This episode is Part 2 of Anne’s interview with Paige.
Part 1: “Armchair Pathology”: What You Need to Know
Part 2: Is My Husband Enmeshed With His Mother? (this episode)
Part 3: Can Herbal Medicine Help With Betrayal Trauma Symptoms?
Part 4: Navigating Pregnancy When You’re in Trauma
Enmeshment is a concept that can be difficult to understand, especially in the context of betrayal trauma and abuse.
Paige is back on The BTR.ORG Podcast, discussing enmeshment. Read the full transcript below for more.
What is enmeshment?
“Enmeshment in itself is too much closeness, but it’s too much closeness and involvement at a cost to one’s own journey or independence or autonomy.”
Paige, Member of the BTR.ORG Community
Understanding Responsibility & Accountability
As Anne explains in this podcast episode, victims may be reluctant to hold abusers accountable if they exhibit traits of mother-enmeshed men.
However, it’s important to understand that many adults carry childhood and trauma, including enmeshment, and still do not choose to abuse others.
BTR.ORG Is Here For You
As you listen to this episode and learn more about enmeshment, remember that our BTR.ORG Group Sessions are a safe place to process your experiences and emotions.
Welcome to BTR.ORG. This is Anne. We have Paige, a member of our community back on today’s episode. If you didn’t listen to last week, start there and then join us here. We’re going to start with what we ended with last week. We were talking about how dangerous it is to put a bunch of victims in a room and then tell them that they’re broken rather than tell them that they’re brave. Look at their own character defects rather than realizing, wait, wait, wait. We’re victims of abuse. We’re strong, we’re brave. We can get to safety. Just thinking back on that is taking my breath away right now. Like, Ugh, that was just so yucky..
Well, and it’s the hope to not have somebody else experiencing that yuckiness. I spent a lot of my childhood in 12 step meetings because we’d go along with our parent. Then my spouse started CR.
CR, what’s that?
12-Step Programs – “This is not my jam”
Celebrate Recovery. When he started with that 12 step program and going to their meetings, they had a family type meal beforehand and this and that, and so I’d go for the meal and then I’d leave because I was like, this is not my jam. It’s just not for me. And I had people, especially women within their group that would stand near the door to try and interact with me, to stop me as I was leaving in very passive aggressive ways and my husband in witnessing that and in knowing me, he started just escorting me to the door because he is like, no, if my wife wants to leave, if she doesn’t want to be a part of this, I’m going to physically be a barrier because he wasn’t going to allow further abuse.
“I’m not keen to participate in models that essentially enable abusers”
Coercion. Further coercion, yeah, that’s a great word for it. He wasn’t going to allow that to continue, and I certainly was getting really frustrated with it where I’m just like, let’s talk about some of these steps. In all honesty, lemme be real direct with, and I get that they found their own identity and healing and stuff in those models. I’m just not keen to participate in models that essentially enable abusers because so much of it, they use terminology to gaslight partners or be like, oh, just stay on your side of the street.
I think the ethical answer would be, get off the street. You need to get off the street. It’s dangerous in your, that street is dangerous if he’s on it. It’s not that you need to go on the other side. You need to get off. You need to separate from that street. So speaking of all of the issues that abusers have, one of them that you have identified is being enmeshed with their moms. What does mother enmeshment mean? My mom is not enmeshable. My mom’s personality made enmeshment impossible. So this is really interesting. So yes, can you define what mother enmeshment means?
What is enmeshment?
So enmeshment in itself is too much closeness, but it’s too much closeness and involvement at a cost to one’s own journey or independence or autonomy. And the mother enmeshment, there is a book by Dr. Ken Adams titled Married to Mom. He works with those experiencing enmeshment and with mother enmeshment, you have a boy who has played surrogate companion to his mother either in our situation, the father was emotionally absent, and so she enmeshed with the empathetic and accessible son to meet her emotional needs. She sought him out to meet her emotional needs. So with enmeshment, you basically bind your loyalty to your enmeshed parent or enmeshed family depending on your situation at a cost to your own self and your own autonomy. So when you look at the hierarchy in those situations, it is the enmeshed family or enmeshed parent yourself, and then maybe your spouse comes in third.
