Enmeshment: What to do if you’ve become ‘enmeshed’ in a relationship

Caption: Enmeshment in a relationship: how to spot it and how to detangle yourself Picture Getty

If everyone thought the same, looked the same and dressed the same, life would get pretty boring.

So why is that, in some relationships, difference feels like the enemy?

We all know at least one couple who has all the same friends, hobbies, interests and even political views. 

Their opinions rarely differ and their lives have been melded completely into one. 

While on the surface, their lack of disagreements and seeming similarities might seem enviable, it can actually be quite a problematic way to conduct a relationship – and there’s a word for it. Enmeshment.

What is enmeshment?

Enmeshment is the term used in psychology to describe an ‘extreme overinvolvement and intense bond and closeness with a significant other at the expense of healthy individual identity and social functioning,’ Dr Steven Mahan, clinical psychologist and operational lead at The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, tells Metro.co.uk.

Enmeshment can happen in any kind of relationship, from a friendship, to a parent relationship, and, of course, a romantic relationship.

‘A person who is enmeshed with a significant other may struggle to function on their own or make their own choices without seeking constant support, reassurance, and/or validation, and have a desperate need to be emotionally close to their significant other,’ continues Mahan.

two sad love hearts tied together‘A person who is enmeshed with a significant other may struggle to function on their own’ (Picture: Getty)

‘In extreme cases they may believe they cannot survive without the enmeshed relationship.’

It’s important to note that being enmeshed is not the same as simply being emotionally close to another person; it’s much more unhealthy and is usually characterised by a complete lack of independence for both parties.

As Mahan explains, we can feel extremely close to someone in a healthy way without feeling we do not have our own unique needs, identity, goals and ambitions.

What are the main signs that you’re becoming enmeshed?

When a relationship has become enmeshed, there is a complete lack of healthy boundaries, and a partner’s needs are always prioritised above your own.

One sign, says Mahan, is ‘obsessively holding in mind their significant other’s thoughts, feelings, behaviours and wishes,’ while also all views, wishes and desires that are not consistent with the significant other’s. 

People who are enmeshed might mimic the behaviours and opinions of their significant other, which explains why some people may uncharacteristically change their view on a topic to match their partner’s. 

At this point, any disagreement from your partner will feel like a genuine attack or an indication that they no longer love you.

Two overlapping heads‘Enmeshment prevents our ability to feel confident and safe whilst being autonomous in our own behaviours and decisions’ (Picture: Getty)

Usually in an enmeshed relationship, one will have a ‘frequent or near constant contact with the significant other,’ says Mahan.

‘And, in extreme cases, other relationships may be sacrificed in favour of maintaining the bond with their significant other,’ he adds. 

It probably goes without saying then that enmeshment is toxic: ‘Enmeshment prevents our ability to feel confident and safe whilst being autonomous in our own behaviours and decisions,’ says Mahan. 

‘It starves us of a willingness to pursue our own interests and will inevitably result in emotional dysregulation and an impaired ability to cope with and tolerate distress.’

So, once you’ve become enmeshed, is there any chance of going back?

How to separate yourself from a significant other without breaking up

If you’ve realised that you’ve become enmeshed, but you don’t feel that ending the relationship is necessary, it’s important to remember that you can get your independence back.

‘In order for a relationship to result in healthy closeness, it is vital that both people maintain a unique and independent identity, pursuing their own interests and activities,’ says Mahan.

‘Independence and autonomy is good – having a healthy level of independence and individual identity is an extremely positive aspect of a relationship, and to feel guilty for wanting or needing this is unfair on yourself.’

Here are some steps you can take to stop being enmeshed:

Be open

Speaking openly about how you feel, as long as you feel safe to do so, is a vital first step in finding yourself again. 

‘This creates a space for openness and conversation and promotes an understanding of what is going on for you,’ says Mahan.

‘This allows you to express your feelings and to reassure others that to explore your own identity does not mean you love or care for them any less.’

Set boundaries

‘Learning to set boundaries to create physical and emotional space is vital for a healthy relationship,’ says Mahan. 

‘Being clear about what you need and why with both yourself and your significant other will help you both navigate and understand your needs.’

This can be as simple as having an hour a day where you do something just for you, or going out with your friends without your partner being with you.

Get to know yourself

People who are enmeshed might not have a very strong sense of self, which is vital if you want to be your own person. 

‘Exploring activities that pique your interest, or just activities you have never done before, could be a good place to start to explore what interests you,’ says Mahan.

‘Try a new hobby, explore a new restaurant, see what events are happening in your local area and attend alone or with people other than the person you are enmeshed with.’

There’s no need to rush this step, as getting out of your comfort zone might be daunting or intimidating. 

Mahan adds that, when you do engage in independent activities, it’s important to focus on the present moment rather than wondering about your significant other.

‘Remember, you will see them again soon and it is positive to be doing activities and pursuing interests outside of the relationship,’ he says. 

Psychological therapy

Finally, it might be a good idea to seek professional help.

This is because the roots of enmeshment often stem from traumatic experiences in childhood and problematic relationships from a young age. 

‘Exploring this with a qualified mental health professional can be invaluable in understanding why having autonomy in relationships can be such a challenge for you,’ says Mahan. 

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What to do if you've become 'enmeshed' in a relationship

He recommends Schema therapy, which is a type of therapy that helps you understand how childhood experiences can manifest as repeated patterns of problematic behaviour in adulthood – especially in relationships.

He adds: ‘Through understanding ourselves, we are in a much better position to consider healthier ways of relating to others.’

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