Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles

Singletude is a positive, supportive singles blog about life choices for the new single majority. It's about dating and relationships, yes, but it's also about the other 90% of your life--family, friends, career, hobbies--and flying solo and sane in this crazy, coupled world. Singletude isn't about denying loneliness. It's about realizing that whether you're single by choice or by circumstance, this single life is your life to live.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

How to Know You're Enmeshed and Reestablish Your Boundaries

Now that we know what enmeshment is, why do some couples become that way, and how do we recognize enmeshment when it happens to us?

The Roots of Enmeshment

The concept of enmeshment has a long tradition in a psychotherapeutic movement known as Family Systems Theory. This theory asserts that parents teach their children unhealthy ways of relating when they don't have clear boundaries within the family. In other words, the parents don't respect their child's individuality.

Crossing boundaries can happen in lots of ways. Maybe you've heard a frightened child whisper, "I'm scared" to her mother, only to have the mother answer, "No, you're not." Or perhaps you had a friend who missed football practice all the time because his newly divorced dad would imply that he was going to spend the whole night drinking if his son didn't stay home and keep him company. Anytime a parent violates a child's autonomy by imposing his or her own desires, emotions, or attitudes onto that child, that's enmeshment.

When children grow up in an enmeshed family, they learn that interpersonal relationships shouldn't have boundaries, and they carry this into their romantic couplings.

Another root of enmeshment is downright neglect or abuse in childhood. This doesn't even have to be neglect or abuse of the criminal variety. A fragile child can feel neglected if her parents work all day and have no time for her when they come home. He can feel unloved when his older brother is the golden boy and he's the black sheep. If a child doesn't have his needs for closeness and validation met when he's young, he winds up with a deep yearning to have those needs fulfilled in his adult life. One of the ways he may try to fulfill them is by entering a relationship with no boundaries because it feels like closeness.

How To Know You're Enmeshed

So how do you know if you're in an enmeshed relationship? Here are some signs to watch for:

1. Your partner monopolizes your time. It's natural to spend a lot of time with a new love interest in the first three to six months of dating. But if the six-month mark has passed and your friends are referring to you as that girl or guy they used to hang out with, it's time to reevaluate how you spend your time. It's not healthy for your whole social life to revolve around one person.

2. Your beliefs have changed since you started dating. Sometimes new people introduce us to ways of looking at the world that we never considered. But if you've done a 180 from your former perspective on religion, politics, or some other core belief, check whether it's because you're really convinced of your new viewpoint or because you want to believe and support what your partner says. Here's a test: If you broke up with your sweetheart, would you still attend his or her yoga class/Sunday school/Young Republicans rally/Alien Abductees Anonymous, etc.? If not, maybe you shouldn't be attending in the first place.

3. Your interests have changed since you started dating. As with your beliefs, your interests may be broadened by someone new in your life. Maybe you never knew you liked blindfolded pogo sticking until you tried it. But does it seem like you're now spending all your time pogo sticking and none doing the things you used to like before you started dating the world champion pogo sticker? If you answered yes, it's time to ditch the pogo stick.

4. You look different since you started dating. Your friends tap you on the shoulder, then giggle with embarrassment when your significant other turns around. In your matching outfits, with your coordinated haircuts, they can't tell you apart. You've morphed into Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. The same test applies: If you wouldn't be wearing that propeller beanie if Tweedle Dee wasn't, you need to dig deep into your closet and start wearing your own clothes again.

5. You never disagree with your partner. Do you find yourself biting your tongue every time the love of your life spouts an opinion that doesn't sit right with you? Do you rationalize his or her points even when they don't add up? If you can't agree to disagree with your partner, maybe you're too preoccupied with maintaining an illusion of unity.

6. He or she is the barometer of your emotions. If your boyfriend or girlfriend has had a bad day, it's natural to have sympathy pangs. But if you hurtle into the depths of despair every time he or she is in a bad mood, be careful. You shouldn't have to act out someone else's passion play.