It’s at great risk to yourself really, because when you start to try and separate yourself from that, you feel immense amount of guilt because you are the one responsible for that parent’s emotions. Now, from a physiological standpoint, which what we learn in attachment with our own children at times, there is a physiological benefit to enmeshment, and that’s a good example of that is with families, when they immigrate to a new country or culture, there’s an inherent need for that closeness.
When families become dysfunctional
The problem that occurs is when the family dynamic gets stuck there, they get stuck in that enmeshed dynamic. Now, my own experiences with my families that immigrated, my grandmother was her parents were first generation immigrants from Poland. They didn’t even with the largeness of their family, they didn’t get stuck there and they didn’t have that dysfunction. So we have enmeshed family systems which are dysfunctional and then the emotionally disengaged, so that’s the emotional negligent families that are dysfunctional.
It’s when you become in service to that parent above your own emotional needs, that is problematic and that’s usually with the parent either not having their own emotional needs met by their spouse in a healthy way, they’re emotionally absent or have their own dysfunction, or they didn’t have those needs met within their family of origin, so they turned to their child to fill those needs, and that’s when that crosses that line into dysfunction. We didn’t recognize it until we had already been no contact with his family of origin for a few years. I had listened to some of Dr. Ken Adam’s work and was thankful that he doesn’t put this under the codependency umbrella. It’s a very separate thing. It’s grooming, and he also acknowledges choice. In continuing to participate in this dynamic, you have to make that choice, draw that line in the sand of not being under obligation, obligatory contract of being loyal to that parent or loyal to that family that causes the dysfunction as you continue into adulthood.
Mother-enmeshment & relational abuse
I haven’t read that book, so I’m not versed in what you’re talking about, but as I’m listening, a thought that I’m having is with an abuser rather than thinking of it as loyalty because they’re not really loyal in general, right? If it’s a form of image management and people pleasing in order to get stuff, generally speaking, abusers really feel uncomfortable setting with other people. I mean, they don’t mind upsetting their wife, but they lie to their wife in order to be able to do other stuff to solicit prostitutes or use porn or they’re very good at lying, but they never want to tell her to her face like, no, because they know that that would be perceived as abusive. So rather than saying, I’m going to now financially abuse you, I’m only going to give you a hundred dollars a month for groceries, they might say, Hey, I love you very much. I care a lot about you. I’m just worried about our budget because they’re not in close proximity with their mother maybe right after marriage. Rather than thinking of it as loyalty. I’m just wondering if he’s not willing to –
Set those boundaries.
He’s not willing to say no.
“If she thinks I’m a good guy, then I’ll be able to get stuff from her.”
He thinks if she thinks I’m a good guy and I maintain this image that I’m on her side, then I’ll still be able to get stuff from her. I’ll still be able to transact stuff – because loyalty just is not a word that I love to apply to abusers.
In this situation. It’s one that I found lacking specifically in using the word loyalty, but I hadn’t found an analogous word to sub loyalty with. I hadn’t found a word that, so it’s not loyalty in the sense that what we would think of as loyalty, it definitely is that contractual obligation and what do I get from this? And having that people pleasing of, I’m not going to say no to this person, and that’s part of that when we look at the grooming aspect of it, but ultimately it comes down to choice of whether you are going to continue to participate in that dynamic, and a lot of abusers choose to continue to participate in that because it benefits them. It doesn’t matter that I’m deceptive and abusing my wife, but I get this benefit of like, well, I can be resentful and angry at her because she makes me feel bad –
“They like it because then they get to play the victim.”
Because she confronts my abuse.
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Exactly. Yeah,
They like it because then they get to play the victim. If you’re upset for some reason, they forget about why you’re upset. They just think she’s upset out of nowhere. I don’t know. She’s so angry and it doesn’t make any sense. Rather than realizing I gave her an S td, it makes sense that she is upset. Yeah, that mesh thing’s interesting. It seems like, at least from my experience when I witnessed it, it was a image management thing where heaven forbid my parents think that I am not the dutiful good son and that I’m not respectful. But then I think his whole life with his parents was deceptive. He was doing stuff his parents didn’t know about. He put on the mask of being the great son and being righteous and going to church and serving people in the neighborhood and all of that, and that is who his parents see him as and someone like that who is so respectful and good, and I put that in quotes, is not going to tell his parents, Hey, you know what? We feel uncomfortable coming to Thanksgiving dinner.
