Have you been feeling anxious all the time and irritable while spending the majority of your time with one person? Have you stopped following your hobbies and passions? If this is you, you could be in an enmeshed relationship.
If you have been questioning the nature of a particular relationship in your life, keep reading this article. To better understand the dynamics of your relationship, test whether the signs and traits of enmeshed relationships mentioned in this piece fit your relationship.
What is enmeshment?
The American Psychological Association describes enmeshment as a condition where people, typically family members, are involved in each other’s activities and personal things to an extreme degree, thus limiting or precluding healthy interaction and compromising individual autonomy and identity.
As you can imagine, it’s hard to define what ‘excessive degree’ actually means, especially if all you’ve ever experienced is enmeshment in relationships. That’s why it’s helpful to first understand the behavioral patterns that lead to enmeshment issues.
Studies have proven intrusiveness as a key aspect of an enmeshed relationship. It includes “coercive control, separation anxiety, reactivity and possessiveness.” If these dynamics are starting to feel familiar, you could be suffering because of an enmeshed relationship.
Enmeshed associations are typically found in couples who are newly in love. After all, the start of any romantic partnership is exhilarating and you want to spend all your time together.
Wiser couples know how to re-establish themselves after that honeymoon period of a relationship as separate people who rely on each other for love and support. Sadly, others develop an enmeshed romantic relationship.
One of the main reasons people struggle to find themselves within a relationship is because of what they learned as they were growing up. Unfortunately, our caregivers’ treatment can still impact us heavily as adults.
As children, we need to discover what it means to be us and how to become emotionally independent from our caregivers. Of course, a family still relies on each other for support. Within that though, everyone has a good sense of who they are, what they need and how they’re feeling.
On the flip side, a family built on the idea of an enmeshed relationship has no physical or emotional boundaries. Caregivers take the idea that they need to care for children too far and tell them what to do, what to wear and what to think.
Heavy control by caregivers impacts any child’s self-esteem as they assume that their caregiver only loves them for blindly following what they say. The pressure of trying to meet these expectations can lead to guilt and anxiety when the child becomes an adult and wants their own life.
15 signs of enmeshment in marriage and other relationships
It’s hard to change our habits when we grow up, only experiencing what an enmeshed relationship feels like. Essentially, you might have no role model for healthy relationships and so you hold onto the enmeshed relationship with your spouse or partner because it feels safe.
Nevertheless, habits can change and it is possible to heal from enmeshment by first observing the signs.
1. Forgetting your needs
When you’re in an enmeshed romantic relationship, the lines between both partners become so blurred that they start acting as one person. There’s usually an enabler in the relationship, such that the other partner becomes dependent on them to dictate needs.
Of course, no one in relationships openly states that they will overlook the needs of their partner. But the disregard can start very subtly as one gradually undermines their desires and needs for the sake of the other person.
If you’re in an enmeshed relationship, you’ll most likely struggle to connect with what you’re feeling. That’s because you’re so focused on the other person and what they feel that you forget your own emotions.
This isn’t surprising if you remember that enmeshed people are often discouraged from experiencing their emotions as children. Essentially, the caregiver would tell them how to feel and disregard any alternative. So, enmeshment in relationships starts looking the same later in adult life.
3. Avoid conflict
Another sign of enmeshment is that you’re too worried about upsetting the status quo if you’re in an enmeshed relationship with your spouse or partner. If you grew up in a dismissive household where caregivers set the law, you may not have learned to stand up for yourself.
Learning to say no is a skill that requires self-esteem and a healthy appreciation of our needs and boundaries.
As this article from licensed clinical social worker Mark Gorkin describes, many of us struggle to say no because of family history, fear of abandonment, and boundary issues. These are all apparent traits within an enmeshed relationship.
You generally want to keep the other person happy if you’re in an enmeshed relationship. Deep down, you connect your happiness with theirs so that you can only feel content if they’re happy. This often shows up in the form of excessively caring for the other person.
Enmeshment in romantic relationships can involve caretaking that just goes too far. This is because you take on the role of protector, very much like your caregivers might have done in the past.
As neuroscientist Dr. Dan Siegel explains in his article, we need our emotions and gut to make decisions rather than just using logic alone. You struggle to connect with your emotions and needs if you’re enmeshed, which makes decision-making excruciating.
Enmeshed relationships foster a lack of decision-making skills in individuals. And if you are forced to make decisions independently, you would constantly question things and be perpetually unsure.
In enmeshed relationships, people-pleasing can go so far that you sacrifice your life and jump as soon as the other person needs you. This could mean always driving hours into the night to find that vital cuisine that they might want to eat.
Alternatively, you could find yourself covering for them at work when you really should let them take responsibility for their actions. The saddest part is when enmeshment in marriage takes the form of one partner taking on all the chores without any help.
7. Confused sense of identity
Enmeshment in romantic relationships can feel safe because we believe we’re protected from abandonment. That belief isn’t grounded in truth though, and on the contrary, excessive closeness usually pushes people away.
