Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, DHL, LCSW-R
Our Gemara mentions a problematic pattern of behavior that can, according to the Gemara, even affect a woman’s likelihood of conceiving: Redufa leylech el beis aviha, When there is contention in the marriage and the woman tends to return back to her father’s home.There is a normal human pattern for young women to connect to and seek guidance from their mothers, as we saw by Rivkah (Bereishis 24:28):
וַתָּ֙רׇץ֙ הַֽנַּעֲרָ֔ וַתַּגֵּ֖ד לְבֵ֣ית אִמָּ֑הּ כַּדְּבָרִ֖ים הָאֵֽלֶּה׃
The maiden ran and told all this to her mother’s household.
Rashi comments, quoting the Midrash:
לבית אמה. דֶּרֶךְ הַנָּשִׁים הָיְתָה לִהְיוֹת לָהֶן בַּיִת לֵישֵׁב בּוֹ לִמְלַאכְתָּן, וְאֵין הַבַּת מַגֶּדֶת אֶלָּא לְאִמָּהּ:
לבית אמה [AND TOLD IT] TO THEM OF HER MOTHER’S HOUSE —
It was customary for the women to have their own apartments to sit in at their work — and a daughter, of course, confides only in her mother (Genesis Rabbah 60:7)
However, that was a state that existed before marriage, not necessarily after. Or perhaps, mothers and daughters are uniquely close to share lore and guidance re childbirth and childcare. However, fathers and daughters, and mothers and sons should not be as close after marriage. This could be why the Gemara here uses the term, Leylech el beis aviha, running to her FATHER’s house. The problem is enmeshment by the daughter with the father (who is a rival to the husband), and similarly I would suggest enmeshment by the son with the mother (who is a rival to the wife.)
There are certain men and women that have difficulty appropriately differentiating from their parents to the extent that it interferes in them forming an intimate bond with their spouse. It actually is an explicit verse in the Torah (Bereishis 2:24):
עַל־כֵּן֙ יַֽעֲזׇב־אִ֔ישׁ אֶת־אָבִ֖יו וְאֶת־אִמּ֑וֹ וְדָבַ֣ק בְּאִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וְהָי֖וּ לְבָשָׂ֥ר אֶחָֽד׃
Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.
What is the psychological definition of enmeshment? It is when emotional boundaries become blurred and one person’s actions and pains become excessively linked to another’s. This is not to say we should not care about the people we love. Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Lazeh, all Jews are responsible for each other, and obviously all the more so for a parent and child. However, there is a difference with being concerned about the person’s welfare and total merger. You care about a relative’s emotional state and well being, and even are morally obligated to make all kinds of reasonable efforts to help the other person, and yet that is still different than having their emotions connected to yours via some metaphoric umbilical cord. Even God is careful of boundaries and allows humans the freedom to voluntarily choose to obey or disobey, to connect or disconnect. (For a key discussion on this, see Moreh Nevukhim 3:32.) God does not obliterate our autonomy and neither should a good parent.
When you cannot have the freedom to have your own emotions, reactions or thoughts without fear that this will upset the other person, the chances are you are enmeshed. Emotional autonomy is not about rebellion or refusal, it is about the right to independently consider when and how you may or may not agree to do something or believe something, without undue coercion or guilt.
How do you fix enmeshment? It is a slow process because aside from your own confusion about them matter, the system itself may resist your efforts at independence. Your connection may be a source of comfort and control to the other party and so they may unconsciously attack your efforts, see your efforts as disrespectful or aggressive, and in fact, you might end up overshooting and actually behave disrespectfully and aggressively. It is good to have a trusted friend who is unbiased and can help you clarify your boundaries. One final word of caution: Some people, even therapists with their own childhood injuries, may act out their need for emotional independence and fail to provide objective feedback. There are therapists who are “parent-bashers” and encourage ridiculous and inflexible boundaries because they themselves have not worked out their own issues with their authority figures.
Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, (except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation .)