13 Commentsby   |  09.27.09  |  Uncategorized

Enmeshment is a term coined by Salvador Minuchin (1974) to describe what happens when boundaries between subsystems in families are diffuse. The more enmeshed a family becomes the less able members are to function autonomously. Minuchin (1974) says that “the heightened sense of belonging” felt in enmeshed families “requires a major yielding of autonomy” and “discourages autonomous exploration and mastery of problems” (p. 55). Though enmeshment is seen as healthy in some cases (e.g. couples who are falling in loveand mothers with newborns) if it continues over extended periods of time it will keep members from differentiation that will allow them to function separately from their family (Minuchin, 1974).

Some characterizations of enmeshed families and couples are: high levels of family loyalty and emotional reactivity when any member deviates from the expected norm behavior (Minuchin, 1974); avoidance of confrontation for fear of destroying family unity (Simon, Stierlin, & Wynne, 1985); dependency (Everett & Nichols, 1986); frequent interaction (Everett & Nichols, 1986); one member speaking on behalf of other members (Everett & Nichols, 1986); unclear family roles (Simon, Stierlin, & Wynne, 1985); and rigid boundaries around the family separating it from the outside world (Minuchin, 1974).

I believe cult groups to be an extreme example of the potentially negative effects of family enmeshment. In this video you see a comedic presentation of the way cults work, and you’ll notice that many of ingredients listed to create a cult are those of enmeshed families (e.g. strong sense of loyalty and identity, rigid outside boundaries, emotional closeness, etc.).

In light of the video, do you think our average Christian churches sometimes fall prey to issues of enmeshment? What separates Christian communities, where same belief is a requirement for membership, from cults? Lastly, do you think Christ has any insight for us on the issue of enmeshment?

Everett, C.A., & Nichols, W.C. (1986). Systemic family therapy: An integrative approach. New York: Guilford.

Minuchin, S. (1974). Family and family therapy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Simon, F.B., Stierlin, H., & Wynne, L.C. (1985). The language of family therapy: A systemic vocabulary and sourcebook. New York: Family Process.


  1. Emily Savage
    10:13 pm, 09.27.09

    p.s. Feel free just to watch the first few minutes of the video — you’ll get the idea.

  2. Ashley Roan
    10:08 am, 09.28.09

    I believe that there are varying degrees of enmeshment expected in between religions and withing relaigions. Part of the idea of Christianity is blind faith, complete loyalty to a God the most of us dont physicly see. We are also expected to make our decisions based on God’s law and furthermore christian cultural expectations. When we allow ourselves to make decisions without the reliance on God we reveal our sinful nature. We are encouraged to have constant interaction with God, and many of us are relaiant on pastors to speak on the Lord’s behalf. I do believe that there is an expectation on enmeshment within Christianity that is apparent in other religions as well. Enmeshment seems to be problematic when it is in relation to another sinful creature. When we become enmeshed with another person, not only are we likely to act on our sinful hearts but theirs as well, because they are not clearly defined. Enmeshment with a perfect being is not likely to be harmful and therefor does not need attention or change.

  3. Jaime Goff
    4:17 pm, 09.30.09

    Creepy video! In regard to your question about churches and enmeshment, my observation has been that churches are becoming less dependent on their members having all of the same beliefs (of course, that could just be the communities I’ve been part of). Granted, some of the basic beliefs are the same (at least on the surface), but there seems to be more tolerance among faith communities for difference. I think this has been one of the positive influences of postmodernism.

  4. Emily Savage
    11:29 am, 10.02.09

    Dr. Goff, I agree that there has definitely been a shift in the postmodern church that focuses less on “right belief” and leaves more room for the individuation of its members. However, because of the highly structured organization (both of the church heirarchy and the services) of the majority of churches I think there are still many problems with allowing members to be individuals, both in their relationship with God and each other. It would be interesting to look into the process by which church structures have adapted to postmodernism. Despite the openness to questioning, it seems to me, from personal experience, that questioning the core beliefs of churches is still frequently seen as very threatening, and those who engage in it are labeled deviant.

