What is a Healthy Emotional Distance from Your Parents?

From the moment of birth, psychological development entails a process of gradual distancing and separation from parents. That process begins in a state of symbiotic and heightened dependence on parents for basic physical, emotional, and psychological needs. This separation process then progresses in stages as a person grows up and develops greater independence and autonomy. Even as a person develops such autonomy and independence, he or she may remain emotionally close to parents. As one ages and becomes adult, it is normal to develop greater emotional distance from parents and at the same time to maintain emotional closeness with parents. Is too much emotional closeness or distance from parents unhealthy or less functional?

The psychiatrist Murray Bowen developed a theory of family functioning that addresses the issue of emotional distance from parents. Bowen developed the notion of “self-differentiation” which refers to a person’s capacity to distinguish his or her own thoughts and feelings from those of others. Family members with high self-differentiation are able to own their thoughts and feelings; they can contain their emotions and at the same time remain open to hearing and receiving others’ perspectives even when those perspectives differ from their own.

Families with low self-differentiation find it difficult to distinguish the thoughts and emotions of one family member from those of another. The interactions of family members with low self-differentiation can be anxiety-filled, intense, and confusing. Family members with low self-differentiation are also at heightened risk for “enmeshment” (a kind of unhealthy, excessive dependence) and at heightened risk for “cut-off” and estrangement (“enmeshment” and “cut-off” are terms coined by Bowen). For example, take a family with two adult sons who, following some college, move back into their home of origin on a permanent basis. Say the family members all interrupt each other constantly and argue loudly and frequently about the particulars of each son’s love life. Such a family situation may reflect an enmeshed dynamic among family members with low self-differentiation. After a particularly heated, intense, and hurtful interaction, say one son decides he “can’t take it anymore” and leaves the family home never to return. Such a decision would represent an instance of “cut off.”

One caveat: Murray Bowen is a doctor from a Western culture and his theory of self-differentiation may not be as applicable to families in Eastern cultures as they are to families in Western cultures. Because many Eastern cultures are more “collectivistic,” they tend to prioritize group projects and goals over individual projects and goals. This kind of prioritization may in turn affect roles and relations within families and the relative importance placed on the goals of individual family members. For more reading on individualistic cultures vs. collectivistic cultures, see the work of the Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede.