What is enmeshment in a relationship and how does one deal with it?
There is such a thing as too much love. As the old saying goes, too much of something is poisonous. Too much chocolate is bad for you, too much water is bad for you, and so is too much love. Enmeshment in a relationship is one of those unhealthy habits that most people believe is good, but is it?
We often envy families that know each other in and out, spend a lot of time together, know where the other ones are at any given moment, and share psychic-like abilities when it comes to emotions.
It seems logical to aspire to have such relationships, but too much of anything can be dangerous. At what point does a good connection turn into a dangerous thing? Is an enmeshed relationship healthy? All of these questions will be answered here.
Enmeshment is a therapeutic and psychological term used to describe an unhealthy relationship characterized by the lack of boundaries and lack of self-identity in the people involved.
The enmeshed definition applies mostly to family settings. However, it also applies to romantic relationships.
An enmeshed family always seems to be the ideal type of family set up when observed by anyone looking in. However, it is never suitable for the family members themselves, especially the children.
We could define enmeshed families as families that suffer from the fear of abandonment or loneliness, leading them to forego the necessities of clearly set boundaries and individual autonomy.
Enmeshment trauma results from the weak individual autonomy constructed from the lack of adequately defined boundaries in the relationship. Survivors of such trauma often do not recognize their experiences as traumatic and often defend their abusers.
I know it is hard to imagine that a loving parent can be abusive, but that is the truth. Parents who love their children to the extent of not letting them have any form of accountability are abusive.
An example of this is when children often mistake the interest of their parents as their own. They may go a step further to defend those interests even when doing so is harmful to them.
Moreover, family members who correctly identify their traumatic experiences may be cast off by their loved ones or even labeled abusive.
A healthy relationship entails a close relationship, involving both parties maintaining independence levels while feeling connected to one another.
Compromising a child's individuality inevitably leads them to lack of an understanding of who they are and diminishes their self-awareness. The child will always make decisions based on what the family thinks and wants, rather than what he/she wants.
Members of an enmeshment family tend to always put their family first. Enmeshment is highly predominant in families that have a loved one who suffers from addiction.
Most people tend to misuse and misunderstand enmeshment. It is easily confused with codependency, even though they are two different things. A codependent relationship is one-sided; this means that one person relies on the other to fulfill all of their needs.
Signs of an enmeshed family or relationship
It is easier for a non-member of a family to see the characteristics of the enmeshed family. The members of the family are always preoccupied with defining themselves as one, leading to the abandonment of individual free-thinking that hinders them from seeing the bigger picture.
If you grew up in an enmeshed family, here are some of the most common signs of enmeshment that you may be familiar with:
- There is always a lack of physical and emotional boundaries. You lack privacy, both physically and mentally. The idea of personal thoughts and self-care seems distant to you.
- You may feel anxious when spending time alone and away from the other person in the relationship. The idea of being separated from your enmeshed partner seems like the worst possible imagination.
- You often find it comforting that the other person involved thinks and acts like you, shares the same interests as you, and even the same world views.
- There is always a sense of guilt and shame when standing up for yourself. You feel responsible for the emotional well-being of others.
- You may find it hard to be happy if your partner, family member, or friend is sad. Your emotions are shared and often become one, making it difficult to distinguish your feelings from their feelings.
- You have a hard time thinking about who you could be without the other person. Your personality seems dull and ambiguous when they are not around.
- You tend to isolate yourself from people outside of the relationship or family.
- Your happiness and success is the one thing that gives your parents a sense of self-worth.
- There is always a habit of oversharing, either personal experiences or feelings, that creates unhealthy dependence and unrealistic expectations.
Effects of enmeshment in a relationship
To mature and become an emotionally healthy adult, people must individuate and become independent from their parents. The major problem plaguing people who come from enmeshed families is their immaturity. It is hard to mature when one's identity gets wrapped around someone else.
Such individuals should be honest with themselves and recognize that they do not believe in the same things that their parents believe in.
By doing this, they get clarity about their values, beliefs, and interests, and eventually, they can express themselves and act them out.
Only when they recognize that they are unique individuals will they venture into the world to look for more significant opportunities.
Another effect of enmeshment is unhealthy dependence. This dependence gets grounded by the art of using people to meet your own emotional needs. Nobody should ever use anyone to make themselves feel valued.
Enmeshed families also instill low self-worth in a person, especially the children. Children growing up in these families end up becoming approval-seeking individuals who do not value themselves. Approval-seeking heightens their anxiety, increases their fear of abandonment, and lands them in codependent relationships.
A tremendous burden is also put on a person when they become enmeshed. They will feel responsible for other people and not hold them accountable for their mistakes.
Causes of enmeshment and how to untangle yourself from it
An external trauma, such as a sudden loss of a loved one, serious illness, or natural disaster, may cause you and your family to become very close to try and safeguard yourself from any harm.
Once this pattern increases beyond the trauma that caused it, the closeness loses its protectiveness and turns into enmeshment that eventually undermines your autonomy.
Enmeshment can also spring up from a divorce. Parents who go through a divorce often opt to cultivate more robust and closer relationships with their children.
If a male child lives with his mother after a divorce, the mother may start filling the emptiness of not having a man around by looking to the male child to meet her emotional needs.
How to overcome enmeshment
Untangling yourself from such unhealthy relationships is one of the best decisions you will ever make. Here is how you can be able to do it:
- Create clear and definitive boundaries: An excellent place to start is mindfulness. By heightening awareness of your own physical experience, you become more self-loving. You gain a deeper appreciation of your psychological boundaries which will help you invest less in the preoccupations of other people.
- Let go of the guilt: People will use guilt to manipulate you. A massive chunk of the blame you may feel may not correlate to reality, rather your fear of failing others. Do what is right for you.
- Go to therapy or find a support group, or do both: Therapy is by far the best place to let go of your burdens. Support groups are of tremendous help because of the interactions you have with people who have gone through the same things as you have. Expressing your feelings and frustrations about your enmeshed family to people who understand can be very helpful.
Having boundaries and understanding your individuality and uniqueness ensures that you do not become a victim of enmeshment in any of your relationships. It is a good desire to be closer to your family, friends, and partners. However, always keep in mind that too much of something does not give the best results.
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