  5. Emily Savage
    11:37 am, 10.02.09

    Ashley, I think you brought up a very good point in your comment which I’ve found myself pondering frequently. How do we find our “solid self,” and is our relationship with God supposed to be “enmeshed”? To me this goes back to looking at the stories of Jesus in the New Testament. Whereas God can inform us about who we are in a way that humans do not have the authority, I believe that Jesus shows us that even with God we are perhaps differentiated. Jesus allows himself to think through situations and respond to people needing him (like when he decides to stop what he was doing and feed the 5,000 instead), but then he also takes time to himself (to pray on the mountain) and rebukes people when necessary. There are many examples throughout the New Testament where Jesus shows us that he is able to be emotionally close to people, and yet make non-reactive decisions. I think in our relationships with God, if we become enmeshed, we may wake up one day and realize that our faith seems to be nothing more than a feeling we had. I think we must be differentiated even with Him.

  6. Scott Rampy
    10:36 pm, 10.02.09

    Perhaps one of the ways that churches display elements of enmeshment is in regard to doubting faith or questioning fundamental truths. Doubting and questioning are a necessary part of an individual’s process towards faith differentiation. That is to say that it is a necessary step in deciding what one does believe about himself/herself in relation to the world around him or her. Such a journey is a necessary for developing an autonomous faith sometimes described as “owned.” Questioning and doubt hopefully lead to searching and investigating.

    Elements of enmeshment comes into play when the faith community in which the individual begins to fear that questioning and doubt will ultimately lead to the wrong answer. Thus they may seek to stifle one’s faith journey. It may be noted that fear is a primary motivator for enmeshment. Fear is especially involved when the “eternal consequence” element is on the conscience of church members. Furthermore, Christians may believe that it is their responsibility to “save souls”, leaving them responsible if one of their own becomes lost. It is easy to see why a religious group would fall prey to a desire to stifle questioning and doubt.

    Perhaps a more faith-reflecting view would hold that:
    1. This differentiating journey is a necessary part of determining one’s faith.
    2. If God’s invisible qualities really are on display and God’s spirit is at work in the world, one will come into contact with Him and make a decision.
    3. It is the responsibility of those holding faith to be a resource and guide. The individual is responsible for his or her own actions. (Nonpossessive warmth anybody?)
    4. This faith journey, though perhaps difficult for outsiders to watch, will lead to a stronger faith than simply an inherited faith, if indeed faith is ultimately chosen.

    One final note about faith in brought up by Ashley and Emily’s dialogue. I’ve never been quite comfortable with accepting “blind faith.” I accept that there is an element of “blind faith” necessary though I believe it tends to be overemphasized. Faith comes by…hearing – a mode of observation. Further, Romans 2:20 mentioned above indicates that God reveals himself to us. Perhaps “blind faith” overlooks reassuring evidences of God to us?

    Sorry for the length! You got me rolling Em!

  7. Blake Berryhill
    11:55 am, 10.03.09

    After serving a church for seven years, I feel it is important to understand the object of a church’s enmeshment. God is a relational being, and He created us to be relational beings. As we saw in the Garden of Eden, God created us to be enmeshed with Him. When sin entered the world, the enmeshment boundary broke, causing mankind to exist in a chaotic universe.

    It is easy to see that some churches have missed the mark. Instead of being enmeshed with God, people become “enmeshed” with each other. As a result, churches become rigid, only accepting people who follow a certain set of unspoken rules. That is why “country club churches” is such a popular term today.

    I feel churches should get back to the main issue. If we are going to reach this generation for Christ, then our lives and churches need to become enmeshed with the character and story God. The paradox is: the more we are enmeshed with Jesus, the more flexible we become in being the hands and feet of Jesus.

  8. Scott Rampy
    5:23 pm, 10.04.09

    This is likely not the appropriate forum for discussion of faith topics. However, I will take that risk in hopes of clarifying the MFT term under discussion.

    If I understand the definition of enmeshment correctly, enmeshment is not the same thing as intimate relationship. My understanding is that enmeshment discourages and limits autonomy and actively inhibits members from distinguishing themselves from the unit.

    If this is an accurate description of enmeshment, it is not an accurate descriptor of one’s relationship with God. While true that “In him we live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:8), we are left free to choose to live apart from or in relationship with God. The Eden narrative is one example of this. Rather than coercing followership or forcing adherence, the sovereign, relational God yields power to his creation to choose for him or against him. He even brings pain onto himself that the possibility of reunion would be available, while allowing freedom of choice and possibility of future hurt to remain (“While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” Rom 5:8).

