Mike Cope's blog

Monday, December 19, 2005

As a full-time minister since 1982, I've had a front row seat to see lots of nurturing families and lots of enmeshed families. What's strange is that they often look alike -- at least on the surface. But they are very different. A nurturing family is one that empowers family members to have a strong sense of self. Children are loved and drawn into the nurturing center of the family--but without losing their sense of self and outward mission. In an enmeshed family, children are loved and drawn into the center--but often at the expense of their sense of self and outward mission. Sound like gobbledygook? All right. Here it is. In an enmeshed family system (which is more common than you might imagine), parents are dependent on each other and/or their children to make them whole, happy, and loved. In biblical terms, it's a form of idolatry: trying to find life in someone or something other than God. When a family is always together, that can be because they are a source of great nurturing and love. But often it's because a system of enmeshment has been formed where family members are discouraged from having other relationships, from expressing their individuality, and from expressing their missional instincts outside the family. They would never say that, of course, and almost surely don't know it. But the parents need-to-be-needed and love-to-be-loved to an extent that they keep their children corralled emotionally and/or physically. Have you ever been around a family where no one else (no Bible school teacher, no coach, etc.) is trusted enough to help guide? Have you ever seen a family where the children are made to feel guilty when they aren't around for birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, or other special occasions? Have you seen a family implode because grown children decided to attend another church? Have you ever heard sound waves of guilt because a child (or parent) didn't write enough, call enough, visit enough, or perform well enough? Sometimes those families that seem the strongest to us because they're so close or always together are the ones that are sickest. (Not always, of course.) Families where people are made to feel guilty when they don't follow unwritten behaviors can be the most damaging of all. It's a sign of health when children form other relationships, when they start to make decisions for themselves, when they don't have to be home to be happy. As parents, we have the important job of nurturing our children--pouring love into deep places of their hearts--while allowing them to be individuals who turn themselves to God alone for life. Differentiation is such a wonderful word. We do our best job as parents when we teach kids to "hold onto themselves" in this world -- to live before God as the source of real life while being in community with others without being enmeshed in those relationships. If you were nurtured by parents who always let you be you; if you are able to miss family members when you're apart without feeling endlessly homesick; and if you are able to connect without being made to feel guilty about failures to connect enough --GIVE THANKS! A nurturing family is a wonderful gift.


  • Great post, Mike (and it goes for church families, too).

    By Blogger James, at 12/19/2005 04:39:00 AM  

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    By Blogger Chad, at 12/19/2005 04:58:00 AM  

  • I think you're right about how similar these families may appear from the outside. But it's a frightening thing to be in the path of an enmeshed family. Don't we all know what it's like to have enmeshed families who are never happy at church (or school)? Nothing's quite good enough or right enough for their children. Children are afraid to make their own choices; they're immobilized when they go off to college or get married and have to live apart. We smile at how loving a family is when a child drives back every weekend or when a daughter has to call her mom every single day. But that may be a sign of big, big trouble.

    By Blogger Emily, at 12/19/2005 05:00:00 AM  

  • My Dad told me when my first child was born, that my job was to give them roots and wings. I think that's a great way to look at parenting.


    By Blogger Ed Harrell, at 12/19/2005 05:44:00 AM  

  • Another type of family is the abusive family. In the church context, they may be consided a nurturing family because of how the family appears on the outside. The mother may be a Bible class teacher and the dad may become an elder. The family secret is well protected because fear.

    By Blogger David Michael, at 12/19/2005 06:17:00 AM  

  • Families happen on a continuum. I use the water analogy when talking about them. The only way to break water is to freeze it and then apply stress. Rigid or emeshed families are like ice. They have no allowances for differences or uniqueness.

    Families on the other end of the continuum are those who have no structure. Like pouring water on the ground. It is absorbed by the ground and you can't tell where the family begins and ends.

    Healthy families are like swimming pools. They have a solid sense of boundaries and who is in and who is out. But someone can jump and do a great big cannon ball in the middle of the pool and most of the water stays put. There is room within the boundaries for the waves to go back and forth until thinks calm back down.

    Healthy families have boundaries and room to move.