Excessive closeness in an enmeshed relationship involves over-identifying with the other person such that one day you realize that you’ve given up on all your hobbies. You no longer know what you like to wear or do because those preferences are too tied up with the other person.
A significant giveaway sign of an enmeshed relationship is when both partners never seem to have time alone. They don’t have separate friends and know how to experience self-care.
All this comes from growing up in a household where they had to meet the needs of their caregivers rather than their own. Without developing internal validation as a child, it’s impractical to expect someone to become independent just because they’re adults.
9. Seek validation from the other person
Many people look for reassurance and validation from external sources. An enmeshed relationship accentuates this because both partners look to each other for confirmation that they’re happy.
The art of living a full and happy life is to be content with ourselves. This means working with a therapist or coach who can help reframe any unhelpful belief systems learned during childhood in an enmeshed family.
An enmeshed relationship usually excludes other people. The idea is that the enmeshed couples rely on each other so much that they can’t cope with external people. Of course, this creates a vicious circle where isolation reinforces the enmeshed behaviors.
11. Reactivity and poor communication
Your needs and emotions don’t just disappear when enmeshed. Instead, you suppress those emotions and at some point, they explode.
Moreover, without being aware of needs and feelings, an enmeshed person won’t communicate what they want in life. This can lead to lying to others and themselves, so the vicious circle continues.
When enmeshed, looking after our partners makes us worry about their well-being even though we have no control over it. This lack of real control can lead to significant anxiety. Then, we worry about upsetting them and getting things wrong.
13. Fear of abandonment
Children from enmeshed families soon comply with their caregivers’ unreasonable demands because they don’t want to lose them. The world can seem extreme when viewed from children’s eyes and they’re generally helpless to push back or meet their needs alone.
Enmeshed childhoods lead to a deep fear of losing their safety if they don’t do as told. Without some form of self-discovery or therapy, this fear doesn’t just dissipate and leads to enmeshment in adult life.
Watch this video to learn more about abandonment issues and how they impact relationships:
14. A need to rescue
Living in an enmeshed relationship means having no sense of your own emotions. So, to compensate somehow, you may try to rescue your partner from their emotions and problems. This makes you feel good because you’re caring for them and making them happy.
Tragically, the other person rarely sees this as a gift that you are giving them. Instead, they assume that you exist to serve. Alternatively, they’re never happy because they also don’t know how to connect to their emotions.
An enmeshed relationship often involves control of some kind. By caring for the other person, an enmeshed person might try to control that person’s emotions and vice versa.
They could also be controlling their partner’s behavior, preferences and habits. Again, enmeshment destroys autonomy and independence, leading to a deterioration of a person’s confidence.
What is enmeshment in families versus closed families?
What is an enmeshed relationship? Essentially, it’s a relationship where people sacrifice their needs and emotions. This is similar to closed family systems with “impervious boundaries with the outside world,” as described in this study.
Family Systems Theory was developed in 1988 to analyze the complexity of how families operate and influence each other. Family evaluation involves understanding individuality versus closeness, emotional systems and how the self is developed, among other concepts.
The subtle difference between a closed family system and an enmeshed family is that a closed family cannot and will not change. On the flip side, an enmeshed family does have a few cracks that can let outsiders in. Those cracks are the hope for change and healing.
The signs of enmeshment are all in stark contrast to what a close family looks like. In those cases, a family has learned to balance the individual needs with the unit’s goals. They establish healthy boundaries and talk openly about emotions and needs.
Enmeshed relationships are often typical of couples in love, but they can lead to a range of issues when the behavior persists. These include not managing our emotions and needs, leading to stress and, ultimately, mental health problems.
When you’re in an enmeshed relationship, you might find yourself isolated from others. You become over-reliant on the other person such that when a crisis comes, you can’t cope and so you break down.
Healing from enmeshment and moving forward
The good news is that there’s hope and you don’t have to stay in an enmeshed relationship forever. Once you’ve observed and noted the signs of enmeshment, you’ll have to reconnect with your emotions and feelings to discover what you want in life.
From this, you can start setting boundaries often with the help of a coach or therapist. Most importantly, you’ll have to work on your self-esteem to start rebuilding it piece by piece. It takes time but the effort is worthwhile. You can start journaling if you wish.
Perhaps you’re still asking yourself this question: what is an enmeshed relationship? Simply put, when two people have become excessively close, they may lose touch with who they are. This leads to anxiety, disconnection from emotions and other people, and an intense fear of abandonment.
The behaviors and habits that lead us to an enmeshed relationship are grounded in childhood. Nevertheless, we don’t have to carry that millstone around our necks forever. Healing from enmeshment is a process that takes effort but every step we take opens up a world of hope and possibilities.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Sylvia Smith loves to share insights on how couples can revitalize their love lives in and out of the bedroom. As a writer at Marriage.com, she is a big believer in living consciously and encourages couples to adopt this principle in their lives too. Sylvia believes that every couple can transform their relationship into a happier, healthier one by taking purposeful and wholehearted action.