Emeshed and distancing families
Families are structured in differing ways and here I look at two varying structures and the psychological consequences of those structures on the child’s psychological development.
There are emeshed and distancing families. They can be diagrammed as such.
These can be seen to be the extremes of the continuum with the ‘normal’ family existing in the middle. The closer the family is structured to represent the end points of the continuum the more maladaptive psychological consequences there will be for the child growing up in them.
The diagram shows the family members represented by the circles. In this family there is a very clear boundary between the inside of the family and the outside and the member have a sense of closeness and belonging but overly so. There is a script belief by the family, “Don’t trust” others (outside the family). There can be paranoid beliefs about non family members. “Us and them” thinking. The world outside the family is seen as a scary and dangerous place and you can only trust family - is the ethos.
Group think creates self perpetuating beliefs. Along with the introjection of beliefs particularly about others. This can result in fighting with others out side the family. Neighbourly disputes over fences or barking dog. Family feuds use the group dynamics of the combat state which can foster a strong emeshed family structure.
There can be faulty thinking - grandiose delusions about the specialness of the family or one member may be identified a special due to what is believed to be exceptional ability (sport, music academic), appearance, power, wealth and so on.
Family gatherings such as birthdays, holidays, christmas and so forth occur regularly and non attendance is viewed in a very dim light. There can also be (but not always):
Infantilization of the children
Excessive contact - sleeping together, working together, socialising together
Prevention of independent behaviour
Parental - system control. Intolerant of variation or deviation of the members where members do not behave how they are supposed to. A child who refuses to eat dinner, performing poorly at school or a parent displaying anger, power being challenged. The response to correct deviations are swift and intense by other family members.
In this instance there are tenuous connections between family members and often there is no contact for long periods of time. There is little sense of belonging and the family being a close knit group with a clear sense of boundary between it and the rest of the world.
No sense of belonging or community leaves people feeling isolated. There can be one person who holds the family together and when they die or move away the family disintegrates. Don’t belong injunction.
Little interest or frequency of family gatherings. Can easily geographically move away from each other and there are long periods of little or no communication with few protests from anyone.
The distancing family tolerates variation and deviation to the extent of not even noticing or caring. Responses to variations may not even occur even when required such as with a truanting child.
Mixture of family structures can occur at times if there is a number of people like in-laws cousins and so forth. One get subgroups in the family that can be structured like this.
Potential problems resulting form these structures
Relationship problems - Spinsters, bachelors & divorcees. Children may have a series of failed relationships that never work. No one is ever good enough for me or they all have some bad point that negates them as a potential partner. Maybe a short dysfunctional marriage may occur. A long term affair with a married man is another possibility (ie selecting an unavailable partner). When these relationship end where do they go then? Go back to the family of course.
This raises a point that I sometimes see in counselling with those who are entering a stage where marriage is in the foreground. When you marry someone you marry the individual person but you also marry their family structure all their attachments and relationships as well. The family structure and attachments were there long before the potential spouse came along and these things tend to be inert and do not readily change. Indeed in an emeshed family they are very resistant to change. If one is marrying into an emeshed family structure they better get used to the idea and it will take them a long time to be fully accepted into the family structure. Sometimes they never are and will always seen as an outsider to some extent.
This raises the issue of a person’s motivation for marrying a spouse. People get married for lots of reasons. The overt reason is because they have fallen in love with the partner and want to spend the rest of their life with him/her. Underneath there can be a whole variety of other covert psychological reasons.
People from an emeshed family can marry to get out and away. They see it as one of the few ways to get out of an oppressive family system especially when the newly weds geographically move away from the original family unit. The family will use all sorts of mechanisms to stop this happening such as financial ties, gifts, emotional black mail and so forth.
If you are marrying a person from a distancing family one may wish to consider such possible motives of their partner. It also works the other way. People from a distancing family can marry a person from a ‘closer’ family because they crave the feeling of belonging to a family. In their mind they are marrying the family attached to the partner just as much as they are marrying the partner, if not more so.
Other problems that can result from an emeshed family
The child who is aggressive or unpopular to his peers ends up isolating self
Enuresis & encropesis = cannot stay away from home over night with out complications and embarrassment
Anxiety disorders - agoraphobia, panic attacks, means of travel such as a fear of flying or public transport. Any kind of anxiety that makes movement away from the home or family difficult can have some of its basis in the emeshed family structure. It should be noted that there are also other causes of these problems. However if a client presents with this kind of problem then the counsellor needs to investigate the type of family structure the person grew up in.
“Leaving home” problems are typical of the emeshed family. When the children reach the age where they are ready to (supposed to) leave the home and family. Twenty somethings or thirty somethings. When the family reaches this developmental stage it can restructure it self to make one or more of the children an identified patient. The young adult develops a problem like a drug problem, becomes suicidal, develops a mental illness of some kind, or something else like anorexia or other kinds of eating disorders.
When this happens the family bonds together for the good of the identified patient when the real reason underneath is to propagate the emeshment.
The schizoid personality type is the most obvious product of this type of family structure. There may be a sense of despair due to lack of emotional attachment, commitment phobia and difficulty with forming close attachments. The ‘gypsies’ of the world who can travel and never really settle down into some kind of group or family unit. At times some find drugs can fill the void of the lack of attachment.
The anti social or narcissistic personalities can also manifest from this kind of background. Both these have attachment difficulties and either don’t understand what attachment is or simply find human attachment too overwhelming.
As mentioned before sometimes these people can attempt to solve their distress by marrying a family. The man may actually be attracted to and in love with the woman's family more so than her. This may lead to marital problems later on.