    By Blogger Steve Duer, at 12/19/2005 06:31:00 AM  

  • I grew up in a close family. Not totally healthy, but not totally enmeshed either. My mother has always had a great way of "trying" to make us feel guilty and I found myself doing some of the same things at times with my own kids. I remember once when my youngest even suggested to me that it was not her job to make me happy! That stung but made me look at what I was doing! Of course, at the time she was in high school and I saw it as a smart mouth at first! Then I looked closer and suddenly realized I had become my mother!

    So.....I have worked very hard to not enmesh my family. That meant telling my kids two rules when they chose to move to the city where we live. I would not keep the grandkids while they worked. I wanted to be grandma, not the care taker. I would keep them at other times, but not every day! And the second was they had to find their own church home. They could not go to church with us!

    We keep the g-kids some nights and enjoy their company when we want and when they want! They did place membership somewhere else, but eventually migrated to church with us. That has been okay and they seem happy because of it.

    I like the water analogy. Setting boundaries is so important and yet hard to do to the people closest to us. We don't want to hurt feelings but most of the time, feelings are hurt most when we don't set the boundaries. We just don't see it that way.

    Thanks for the reminder that families need closeness without enmeshment, even in church families.

    By Blogger pegc, at 12/19/2005 07:01:00 AM  

  • Excellent post. It's funny that you used "gobbledygook". This is one of those crazy words I always remembered from reading Snuffy Smith in the Daily.

    By Blogger EBC, at 12/19/2005 07:02:00 AM  

  • Mike,
    You brought back memories of Kerr and Bowman as well as "Everybody Loves Raymond," two excellent commentaries on enmeshment and differentiation.
    Dave--you are right about abusive families. Lori and I work with this area and churches have not been able to address this becauses they do look so normal on the outside.
    Bottom line--its about control. Enmeshed families don't empower the members--they control them and make others overfunction. Differentiated families operate out of trust because they themselves have a healthy self esteem and personal acceptance.
    A great book to support James' comment is Richardsons' book on the church as a family. Enmeshed churches also have control issues.
    Mike--thanks for reminding me that counseling class was worth the time.

    By Blogger KMiV, at 12/19/2005 08:02:00 AM  

  • Wow. I've never thought of it in that way. Very interesting, especially when considering it from my psychology/social work background.

    I'm lucky to have come from a family where I have been able to be very independent and have family members who encourage it and are proud of me for it.

    As a family, we pride ourselves in what each of our members is able to go out and do (independently), whether it be succeed in a new career path, or move to a new city and form many new relationships. And instead of guilting one another for it, we respect and honor each other. We encourage one another to branch out and flourish.

    This "enmeshed family" is interesting to me. With this definition that you have given it, I can think of families I know like that. In a sense it is like as a whole, they are all keeping one another "sick."

    And like you said, if they are not aware of it, as most are not, they will simply continue to keep one another "sick."

    And what's even more interesting is how the issues that might arise because of the enmeshment ARE recognized by the family unit, they are unaware of the root of the cause for them, which is the enmeshing behaviors.

    Nice blog, Mike! It's a real thinker!

    By Blogger FeedingYourMind, at 12/19/2005 08:10:00 AM  

  • I agree with most everything you said but I do not experience God in a vacuum. I experience God through my relationships with my family and my community. I cannot make that leap of faith and rely on the man in the sky who looks like father time and has a loud voice but never speaks to me. I guess I am enmeshed in the relationships which demonstrate God to me. I guess I am faulty.

    I should not be the center of anyone’s universe. I fully agree we should let our children and friends be themselves and nurture this within them. But take this too far and it promotes individualism where it is all about individuality and none about the family or community.

    I expect my children to be present at my wife’s/their mother’s birthday. I will not make them feel guilty but I will be very disappointed if they cannot show the people who love them some respect because they want to be at a friend’s house.

    By Blogger L, at 12/19/2005 08:12:00 AM  

  • I agree with you completely Mike. I've said for years that parents either try to raise their children to be good adults or they raise them to be good kids. It's sad to see adults who stll live at or near their parents house, still tied to them emotionally and or financially. This is not only unhealthy for the children, it hobbles any future marriage they may have.

    The Bible likens children to arrows. Arrows were not made for the quiver. They were ment to be released to fly to their target. This needs to be discussed much more.

