Exploring family of origin with rigid and enmeshed individuals

Relationship education provides an opportunity to work with couples' perceptions of their families of origin. In particular, it is worth exploring the possible impact of extreme, or unbalanced, family structures on how couples are likely to approach their own relationship.

A series of studies conducted at the University of Sydney have identified some key matters of concern. These studies have been conducted by postgraduate students in the School of Psychology under the supervision of Alan Craddock, a former Senior Lecturer in that School and also the former National Coordinator of PREPARE/ENRICH Australia. All of these studies used measures of family structure that were very closely related to the family of origin questions used in the PREPARE/ENRICH inventories.

The form of extreme family structure focused on in these studies involves enmeshment or extreme closeness. Highly enmeshed families may be typified by an extreme form of cohesiveness that undermines the development of personal autonomy and which results in a form of family bonding that represents an over-identification with the family.

There are two varieties of enmeshed families that occur quite frequently: Rigidly enmeshed and chaotically enmeshed.

Rigidly enmeshed families are excessively close and also have very highly structured rules, roles and routines. In contrast, chaotically enmeshed families, whilst also being excessively close, lack structure and tend to be random, unstable and chaotic.

The University of Sydney studies revealed three areas of personal adjustment that are strongly associated with rigidly enmeshed types of family of origin. These are all areas that may represent important vulnerabilities for couples, and therefore are worth noting.

(1) Relationship Attachment

In 1999, Natalie Nasr, Leah MacFadyen, Clint Marlborough, Rina Sarkis and Susan Scanlon examined the effect of childhood experiences of family of origin on adult relationship attachment among young Australian adults. One important and relevant feature of their findings was that rigid-enmeshment was a significant predictor of discomfort in adult relationships.

In summary, all of these studies support the view that, although family closeness and structure are generally regarded as positive in their effects, too much closeness (enmeshment) combined with too much structure (rigidity) may be damaging.

Tune in for more tips and ideas next week.

PREPARE/ENRICH has several resources to help you unpack and mine the assessment results. For more details on this exercise, refer to the PREPARE/ENRICH Discussion Guide for Couples.

Do you need help or assistance with using PREPARE/ENRICH or working with couples online, call us any time: (02) 9520 4049 or email:

#PREPARE/ENRICH is a customised online assessment tool that identifies each couples unique strength and growth areas. Based on their assessment results, a facilitator provides feedback sessions, helping couples to discuss and understand their results while teaching them proven relationship skills.

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