What Is Enmeshment? How To Tell if You’re Too Intertwined With a Partner

Photo: Getty Images/ Hinterhaus Productions
Whether a couple is newly dating or in a long-term relationship, every relationship can look very different and still be healthy. For some people, it can mean being intimate, getting matching tattoos, training for a marathon, starting a business, traveling around the world, or buying a house together. It may seem like the strongest couples are always in sync when it comes to their likes and dislikes. But sometimes, people’s lives can become so intertwined that their boundaries are almost nonexistent.

Experts refer to this relationship dynamic as enmeshment. “It’s almost as if you can’t tell where one person begins and the other ends,” says Daryl Appleton, EdD, MEd, psychotherapist, and Fortune 500 executive coach. This dynamic can occur in all kinds of close relationships such as when a parent is overly involved in their child’s life, or a partner sacrifices their career goals to keep their marriage intact.

“When you’re in an enmeshed relationship, you tend to have a difficult time expressing your wants, needs, and boundaries due to wanting to please and not upset the other person,” says Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, LPC, owner of Evolve Counseling & Behavioral Health Services in Phoenix, Arizona. “You may describe yourself as very bonded or having a deep connection, though this often means there is a lack of individuality, independence, and self-sufficiency.”

What are some signs of an enmeshed relationship?

Imagine your partner is always running late, glued to their phone, or making jokes when you’re trying to have a serious conversation. These little quirks that seemed endearing at first can get on your nerves once you’re past the honeymoon phase. But when you don’t have clear boundaries with each other, any hint of discord can feel like a major test of your relationship.

Accordingly, enmeshed couples insist on being in perfect alignment, meaning “not wanting to rock the boat or have a difference of opinion,” Dr. Appleton says. “They have no distinguishing identity outside of being a couple.” Spending time apart makes them anxious, so it’s often just the two of them or they have the same friend group. They’ll give up hobbies or interests that don’t involve their partner.

Another way these couples avoid conflict is by “foregoing their own needs to please their partner,” Dr. Fedrick says. “Often, they have a difficult time separating their feelings from their partner’s feelings.” They not only empathize but also take on their partner’s emotions as if they were their own.

For example, if your partner comes home upset about work, their job stress becomes your problem. You’re likely to remain silent and avoid challenging your partner to adjust their attitude about work or find a new job. Your focus remains on making them happy even if it’s harming your mental health and your relationship.

Is this the same as being in a codependent relationship?

Enmeshment and codependency in relationships are related concepts that are sometimes used interchangeably. When relationship experts differentiate between them, they tend to use enmeshment to describe parent-child relationships and codependency for romantic relationships. Dr. Fedrick explains that there’s some validity to this distinction, but if a child experiences enmeshment with one or both parents, they can develop codependent behaviors and carry these into their adult relationships.

Both enmeshment and codependency describe “a relationship characterized by blurred or loose boundaries, as well as a loss of individuality and independence,” Dr. Fedrick says. When boundaries are unclear or lacking, people tend to engage in enmeshed behaviors like absorbing each other’s emotions, which can lead to a codependent relationship. How these concepts differ is that “enmeshment refers to the dynamic taking place for both individuals in a relationship, whereas codependency can be one-sided,” she adds.

Another difference is the level of dependency, which is usually more intense in a codependent relationship than in an enmeshed relationship. For example, codependent couples can’t make decisions without seeking their partner’s approval. It’s like they “need each other to function in dysfunction,” Dr. Appleton says.

How do you move away from enmeshment?

When all you see is a couple’s highlight reel on social media, it’s easy to lose sight of what the goals are for your specific relationship. Couples with healthy boundaries can withstand conflict and work through disagreements. In fact, differences are something you should celebrate, Dr. Appleton says. She encourages couples to spend time exploring areas of contention and practice communicating in a respectful manner.

Consider where you need to set boundaries such as when your partner is dumping their problems on you or making light of something that’s upsetting to you. It’s also beneficial to explore what’s motivating you to engage in enmeshed behaviors. Perhaps this is something you learned in childhood or stems from a fear of rejection or abandonment, Dr. Fedrick says.

Since your identity can get lost in your relationship, Dr. Appleton recommends carving out some alone time to reflect on your wants, needs, likes, and dislikes. “Take yourself on a date where the focus is on getting to know yourself and your identity as an individual,” she says. Plan an outing to revisit an old hobby or explore new interests on your own or with people other than your partner. Having these experiences apart allows you and your partner an opportunity to learn something new and have new experiences, she adds.

It can be scary and uncomfortable when you start working through enmeshment and codependency. Sometimes, these behaviors are “deeply rooted in our upbringings and our core beliefs,” Dr. Fedrick says. “When people are enmeshed, they become very accustomed to this dynamic and will likely push back when you start setting boundaries and trying to change your role in these relationships.” They’ll try to make you feel guilty for setting boundaries.

If you’re struggling with enmeshment, keep in mind that these behaviors are not going to change overnight. “Practice is key along with giving yourself time to adapt to new ways of being,” Dr. Fedrick says. She recommends seeking support from a mental health professional who can help you identify what’s driving enmeshed behaviors and how to connect with your partner in ways that don’t involve disappearing into the relationship.

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