To understand an enmeshed relationship, one first should understand what a healthy relationship looks like. Healthy relationships are designed to be give and take, with both partners working together to provide support, encouragement, and compassion during times of challenge, sadness, or problems.
In a healthy relationship, the couple flows between the role of being the supporter and being supported, providing a natural response to big and small issues in their life together.
In some cases, and often when one partner has addiction problems or when he or she is a narcissist, this give and take ends very quickly in the relationship. The addict or narcissist becomes the central figure, with the other partner relegated to providing all of the support.
The relationship is no longer balanced, and it is also no longer emotionally or mentally healthy for the partner required to do all of the giving. These relationships are sometimes known as enmeshed relationships.
The word enmeshed is defined as becoming entangled in something or becoming involved in a problematic situation where escape is complicated. In enmeshed relationships, one individual gives up her or his identity, sense of self, and even their happiness to try to satisfy the demanding partner.
Of course, the more attention and support they provide, the more the addict or the narcissist demands. This cycle continues, with the ability to pull away from the relationship, decreasing the longer the couple stays together.
The Experience of Being in an Enmeshed Relationship
Individuals who are in enmeshed relationships often do not realize how dysfunctional the relationship is. The narcissist or addict is careful to be charming, attentive, and even over-the-top in providing support and lavish attention during the initial stages of the relationship.
Then, over time, they pull away from the partner, distancing themselves emotionally, which drives the enmeshed partner to try even harder to recreate the ideal initial relationship.
Some of the key experiences in an enmeshed relationship include:
Hiding your feelings
People in enmeshed relationships learn to hide their emotions and feelings to prevent a negative reaction in their partner. This can include pretending all is fine, even if you’re emotionally hurt, or mirroring the emotion of the partner rather than expressing your feelings.
Bearing the burden of responsibility
Being enmeshed means taking on the responsibility of caring for the partner and making their life easier at your expense. This can include becoming more of a parent or caregiver than a partner, doing even the most mundane tasks to prevent anger or outbursts.
At the same time, you may not feel able to ask for help, which can quickly lead to feelings of being overwhelmed. The partner is oblivious to your needs and only seems to be able to make more requests and demand more of your time and attention.
Always together, never apart
While emotional enmeshment may occur slowly and over time, in the relationship, the physical enmeshment is a key factor from the beginning. The addict or narcissist works diligently to become the center of the world for the partner, gradually squeezing out friends and family who may point out his actions and the imbalance and dysfunction in the relationship.
In these relationships, the enmeshed individual may initially appreciate all the togetherness and attention, but it quickly creates a sense of isolation and dependency on the narcissist or addict for basic human interaction.
Drive for perfection
Many people who find themselves in relationships with addicts or narcissists strive for perfection. They often agonize over how to do everything right to avoid upsetting their partner. This is sometimes described as walking on eggshells, and it often leads to an obsessive need to control all aspects of a situation to manage the ideal level of perfection.
If these experiences resonate with you and the emotional issues in your relationship, you may be enmeshed with your partner. Talking to a therapist can help to untangle yourself emotionally, mentally, and physically from the narcissist or addict and start to focus on your healing and recovery.
It’s never too late to start again. The first step is identifying the reality of your relationship, and putting your own well-being first if you realize it hasn’t been. You can figure out everything else from there. Even if it’s hard, looking after you is your first responsibility!
Sherry Gaba helps singles navigate the dating process to find the love of their lives. Take her quiz to find out if you’re struggling with co-dependency, sign up for a 30-minute strategy session, or learn more about how to get over a break-up. For more information visit www.sherrygaba.com or sign up today for Sherry’s online group coaching program. Buy her books Love Smacked: How to Break the Cycle of Relationship Addiction and Codependency to find Everlasting Love or Infinite Recovery