As a narcissistic abuse recovery life coach, I have been helping my clients to get out of the victim mindset and transform their life through self-healing techniques. During the process of coaching, a recurring theme that has come up, especially in the context of Indian Culture is the enmeshment that parents have sometimes with their adult children, which in turn negatively impacts the adult child’s marriage.
It is normal for a child to grow up and shift priorities to their partner especially once they are married. But what happens in enmeshed parent-child relationships is that the adult child struggles with a lot of guilt to shift their priority to their partner, and this causes a lot of strain in their marriage.
Having gathered inputs from my clients and having done my research in this area, I can safely say that if you dig deeper into divorces and couples falling apart, there will be an enmeshed parent who has a big role to play. Not all divorces happen because of enmeshment, but it is very common, and through this article, I wish to create more awareness about this issue. I hope through this awareness, more couples and parents can start establishing healthy boundaries before it gets too late and more marriages that are worth saving can be saved!
Note: This does not apply to marriages where the partner is abusive. Abuse is abuse and there are no excuses for it. You do not deserve to be abused. Please seek help immediately to navigate your life choices if you are emotionally, psychologically, financially, or physically being abused by your partner.
Here are some signs that your partner has an enmeshed parent:
1. Your partner has a tough time identifying where their parent ends and where they begin
You may notice that your partner does not have healthy boundaries with their parent/parents. They may overshare about your personal life and marriage issues with their parent. To some extent, all of us do share and seek counsel from our elders/parents when we face issues, but if there is a repetitive pattern where you need to seek the intervention of your partner’s parent to resolve your marriage issues, it is a red flag.
You may notice that your partner’s goals or ambitions have little or nothing to do with their own interest and more to do with making their parent look good in society. Your partner may absorb their parent’s emotions and energies, and you may notice that after interacting with their enmeshed parent, your partner’s moods may swing according to your in-law’s mood.
You may notice that your partner had to grow up much earlier and was expected to function as an adult in childhood. Your partner’s parents would have used your partner as their emotional punching bag or live-in therapist to vent out their issues or share age-inappropriate information. Children do not have the bandwidth to understand adult issues, and when they are dragged into it, they may be forced to grow up earlier than required.
These children may grow up to be adults with low self-esteem, have less interest in the joys of life, always be stressed out, and always worry about their parents. If these kids grow up being the surrogate emotional partner of their parents, it will definitely cause issues in their adult relationships/marriages when they grow up. You may notice your partner has a lot of rage issues because of being frustrated and having to deal constantly with the never-ending needs and demands of their parent and also trying to manage their own marriage and their partner’s needs. Emotional intimacy between couples can develop only when they cleave to each other. So with a third person in between the couple, there are bound to be complications.
3. Your partner may struggle to express emotions
Adult children of enmeshed parents struggle to express their authentic emotions, as throughout childhood the only conditioning they received from their parents was that only their parents’ emotions mattered. These children grow up thinking the only point of their existence is to serve their parents and fulfill their needs. They may have been shamed by their parent for expressing their emotion and this would have caused a belief in your partner that expressing emotions is very shameful or not required. You may be hitting an emotional blank wall each time you make a bid for emotional intimacy with them.
Your partner may be a fully functional grown-up adult, but around their parent, they may become a helpless immature child again. Such parents may treat their kids as ‘mini-me’ versions of themselves and the unsaid expectation is that their adult children should not exert independence. They would ensure their adult children remain dependent upon them always. You may notice that your partner may struggle to take even simple life decisions without consulting many people as they are not used to relying on their own intuition. Such kids grow up to be Daddy’s princess or Mama’s boys, and they may expect their partners to infantize them just like their parents do. This would eventually take a toll on their marriage, as marriage is a partnership of equals and not a parent-child equation.
5. Fights with your partner increase after an interaction with your in-laws
If you notice a pattern of having more fights than normal with your partner, especially after an interaction with your in-laws, it is a cue that a firm boundary is required with your in-laws. They may be subtly influencing your partner and egging your partner to get into more arguments with you. By pointing out your parenting flaws and finding fault with your cooking, financial, or housekeeping skills, you may be pulled into unnecessary arguments with your spouse.
6. Your partner may feel guilty to prioritize you and may feel bad saying ‘no’ to their parent
If you notice that when you are going on a date, your partner always feels bad about not being able to take their parent along, it is a red flag of enmeshment. You and your partner may have planned out a holiday together, but their parent may feign being unwell to ensure you cancel your holiday plans. There may be a lot of things that your parent-in-law may be capable of doing on their own but they may keep calling up and harassing your partner to help them with it. Your partner may struggle to say ‘no’ to their parent, and their emotional energies may be exhausted trying to please their parent’s demands.
If these red flags resonate with you, it is time for your partner to get un-enmeshed with their parent.
Your partner must be able to set a clear boundary with their parent in terms of time and energy and must be firm about it. Your partner must start prioritizing their own mental health and inner peace and stop getting into the emotional guilt traps laid out by their parent. If it helps, move away from the toxic parent and establish physical boundaries so that the enmeshment is reduced.
If your partner fails to set a boundary with their enmeshed parent, you have 2 choices:
1. Continue to ignore the enmeshment and the issues caused by the toxic parent in law for the sake of your marriage
2. If your partner turns abusive with you because of the interference and influence of their toxic parent, start planning your exit from the marriage.
Educate yourself about narcissistic abuse—a lot of YouTube videos and content is readily available online for this. Dr. Ramani is an internationally known psychologist and expert on narcissistic abuse, and her book “Should I Stay or Should I Go” will surely give you a lot of answers to the innumerable questions on your mind. Don’t let a toxic in-law mess with your marriage!
I would suggest that you should also get in touch immediately with a trauma-informed therapist/coach who is well aware of narcissistic abuse and who can handhold you through your healing journey.
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Ramya, Founder of Activate.You Life Coaching of Bangalore, India. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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