How do enmeshed-mothers treat their daughters-in-law?
When we had situations early in our relationship where he set boundaries, it was immediately met with abusive behavior, and at our wedding, his mother got so inebriated that she put her head up my dress after and when we returned home and I wasn’t going to their house, and he’s very non-confrontational, let’s just keep the peace. Let’s just sweep all this under the rug, obviously. And he’s like, yeah, well, she’s not coming because of your behavior at our wedding. And it was met with, well, are you going to choose to believe her? Are you going to choose to believe us? And it’s like, what? Who says that to their child? Who says that to another person? He’s literally expressing this behavior’s harmful. Well, that didn’t really happen. I don’t remember that.
You married a liar, son.
You married and are having a child with a liar.
Which by the way might be the case, but in this case, that was not true.
Boundaries & Escalation
Oh yeah. When we set boundaries, they escalated the abuse. Even being no contact and living many states away, it’s entitlement on their part. And that’s the thing when with having children is we as parents have to be the ones to take that loss and to take that grief of letting them go. It’s not up for our children to manage our emotions in regards to that grief and that emergence of them in their individuality, and when we don’t allow that, that’s where the entitlement comes into play. We feel entitled and some people continue in those dynamics and continue to sacrifice themselves for these parents even after they’re gone. Sadly, not all in mesh dynamics have sexual dysfunction, but there is an emotional incest that comes into play at times. I think that’s part of Dr. Ken Adams book, married to Mom and what that kind of plays into, but I think at its core, a lot of it is this, you can choose to participate in this dynamic or not. There’s always choice out there, and we often negate that choice with labels and pathology, even with the enmeshment. I don’t love all of it, but it’s one of those like, okay, yeah, I can see where this grooming, especially when you’re physiologically vulnerable, is going to be part of your story.
“It’s a choice to be able to separate ourselves from unhealthy behavior”
Does a man being enmeshed with his mother, I mean that sense that he’s enmeshed kind of gives people the impression that he might not have a choice, and that’s what caused the abusive behavior or the addiction. When we can see very clearly there are healthy people out there who have unhealthy parents and who choose to set boundaries and who choose to act in healthy ways around their unhealthy parent. Obviously, the way that we grow up affects us, but it’s a choice to be able to separate ourselves from unhealthy behavior. Can you speak to people who might say that if he’s enmeshed with his mother, he can’t help it? Right? He can’t help but be abusive or he can’t help but be an addict.
A difficult decision, but a healthy decision
I see it a lot in some of the enmeshment groups that I’m in, which I find participating is really hard because a lot of the labeling used in there is inherently victim blaming, and my husband’s been no contact with his for five years, and as anyone who’s gone no contact with a parent or a family member knows it’s not an easy decision, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a healthy decision. It is very possible for them to choose to not be abusive. It’s very possible for them to choose to not engage in relationships that are going to cause further harm to their family of procreation, so to speak. Our family directly, it doesn’t excuse choice. We have so much ingrained in us in society that, well, they’re your parents. You only get one mom and dad. What are you going to do? I mean, even when he went no contact and they had other family members call him, those family members, the message was, well, I mean it’s your mom and dad.
“I need to choose the safety for my family”
And it’s like, I need to choose the safety for my family. I need to choose their safety over somebody else’s feelings. With betrayal, your partner takes away your ability to consent to a lot of things. I think we’re all able and capable of making hard choices. I mean, look at how many women are like, this is going to be really hard to end this relationship and to move my kids and to go through a family court system that is inherently going to enable abusive behavior, but I’m going to make this hard decision because that’s what’s best, and we have to make hard choices every day. That’s part of life really is leaning into the uncomfortable and thriving on the other side of it.
