother criticizes and puts your partner down. Being the enmeshed son you are, you do nothing about it and don’t take a stand for your partner.
7. She wants you to prioritize her over your partner
If you’re in an enmeshed relationship with your mother, you’ll often go out of your way to please your mother. You’ll sacrifice your own needs and those of your partner.
For instance, if your mother wants you to drive to her house in the middle of the night, you will leave your partner alone and do so. Even if, later, it turns out there was no emergency.
Your enmeshed mother will test your commitment to her this way to ensure you’ll serve her first and foremost.
8. You have commitment issues
You’re likely to have commitment issues in your romantic relationships if you’re enmeshed with your mother. You can’t commit to anyone but your mother.
Your mother-son enmeshment leaves no room for you to show commitment in your romantic relationships. As a result, you might find it challenging to sustain your romantic relationships.
9. You lash out at your partner
Enmeshment is suffocating. Your resentment against your mother piles up over time. But because you can’t go against your divine mother, you’re helpless to do anything about it.
You then unleash all that resentment on your partner, an easy target. You feel suffocated in your romantic relationship, but this suffocation actually stems from your mother-son enmeshment.
Your desire to escape your mother-son enmeshment takes the shape of your desire to escape from your romantic relationship. You blame your partner for suffocating and smothering you when it’s your mother you should be blaming.
10. Your father is distant
Fathers are known to be distant. But, in your case, your mother-son enmeshment has likely contributed to it. Because you’re so busy catering to your mother, you hardly had any time or energy left to connect with your father.
11. You lack assertiveness
Your dynamic with your enmeshed mother spills over to how you relate to people in general. Since you don’t know who you are and what you want, you find it hard to express and assert yourself.
You put others’ needs and feelings before your own. You become docile and do nothing even if people take advantage of you- exactly the dynamic of your mother-son enmeshment.
- Barber, B. K., & Buehler, C. (1996). Family cohesion and enmeshment: Different constructs, different effects. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 433-441.
- Hann-Morrison, D. (2012). Maternal enmeshment: The chosen child. SAGE Open, 2(4), 2158244012470115.
- Bradshaw, J. (1989). Our families, ourselves: The consequences of codependency. Lear’s, 2(1), 95-98.
- Adams, K. M. (2007). When he’s married to mom: How to help mother-enmeshed men open their hearts to true love and commitment. Simon and Schuster.