Does your relationship lack boundaries? Do your partner’s needs take priority over your own? Do you feel like you can’t tell the difference between your partner’s emotions and your own?
If those things sound familiar, you might be tangled up in an enmeshed relationship.
Enmeshment is a term used in psychology to describe relationships that lack personal boundaries, to the point of losing one’s sense of individuality and independence. The tricky thing about it is that the behavior and actions that stem from it may seem innocent and be confused with closeness and selflessness.
However, being in an enmeshed relationship can hurt your self-esteem as well as your sense of identity and independence while also taking a significant toll on your mental health.
What follows is a breakdown of:
- a thorough explanation of enmeshment
- five signs that can help you identify enmeshment
- what you can do if you find yourself in an enmeshed relationship
Let’s dive right in.
What Exactly Is Enmeshment?
Enmeshment is a psychological term used to describe dysfunctional relational patterns. It is often used to describe dysfunctional family dynamics (usually between a parent and a child), but it can refer to romantic relationships as well.
In simple words, enmeshment equals a lack of boundaries. In enmeshed relationships, we lose our sense of individuality and become too preoccupied with meeting another person’s needs to take care of our own.
We are also involved in each other’s activities to an excessive degree, let our loved ones have a say in how we live our lives, and often struggle to differentiate between our emotional experiences of our loved ones and our own.
As this article in PsychologyToday explains:
“Enmeshed relationships are those that lack healthy psychic boundaries. We lose a sense of where we leave off and another begins. Our sense of individuality is compromised. If our identity is wrapped up in meeting the other person’s needs, our own life goals are thwarted. We become a stranger to our own desires and our confidence can take a hit.”
If you find yourself in a relationship where enmeshment is involved, you might notice that you feel like you’re living an inauthentic life, like something is wrong but you’re unable to understand what it is.
Let’s take a look at some of the signs that can help you identify enmeshment.
#1. Emotions and Feelings Become Blurred
If you’re in an enmeshed relationship, you might be unable to tell the difference between your loved one’s emotions/feelings and your own. You get angry when you see them getting angry, you get sad when you see them sad, you become anxious when they tell you how anxious they are, etc.
In other words, you unwillingly absorb/mirror their feelings. For example, they might give you a call and start crying about something that happened to them, and then you’ll spend the rest of your evening crying and being depressed as well.
Or, they might share with you how anxious they’re about something — even if it’s something minor — and that will overwhelm you with anxiety as well.
#2. The Other Person’s Needs Take Priority Over Your Own
A sign that can indicate you’re tangled up in enmeshment is when you're too preoccupied with meeting your loved one’s needs to take care of your own.
From making adjustments to your calendar and last-minute cancellations to going out of your way and suppressing your needs, you’ll do everything to please your partner.
Even if that means doing and saying “yes” to things you don’t really want to do. Even if that means leaving no time for yourself or neglecting other relationships.
#3. Your Loved One Significantly Influences Your Life Choices
If you notice that your loved one influences all of your life choices, it could mean that enmeshment is involved in your relationship.
For example, you might catch yourself taking part in activities that your partner wants you to take part in — and you don’t particularly like — , going out only with people your partner approves of, dressing in a specific way, or giving up a job you liked because your partner advised you to.
Generally, you make your life choices based not on what you truly want, but on whether your partner will approve of them or not.
#4. You Depend Too Much on Your Relationship
Another sign of enmeshment is being overly dependent on your relationship, to the point of feeling lonely every moment you spend away from your partner.
Additionally, you mind find that your self-esteem and happiness rely on the consistency and status of your relationship.
For example, if you and your partner get into a fight, you might become overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety and stress, even if the fight was about something minor because you’re afraid your partner will leave you.
Or, when your partner says they don’t like something you wear or something you made for them, you immediately start questioning whether you’re good enough.
#5. You’re Always the “Fixer”
Feeling like you have to fix your partner’s problems and that you’re responsible for their happiness, is another sign indicative of an enmeshed relationship.
For example, you might feel obligated to rush to their rescue whenever they’re dealing with a problem, feel like you have to make them feel better when they’re in a bad mood, or feel like you’re the one who did something wrong every time they seem unhappy.
Whatever happens to your partner, you feel like you’re responsible: responsible because you did something wrong, responsible because you let something bad happen to them, or responsible for fixing things.
How to Manage Enmeshment
The good news is that you can manage enmeshment. Once you identify your enmeshed relationship, you can start to work on setting some healthy boundaries and reclaiming your individuality.
Here are some things you can do:
Start (re)discovering yourself: Because enmeshment usually leads to a loss of individuality and identity, it would be a good idea to start discovering yourself and cultivating your own interests and beliefs.
What are your interests? What do you like doing in your free time? What are your strengths and weaknesses? Start exploring more, going to new places, and taking up new hobbies that can help you understand yourself more.
Stop feeling guilty: Chances are you’re feeling guilty every time you think of setting boundaries in your relationship or focusing on yourself more. But you shouldn't. You are allowed to put yourself first. You are allowed to have your own values, beliefs, hobbies, and preferences.
You need to have your own, separate from your partner, life. That doesn’t mean you should shut them out but rather allow yourself to focus more on your own needs. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re not responsible for anybody else's life but your own, and your partner should accept that.
Set some small boundaries at first: It might take you some time to set clear boundaries and develop a healthier relationship, not to mention that the work can be challenging. Make sure you start by setting small boundaries first, that will make the transition easier for both yourself and your partner.
For example, you can start by asking your partner not to call you multiple times when you’re at work or out with your friends, or by being honest about your preferences and slowly stop saying “yes” to things you don’t like just for the sake of pleasing them (no more dining out to that Chinese place you hate!)
Talk to a professional: I get that the idea of going to therapy might make you feel uncomfortable, but it’s an option you should at least consider. Self-help books and articles are helpful, of course, but a specialized therapist will be able to guide and help you better understand yourself, your relationship, and how to change the latter’s dynamics.