    By Blogger Joel Maners, at 12/19/2005 08:28:00 AM  

  • Mike, when you are talking about parents who "always let you be you", I assume you are talking about kids who are young adults or adults. I taught school for 16 years, and one of the biggest challenges we had in the classroom was dealing with kids who had never been disciplined, sometimes because of parents who took the approach of "letting you be you". I have seen the result of parents who always let their children "be you", and most of the time it is not a pretty picture. For sure, there is a time in a child's life when "letting you be you" is healthy and beneficial. But it evolves to that......it doesn't start from the git-go. I love Steve's anaolgy of the swimming pool. You can be you, as long as you stay within the confines of the pool.

    Enmeshed families are a tragedy. We should do all we can to prevent our families or those we see around us from becoming enmeshed. Having said that, I don't believe our teachers see themselves on the battlefield because of too many enmeshed children. It's the other extreme that they face day in and day out......the parent or parents who take no or very little interest in their child is the battle they face everyday. Ask them: "what is the biggest mountain you climb everyday"? I am pretty sure it will be the challenge of trying to teach kids who have very little parental guidance and love.

    Both extremes are terrible. But one extreme is an epidemic.

    By Blogger David U, at 12/19/2005 08:31:00 AM  

  • Mike,

    Thank you for your post today! I feel very blessed to have been raised by two parents who encouraged discovery, affirmation, and nurturing. The presence of the Spirit has always been welcomed and embraced in our home and Grant and I were encouraged and led to find fulfillment and worth in a relationship with Christ. Thank you Mom and Daddy for being Jesus to us

    By Blogger Lauren, at 12/19/2005 08:56:00 AM  

  • Okay, okay, I give up! My son can go to his best friend's wedding instead of attending our family reunion this year. And we can always reschedule my 50th birthday. : )And frankly, I am okay with that.

    But I agree with Leland. There are times when it is important to honor those who nurtured us and to teach our children to do the same.

    All too often, we will attend events that we think will increase our personal power at the expense of family. That may be a different type of idolatry or enmeshment.

    By Blogger Serena Voss, at 12/19/2005 09:23:00 AM  

  • Honor is only really honor when it is freely given. It cannot be coerced.

    By Blogger john alan turner, at 12/19/2005 11:58:00 AM  

  • As James alluded to in the first comment, I was immediately struck with how this applies to church families. "Nurturing" has become a four-letter word to me in the last year, as our church has discussed ad nauseam what it means to be a nurturing family. After reading your thoughts today, I am struck with the idea that those who cry that a church family is not nurturing enough, may actually be asking for an enmeshed family. I would image that our families of origin would totally influence how we view a "healthy" church family.

    By Blogger kristi w, at 12/19/2005 12:12:00 PM  

  • Friends - I haven't had access to a computer today, and I just now have a quick chance to read comments. Wonderful, insightful feedback. I'll try to be more specific later. And YES -- the same thing applies to congregational families!

    By Blogger Mike, at 12/19/2005 01:03:00 PM  

  • Mike, I loved the Folgers' commercial a few years ago that said the job of parents (and grandparents too) is to "teach our children to grow up and be responsible adults and parents." This includes equiping them to be able to leave and function in the world when it's time to go AND knowing when it's time to go. My mother would have like to have had an enmeshed family, but we were fortunate that my Dad understood the need to take responsibility for our lives and our decisions. It truly is a qustion of power and control. And it's very prevalent in the church from both sides.

    By Blogger Bob from Tucson, at 12/19/2005 02:10:00 PM  

  • I just sat down and read this to my husband.

    In our first marriages, our situations were both enmeshed, and we tried to break the mold and be nuturing but we were not permitted to let our children be themselves.

    It is freeing to be in a relationship that is healthy and free from control and guilt.

    I never really thought about this in the terms you described, and I appreciate you Mike for sharing and teaching me.

    By Blogger Hoots Musings, at 12/19/2005 08:23:00 PM  

  • Ouch! I probably grew up in a dysfunctional family and given the way my marriage ended up probably raised my kids in one as well. It is a true blessing from God that they ended up as well as they did. If you are enmeshed, how do you get unmeshed?

