Can a Family Be Too Close?

Strive for Cohesiveness, But Avoid Becoming Enmeshed

Families can enjoy a healthy closeness. Photo © Jack Hollingsworth | Getty Images

I'm sometimes amazed by the habits of other families. I know some estranged families, and those situations are really sad. But occasionally as I watch other families interact, I wonder: How close is too close?

Maybe it's your family I'm wondering about.

Some Really Close Families

Here are some examples I've observed:

  • A friend cut short a vacation that she had anticipated for months to attend the funeral of an aunt. My friend comes from a large family and wasn't especially close to this aunt, but she felt it would have been a breach of family etiquette not to be there.
  • I have seen hospital waiting rooms completely filled with one family, and the family member in question wasn't really ill. In fact, she was having elective surgery.
  • A friend always checks traffic and road conditions when her adult children are on the road and calls to let them know of any potential problems.
  • One of my girlfriends lived near her parents. At her parents' house, she freely helped herself to extras from their pantry instead of buying her own food.

All of these examples left me wondering, is this really how families are meant to function? Are these examples of families that are too close? Or is my more reserved family deficient in family love?

What's Wrong With Being Close?

The bottom line, always, is that whatever works for your family is fine. It doesn't matter what the rest of the world thinks.

Many studies have shown that family cohesion reduces stress from outside sources. It has even been demonstrated to speed healing from physical setbacks.

Hispanic families, for example, are traditionally close, and that closeness may contribute to the longer life spans that Hispanic Americans enjoy.

Most of us have considerable variations within our families. For example, I talk to my daughters probably twice as often as I talk to my son, who tends to be both more introverted and more independent.

I don't think that he minds not being on my speed dial, and I'm okay with less frequent contact. My husband and I both have brothers that we see infrequently, but when we do see them, we feel a strong family bond.

Problems may occur when families don't recognize those members that want to be slightly removed from the family action. The more-sociable family members insist on frequent contact, pout when they don't get phone calls and insert themselves into occasions without invitation -- all to the dismay of the more-private family members.

For most families, the goal is to be in touch without being demanding or intrusive. Electronic communications have made this goal much easier to reach. I can send a child a text message, tag a grandchild in a Facebook post or Tweet, or find out whether a grandchild has posted anything in Instagram, all with a minimum of actual interaction. 

Of course, there are times when you just want to hear a family member's voice and you should just pick up the phone.

Even better, you can Skype or FaceTime and see a face, too. 

Dysfunctional Enmeshed Families

If there is such a thing as being too close, it takes place in what psychologists sometimes call "enmeshed" families. In such families, family relationships have displaced other normal relationships. Those in enmeshed families are expected to look inside the family for satisfaction and support rather than turning to the larger world. This habit may stunt their growth as individuals.

In an enmeshed family, for example, a decision by a family member to take a job in a distant city can cause great consternation. The feeling is that the family is being betrayed and abandoned. In a healthy family, this decision may cause pain, but it's not seen as a betrayal of family.

In an enmeshed family, members are made to feel guilty if they don't visit enough, or call enough, or if they miss family events. In a healthy family, such members may be the recipients of some complaints, or some teasing, but they are not made to feel guilty.

Have you ever heard someone complain about the "drama" in his or her family? Chances are that the family fits the profile of the enmeshed family, in which each family member feels obliged to react to whatever is going on in the lives of other family members, effectively multiplying the tension.

Another type of dysfunctional behavior that is observed in enmeshed families is that alliances within the family are constantly being formed, broken and re-formed, mostly because family members are expected to choose sides on every issue. Keeping up with who is on whose side causes much stress in the family.

What Does This Mean for Grandparents?

Grandparents have a vested interest in keeping families close, because they want to see their grandchildren. And while grandchildren bring great joy into their grandparents' lives, grandparents bring some very specific benefits to their grandchildren as well. It's a win-win.

In addition, grandparents generally set the tone for family relationships, and there is much they can do to promote closeness. They can host family gatherings, be a conduit for family communication and create family traditions. In addition, they should do what all good family members do, namely:

  • Be sensitive to the preferences of family members but maintain a reasonable level of contact with them.
  • Be concerned about problems within the family but do not feel obligated to weigh in on all of them.
  • Support the careers and other choices of your children, even if it means you will become a long-distance grandparent.

Grandparents do have a bit of a special problem, however. Their desire to stay close to family members may occasionally lead to their overstepping boundaries. Grandparents are parents, but we are not the parents of our grandchildren. Some of us have trouble making the distinction.

When your children are new parents, for example, don't assume that there is an open door policy. When my friend and I were new mothers, her mother-in-law used to go to her house every day, just to help out. The truth is that her presence was sometimes more of a disruption than a help, and my friend could have done quite well on her own.

The possibility for conflicts doesn't go away when the grandkids get older. When it comes to school and extra-curricular events, we have a fine line to walk. We should be welcome at games and public performances, but we shouldn't assume that we are welcome at practices, rehearsals, parents' night or teacher conferences.

Grandparents must be especially careful not to monopolize the social calendars of adult children, who need free time, time to spend with partners and time to socialize with peers. They also need some unscheduled weekends for spontaneous activities.

Above all, stay out of any marital conflicts that your children may be having. Don't pry, and offer advice only if asked. Interfere only if a family member's safety is threatened.

The Bottom Line

Never judge your family by comparing it to other families. Plenty of families seem happy and harmonious but have hidden issues. Judge your family only by how it works for you and for other family members. If you usually feel loved and supported, let minor irritations go.