Codependency is not something you can take a pill for. It is not something that you can quickly shed like a winter jacket. Codependency is an issue that starts early in life and will continue until an awareness and will is found to change things. This will needs to be found because enmeshment is something that codependents frequently use to feel secure in a relationship. Recovery from codependency means in effect that a “new” person needs to be found. One that is confident and secure in their own skin. More on that later. First, let’s look at enmeshment and what it means.
Enmeshment is a description of a relationship between two or more people in which personal boundaries are permeable and unclear. This often happens on an emotional level in which two people “feel” each other’s emotions, or when one person becomes emotionally escalated and the other person does as well. A good example of this is when one partner gets anxious and depressed and the other in turn, gets anxious and depressed. When they are enmeshed, one is not able to separate their emotional experience from that of the other.
Enmeshment is a term mostly associated with family therapy and therapists often talk of the “enmeshed family” where there is a clear inappropriate involvement in each other’s lives and emotions are mirrored. It mostly occurs between parent and child and makes it hard for the child to become emotionally independent, instead feeling that the parent’s feelings are more important. This leads to codependency in adult relationship. The causes of family enmeshment are varied and could come from overprotection of the child after illness or a traumatic event. More often, it is generational due to family patterns being passed down and family boundaries being too fluid or too rigid. Often parents find it hard to let their children become independent and the parenting style is designed to keep the children close.
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Enmeshment in relationships can happen between romantic partners (usually in codependent relationships), family members, friends, siblings as well as parents and children. It is in the area of codependency where I have seen it the most where codependents “lose” themselves in a relationship by mirroring the moods and decisions sensed from the other person.
“Healthy relationships are built on healthy emotional and physical boundaries,” explains Debra Roberts a licensed clinical social worker and communication expert. “People in healthy relationships are emotionally bonded, but they can function independently of each other. For example, they enjoy time alone and independent time with close friends. Someone in an enmeshed relationship is overly connected and needs to meet the other person’s needs so badly that they lose touch with their own needs, goals, desires, and feelings,” explains Roberts. “Often, just the thought of being without the person can be anxiety-producing.”
This quote describes many codependents I have come across who throw everything at “the one” to ensure the relationship continues, losing the sense of their own needs at the same time. Codependents would generally not do anything without the approval of their partner and for them it is all “we” and not “me”. They also find it hard to have friendships outside of the relationship and friends tend to be “our” friends.
Sometimes, in romantic relationships, one person will put their partner on a pedestal and think their needs and feelings are more important than their own. They become emotionally overwhelmed when their partner is upset and they respond as if the emotion or situation is happening directly to them. They cannot relax until their partner is “OK”.
In the case of codependents, enmeshment with others means a line has been crossed. Not only is there an abandonment of Self but the other person is taught to abandon themselves as well. When the pain and emotions of others are taken on, we allow the other to lean on us in unhealthy ways, when there should be more focus on moving forward in their lives by becoming more responsible for how they think and what they do. This is a codependent’s dream situation and difficult to solve as they actively look for enmeshment.
What can be done about this when a codependent happily seeks enmeshment to feel worthy and part of something. The first step is awareness and this often comes for codependents from the outside, either a family member, friend or therapist recognising the issue or in the aftermath of a break up. As enmeshment is all about porous boundaries, the obvious solution to the problem is to learn to set and maintain them, something that with most codependents needs practice and support. Unfortunately, the kind of people that codependents become involved with are the kind that do not accept boundaries generally. Mostly, recovery from enmeshment in a romantic relationship might mean leaving the relationship to allow change to happen.
This change will not come overnight as it means learning new healthy ways of connecting with others, boundaries and relationship values for the first time. Enmeshment might also have taken a toll on self-esteem, sense of independence and general mental health.
It is hard work but valuable work.