    By Blogger Paul, at 12/19/2005 09:54:00 PM  

  • Great insights.

    This quickly . . . Wisdom of recognizes that things are not always either/or. There is a spectrum. Probably many families struggle with this. They're healthy and nurturing in some ways and enmeshed in other ways. (Move to the other end of the spectrum and you have families that are distant and disengaged.)

    Our goal is always to nurture our children without being needy, to learn to release them, and to offer them a strong sense of self (who turns to God alone for life).

    By Blogger Mike, at 12/20/2005 03:57:00 AM  

  • How do you get unenmeshed?

    You usually need the help of spiritual guides and friends. You need the loving, trusting insight of some who can observe with a bit of distance from the system.

    It is not easy. One of the problems is that the church is so affirming of those "sweet families" that love each other so much where this destructive system is so evident.

    First, we have to look inward and see where we are getting our deepest strokes of affirmation. Are we able to "hold onto ourselves" by relating first and foremost to God? When someone attacks us, are we able to listen to them, validate what they say (which doesn't mean to agree with them), and to explore their words? Are do we feel when our spouse or kids are a bit distant from us? Do we trust other adults to teach, coach, and nurture our children?

    Then, we need someone helping us look at the system. The goal is to be nurturing (rather than enmeshed or distant). We want our kids to know they are deeply loved; but they also need to know that they aren't responsible for making us whole and happy. They are allowed to be with others, to have friends, to have strong opinions, to be close to other adults, and (as they age) to have physical distance from us.

    Again, as I just wrote, this is a spectrum. It takes much discernment and assistance from trusted friends and spiritual guides (including therapists).

    By Blogger Mike, at 12/20/2005 04:09:00 AM  

  • This is a great discussion. I came from a dysfunctional family and while I was studying about being baptized I was cutting my teeth on Luke 14:25-33 (the passage that calls us to love Jesus more than our families). If it were not for that (and Matt. 10:34-38) I would have spent years trying to please my non-Christian family.
    Yet--I see so many Christian families today that do not prepare their children to leave and cleave to Jesus. Some of the missionaries I have spoken with have told me that parents are the most discouraging to those planning to go on the mission field. "When am I going to see my grandbabies...?"
    As parents we have to prepare our children to choose Jesus, on their own. We need to prepare them to choose the college that will help them glorify God. We need to prepare them to live on their own. We need to prepare them to choose a church that helps them grow in the faith.
    I think enmeshed families tend to do the choosing for the children.

    Ron Clark

    By Blogger KMiV, at 12/20/2005 08:00:00 AM  

  • Graet post. I think the first commenter was exactly right when saying it goes for church familes as well. Thank you.

    By Blogger Glenn, at 12/20/2005 08:30:00 AM  

  • KMiV...AMEN.

    By Blogger James, at 12/20/2005 02:44:00 PM  

  • This is great! My parents trusted God enough to send me 1000 miles to ACU. I found a Christian husband and we have a life with each other & our children in a town away from both of our parents. Although we do miss them and wish we could be together more often, we both find value in having our own "space."

    By Blogger Jacinda, at 12/20/2005 07:41:00 PM  

  • This is deep... I am in the process of figuring out whether or not I am going to divorce or stay married to my husband, and though this description is about families, I can SO relate to it with regard to my marriage.

    In the beginning my husband and I were INSEPARABLE!!! We went and did EVERYWHERE AND EVERYTHING together!!! EVERYTHING!!! When I would hang out with other friends he made me feel INTENSELY guilty for not going out with him. He would constantly complain that people always asked where I was all night. I started to feel smothered and cornered. When I rebelled, and began to decline nearly EVERY invitation, he built a wall between us that we are now deciding if we should try to break down or leave it alone and walk away...

    In counseling sessions (I have them alone with my pastor) he mentioned that I am 'overfunctioning' in my marriage. The ironic thing is that my husband thinks I am underfunctioning and CONSTANTLY derides me and makes me feel inadequate.

    What's remarkable is that I never knew that the pattern we set in the beginning, was UNHEALTHY and we didn't even know it.

    Right now I'm struggling, with what seems like getting out of quicksand to discover myself.

    This is a really hard process.

    By Blogger Zantiferous3, at 1/27/2006 04:25:00 PM  

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