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What is an enmeshed relationship?

Enmeshed relationships are the kind of relationships described as partners ‘overinvolved’ with each other

In an enmeshed relationship the partners are so connected that they do not see the difference between themselves and their partners – it is all we and no singular me

They often do not make decisions independently. Partners feel they cannot say, or do anything the partner does not approve or would upset the partner. Each partner believes they are responsible to resolve each other’s problems and feelings. They often do not have independent friendships outside the relationship – ie either the friend is “our friend” or they are not a friend.

Romantic partners who are enmeshed often let go of outside interests and relationships once they are in a relationship. Often one will justify their withdrawal by saying they just prefer their partner to others. The simple fact that one’s partner cannot meet emotional/social is overlooked. Significant others feel uncomfortable socializing without their partner. Each partner becomes emotionally overwhelmed when their partner is upset – they respond as if the emotion or situation is happening directly to them. They cannot relax until their partner is ‘ok.’ In the beginning of a relationship folks can find this experience pretty sexy – that someone is so caring towards them. The toll you pay for this flavor of relationship is you are always worrying about your impact on your partner. It is never again just about you. This results in a lack of sharing as the partner may not have the strength to manage their partner’s response along with their own.

Enmeshed relationships are not sustainable – though our culture wants us to think otherwise.

Often in society romanticizes a soul mate that is so attuned to your needs that you are ‘complete.’ It sells books, movies, and all kinds of commercial goods but is a horrible road map for relationship success. One cannot perform perfectly for another, nor should one need to if your beloved is competent with meeting their own needs.

Family members who are enmeshed often do not respect the boundaries of adults or couples and expect to have a vote on family members’ decisions – at times they expect to have the final say. They can expect family holidays to be run according to their expectations even if the gathering is at another’s home. They can expect to dictate their adult children’s career, parenting decisions, romantic relationships or social media posts. Adult children can think they have a vote on their parents’ marriages, financial decisions or choice of friends. Often during weddings and the birth of a child you can see these struggles play out between the needs of the couple versus the extended family. If an individual makes a decision against the group it is personalized, as if the decision is a personal affront as opposed to a different choice.

So how do you determine if you are part of an enmeshed relationship?

Ask yourself these questions.

Do you feel you cannot see friends that your partner doesn’t like or plan an independent outing if your partner won’t go?

Do you feel you cannot say or make a decision without the enmeshed family’s approval?

When you make an independent decision there is backlash and over-reactivity? Your family member or partner may feel like you are doing something to directly upset them even if your decision has nothing to do with them.

Do you find there is a lot of guilt and shame inducing talk in your relationship – especially when making an independent decision?

Here are some tips for someone in an enmeshed relationship…

  • Make it clear to your partner or loved one why their reactions or expectations are not working for you.
  • Develop a tolerance to disappointing or frustrating your loved one.
  • Recognize it is not your responsibility to cure every feeling your loved one has.
  • You may need to learn to say “little nos’ ‘ for example “No I don’t want Chinese take out, I’d rather do Italian or Mexican,” to ease into saying no more.
  • Secure a therapist as it can be tricky to change this pattern.
  • Practice responses for objections to your new behavior before you implement your plan.
  • Recognize that success can’t be based on your loved ones’ response.  Success is based on being able to respond and live in a way that aligns with your values/priorities.

A change in behavior can confuse as it isn’t the expected response. Sometimes an unexpected response is needed to challenge both partners to grow.

Practiced responses to your new behavior can look like this

  • You are right, I am behaving differently (there is truly no point in denying it if true)
  • I hear that this is hard for you – what works for you when you are struggling?
  • I clearly hear you would prefer X but that doesn’t work for me. Do you have other suggestions?
  • If you have a request I am willing to hear it but otherwise we can end this conversation.
  • I understand you want me to (agree with you, do things your way or etc) but that is not going to happen so if you have any other suggestions I am willing to hear it.
  • Are you willing to stop, rewind and express that statement in a way that is respectful
  • I appreciate your point, yet the delivery is making it hard to respond. Can you rephrase that?

Can an enmeshed relationship improve?

It depends on the motivation, insight and flexibility of the relationships. When both partners recognize damage and deeply desire change there is a lot of room to grow. When folks lack motivation, insight or flexibility the prognosis isn’t quite as good.

What makes someone susceptible to being in one?

That’s a difficult question because enmeshment can be subjective.

If you grew up in an enmeshed family that will be normalized to you and could be prone to an enmeshed relationship. Often those who suffer from early attachment wounds or untreated anxiety utilize enmeshment to regulate their anxiety. They avoid struggling with their symptoms by having another’s behavior buffer their experiences.

Are there any next steps recommended for people in an enmeshed relationship?

Educate yourself on enmeshment – there are plenty of podcasts, youtube videos and books on the subject. Identify your top priorities for change in your behavior so you can focus on what you can control. Secure the help of a therapist as enmeshment is complicated to disentangle. Make sure it is a therapist that enjoys working with this topic.

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