In an emotionally enmeshed relationship, there are two people, but only one point of view. All kinds of relationships can be enmeshed: parent and child, siblings, a romantic couple, close friends, coworkers, etc. Enmeshment is different from interdependence, where two people support and care about each other, but still maintain separate selves.
Usually there is a power imbalance where one person has the dominant point of view, and the other person merges with them. The dominant person might manipulate or coerce the other person, or the other person might initiate merging because that is their understanding of closeness.
Infants start out emotionally merged with their carers. Ideally, the growing child has a secure base from which to gradually explore their separateness. The carer remains available to them for reassurance, and celebrates their developing independence.
When a carer signals disappointment in response to a child’s explorations and encouragement in response to merging, the child will naturally tend to stay merged and suppress impulses to separate.
The signals might be unspoken and implicit: sadness and disapproval for separations, delight and approval for staying merged. Or they might be direct and explicit: “I need you close. Stay safe by me.” The encouragement to remain merged might be mixed with genuine love and care, even as it thwarts the child’s natural urge to establish their own point of view.
Signs of enmeshment
An enmeshed relationship has a sense of airlessness. You might feel yourself getting smaller over time, with fewer choices of behaviors and emotions. For example, you might always have to be the strong one who takes care of things, or alternatively you might always have to be the weak and fragile one. In a balanced relationship, your role shifts with time and circumstances.
You might feel overwhelming emotions that do not respond to your usual internal tools. One way to tell that an emotion belongs to someone else is that you cannot change or explain it. You can only acknowledge it, realize it is not yours, and let it go.
No quick fix
When you find yourself in an enmeshed relationship, there are many reasons to stay. You might want to walk away, and at the same time it feels like you and the other person are part of each other. Whether you are demanding enmeshment or acquiescing to it, you cannot simply turn it off.
You might leave the relationship quickly for safety, or end it gradually, or stay in it. No matter what happens with the relationship, you can grow into your own point of view over time.
Solid in yourself
The goal in healing from enmeshment is to repair your boundaries and sense of self. Rather than feeling woven together with someone else, you will gradually feel more solid in yourself, separate from others.
Find your edges
To help you find your own edges, you can practice a specialized version of the same/difference exercise. Name a couple of things that are the same between you and the other person, and a couple of things that are different. You might find one side much more difficult than the other. Keep practicing both.
You can also practice same/difference with point of view. Name a couple of things from your point of view, and a couple of things from the other person’s point of view. Again, you might find one side much more difficult than the other. Keep practicing both.
Privileged points of view
Society reinforces some points of view and ignores or suppresses others. The more privilege you have (straight, cis, able-bodied, male, white, Christian, etc.), the more accustomed you will be to thinking that your point of view is “normal“, correct, and the only way to look at things. The more marginalized you are, the more accustomed you will be to thinking that your point of view is alternative, flawed, and unique to you.
Focus on yourself
If you have trouble finding your own point of view, frequently take a few moments to pay attention to your thoughts, emotions, desires, and sensations. The first thing you might notice is guilt or shame for paying attention to yourself. Let those feelings know that you hear them, and continue to pay attention.
You are entitled to your own point of view, whether it is the same or different from other points of view around you. When you pay some attention to yourself, you are correcting an imbalance where most of your attention was turned away from yourself.
Focus on others
If you have trouble finding the other person’s point of view, frequently take a few moments to listen for any information you receive about other people’s point of view. If you notice a voice inside judging or invalidating other points of view, let it know you hear it and return to neutral listening. You are correcting an imbalance where most of your attention was turned inward toward yourself.
Your boundaries separate what is you from what is not-you. As you pay attention to your own point of view as separate from others, your boundaries will naturally grow clearer. You will be able to both step forward to assert your point of view, and step back to make room for others.
You may get resistance from people who are used to being enmeshed with you, even when you assert your boundaries in small steps.
Enmeshment often includes Drama Triangle roles of Victim, Rescuer, and Perpetrator. From inside a Drama Triangle, anyone trying to exit looks like a Perpetrator, because they are changing the rules of the game. You have to be willing to be seen as bad and wrong to grow away from enmeshment.
Look for people who encourage you to stand in your story and celebrate your boundaries. Savor all the bits of support you receive for your growing separate self.
Internal points of view
We can also become merged with internal parts and try to speak for them, rather than listening for their point of view.
I often ask clients to listen to a body part in distress. “What does that sore hand have to say?” The client pauses to listen, and then says, “I’m telling it everything is okay now.” Or they might say, “It wants to feel better,” meaning, “I want it to feel better.”
I ask again, “What does it have to say from its point of view?”
The client pauses to listen again. “It says it’s angry.” Now we are learning new information about what is happening inside the hand. I respond, “You might let it know you hear that.” Acknowledgement is a powerful healing tool.
Whether or not we are in an enmeshed relationship at the moment, we can benefit from clearer boundaries and more attentiveness to our own and others’ point of view. Through a lot of trial and error, we learn to relate with respect both inside and outside ourselves. Growing a healthy, balanced sense of self is a lifelong project.
- The Scarleteen article Intimacy: The Whys, Hows, How-Nots, and So-Nots by Heather Corinna explores all kinds of intimacy, including unhealthy versions like enmeshment. The illustrations in the margins are delightful.
- It links to this introductory article about family enmeshment.