You mentioned that your husband didn’t recognize that his family was as abusive as they were until after he went no contact. So can you talk about from your point of view how no contact made it more obvious?
When does abusive behavior escalate?
We had set boundaries over the years in regards to just healthy ways to interact. I’ve been no contact with my paternal parent for 13 years, almost 13 years now, and one of the big things that my mother-in-law would say when she would violate a boundary and we would address it with her, and she’s like, well, I just feel like one day you’re just going to cut me off like you did with him, and this was a big sign of I don’t want to follow these boundaries, but I’m going to manipulate you into feeling bad if you have to go to that extreme. And I’m like, well, as long as you interact in a healthy manner with my family, then that’s not going to be a problem. I actually had been no contact with them for a year before. My husband went no contact with them. He reached out to them about something financial and their behavior escalated significantly to where he was just like, oh, no.
Ignoring and pushing boundaries
They wanted concessions of having access to our children and different things like that where we had put parameters in place where they could still have interaction and relationship with the kids without it being through me specifically. So he recognized that there was dysfunction, but not really acknowledged the abuse aspect of it, the financial abuse, the emotional abuse, until probably about two years ago, I think when he finally was in a place in his ownership in his own abuse that he was able to be like, this is really dysfunctional. My parents giving me pornography at the age of 10 was really not good. Me having completely unfiltered access to the internet at 13 was not good feeling obligated to behave in certain ways to make myself less of a target. That’s not ideal.
When we went no contact, like they sent cards, letters, packages, checks about every three months, they call his place of work, trying to get his phone number and information in August of 2020, so the pandemic where everything shut down, and of course because of his job, he’s still working. They drove from 12 hours away to his place of work to try and triangulate him and have contact with him and get information out of coworkers about him. And they were there for over seven hours that day.
Pushing boundaries – to the point of stalking behavior
Yeah, I was probably eight weeks into that pregnancy, and he called me to tell me that they were at his place of work, and I was like, it is not going to be good for you to be further employed. If I were to come and pick you up, you’re going to have to call somebody. They parked right next to his vehicle. They had put themselves to where there was no escape.
It’s like off the charts wackadoodle.
And they still will call his place of work asking information, and he has to be very specific with some of the higher ups there to be like, you can’t even say that I’m on vacation. That’s what happened before they showed up. He had been on vacation and they were like, yeah, he’s not here, but he’ll be back on Monday. So they were there and in the parking lot on Tuesday wanting to know what route he was on, wanting to know where he was going to be for the day to try and even intercept him while he was at work. Other drivers have said, Hey, your parents are going to be in town this weekend. And it’s like, it doesn’t make sense. It’s just so extreme that people will look at you and you’re like, yeah, I don’t have contact with my parents. They’re just kind of like, well, that’s weird.
It isn’t hard to respect another person’s boundaries.
Well, and to think these parents aren’t like, you know what? Maybe if we leave him alone when he’s ready, he’ll call us. I mean, how hard is that?
Yeah. That’s something that we talked about. I own you because you are my child. We discussed it at length that I hope that my children don’t ever feel that they need to be no contact. But I want them to be able to say, I can’t have contact with you without fearing repercussions, and I want to be that person to say, okay, let me know when you’re ready and if it’s no contact because you feel that just unable to be in relationship with me, even if my ego is going to take a hit or my feelings are going to be hurt because I’m your parent, let me express that to my spouse in private rather than project any of that onto my child, and it’s lack of emotional intelligence that is just astounding, especially as we move and grow and just experience life, that it’s just like, how does that happen? How does somebody wake up and think, I’m going to drive to my child’s place of work who hasn’t spoken to me in three years and just be like, Hey –
Abusive tactics to manipulate & control victims
And block is entrance. That is that. How is that going to help?
It’s that abuse tactic of I’m going to corner you. There are abusers that isolate.You’re not allowed to do these things, and that’s why even though they know where we live, they’re not going to come to our home because I live here and they know that he’s been their target of the manipulation.
They need to talk to him alone to convince him of whatever they need to convince him of.
Yeah. That is rough. We’re going to pause the conversation right here, but Paige and I will be back next week to continue our conversation.