    Thus, if the definitions are correct, enmeshment is not a descriptor of God’s desired relationship with humanity. Perhaps some clarity to the definition would be helpful. Let’s call in the pro. Dr. Goff?

  9. Emily Savage
    11:49 am, 10.05.09

    As per my description of enmeshment in my initial entry, and my examples of Jesus’ differentiation, I must agree with Scott that “enmeshed” is not the term I would use to describe a healthy relationship with God. My understanding of enmeshment is that it inhibits people from becoming who they were originally intended to be by instead feeding off others. It also, as Scott mentioned, inhibits freewill.

    Now there are plenty of verses in the Bible that do support the idea that one should be given over, or lose oneself in God. I, however, take these verses more in light of the transformational nature of a close relationship with God. When we can stand on our own, as differentiated individuals, seeing ourselves clearly and making our own decisions, we can then hear God and allow ourselves to be changed by knowing him.

    I think too many people do think of a relationship with God in an enmeshed way, and thus believe that they do not have to question what it seems that God has told them, and this leads to so many of the religious atrocities committed against humanity, and some simple conservatism that holds people in guilt grips that if they are somehow “disloyal” to God they will be cut off.

    I think there are some good examples in the Old Testament (such as Moses arguing with God not to destroy the people when they create an idol; or when Isaac wrestles ) of when God rewards people who do not blindly obey him, but instead stand as individuals.
    All of that said, I agree that it may be an issue with the definition of enmeshment, and not actually the view on relationship with God that we are having a discrepancy over. What do you think Blake?

  10. Emily Savage
    11:53 am, 10.05.09

    * when Isaac wrestles with God

  11. Blake Berryhill
    12:58 pm, 10.05.09

    I somewhat disagree with your statement. God does reward people who blindly obey Him. Elijah and Mount Carmel, Job, and Noah are examples where standing on one’s own is equivelent with blinding having faith with God. Hebrews 11 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” God does reward those who chose their faith in Him.

    Jesus says clearly, “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Matt. 16:24).

    Or consider this passage, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. 27And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).

    Jesus calls us to an enmeshed relationship because we are to choose to follow God in all circumstances. Jesus taught his disciples to follow Him, even it meant death. Having faith in God is following Him, despite of our circumstances. Again, I go back to the irony and paradox of God’s call. The more enmeshed we are with God though the avenue of faith, the more freedom we have to experience our own God given individuality .

  12. Kent Akers
    4:04 pm, 10.05.09

    I want to reply to Ashley’s comment. I really like what she said about how it is not the amount of enmeshment, but who we are enmeshed to. I believe that churches today are starting to focus more on individuality. Our typical stereotype of church probably has the body looking pretty enmeshed. I know in my church back home, same belief was a must for membership. Same belief was not necessarily a must to be accepted as a visitor, but it was definitely frowned on, especially if the person made the belief known. Today, though, I believe a generation has come into the church that is emphasizing differentiation without even knowing it. This takes the form of knowing that a common goal is more important than a common belief.

  13. Morgan Myrick
    1:51 am, 12.09.09

    To a certain degree, I feel that we were meant to be slightly enmeshed….in a healthy way of course! We are commanded to love and view one another as sisters and brothers making us all enmeshed into some sort of family. We are also instructed to come together every week for worship. So I kind of feel that a little enmeshment is healthy. (If not, we definetly need to inform someone about this program and what it’s doing to us!). I also think that I agree to some small extent that the churches are starting to look past welcoming only individuals with the same beliefs. It seems as if a little bit more individuality is being allowed nowadays as the doors are being held open in COC services to those who like to tap their foot during songs. ;)I think that this is a very big step in the right direction as I have never been big on someone being rejected from or pushed out of a church because of their difference in opinion. Seems to me that being different would extend more of a welcome to them because it opens the door for members of the church to minister and witness their faith and beliefs through their own walks with God. Leading by example and through unconditional love will always be more effective, it’s basically lik trying to capture a bear using honey instead of your hands :)!

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