7. The two of you make statements to each other like "I'd die without you" or "if I didn't have you, I'd have nothing." Statements like this aren't evidence of love. They're evidence of enmeshment. When you express sentiments like this, you're treading in Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake territory. Being entirely dependent on someone for your well-being is what babies do, not healthy adults.

Enmeshment can happen to anyone at any age and doesn't just affect romantic relationships. You can also become enmeshed with a friend or family member.

If you realize that you've become enmeshed with someone, there are steps you can take to reestablish your boundaries. You don't necessarily need to end the relationship, but you do need to develop a sense of who you are within and apart from it. And you need to insist that your partner do the same. Which brings us to...

How to Overcome Enmeshment

1. Rediscover yourself. Spend some time doing the things you used to do before you started seeing your partner. Did you like hiking? Pick a sunny day and go. Were you really into ambient music? Pick up some new CDs and listen to them while you go for a drive. If you still enjoy these things, you'll know that you only abandoned them for the sake of your girlfriend or boyfriend. Now, here comes the hard part...Make sure you set aside time to participate in activities you like every week. If your partner protests, you need to put your foot down and explain that you miss those things, that they're part of who you are, and that if he or she really cares about you, they'll want you to have things in your life that make you happy.

2. Introduce yourself to your partner. In enmeshed relationships, there's often an imbalance in which one of the members tends to adopt more of the other's beliefs, interests, and style. If you made yourself over in someone else's image, now's the time to introduce him or her to the wonderful world of you. The next time you make plans, invite him or her to do something that you like to do. Start sharing music, movies, and books that you love. If, on the other hand, you're the one who's been calling all the shots, you need to reach out to your sweetie and ask her where she'd like to go or what he'd like to do.

3. Speak up. If you disagree with your boyfriend or girlfriend, say so! It doesn't have to turn into the next Cold War if you do it gently and respectfully. If he or she can't handle that you don't share their love of sardine sandwiches, you're going to have a lot more problems than deciding where to go to dinner tonight.

4. Spend more time with your friends and family. Today, we assign way too much importance to romantic relationships. This is a historical aberration. Up until the beginning of the last century, the community was central, and a network of strong relationships was the norm. Many enmeshed couples neglect their friends and family. If this is you, you've probably been hearing about it for some time. Take action and surprise your long-lost friends with a call. Schedule time to hang out with them, with and without your significant other.

5. Talk to your friends and family about your relationship. Respect their opinions. Obviously, if one or two people haven't warmed up to your other half, you don't have to drop him or her faster than Britney Spears can drop a baby. But if there's a consensus that you've changed since meeting him or her, they could be onto something. Ask them how you've changed and pay attention to their answers. Sometimes an outsider can be more objective than you can. Remember that these people love you as much as your S.O. does--maybe more--and usually want the best for you. Let them be your reality check.

6. Seek professional help. If you can't seem to un-enmesh no matter what you do, you may need to talk to a counselor. A therapist can advise you on how to change or end an enmeshed relationship and can also help you figure out why you became enmeshed in the first place so you can avoid it next time.

Have you or others you know been involved in enmeshed relationships, whether with a dating partner or somebody else? If so, what signs of enmeshment did you see? What did you do to help yourself or the enmeshed person reestablish boundaries?

Other Sources
Blogs About: Enmeshment
"Enmeshment: Collusion & Toxic Relationships"
"Good Fences"
"Love, Marriage, and Enmeshment"

Fun Link of the Day


Anonymous said...

Well now, I never really figured that ladies had any true convictions of their own, convictions with styles of music, with types of film, that they were just waiting for the right man to "COME ALONG" to point them in "a" proper direction. It's kind of like a Tivo unit; they pick up, and adapt to "THEIR MAN's" tastes, thus becoming richer people because of it.

Just a thought,
Blister Herzog

Anonymous said...

Hi Love, What a great post! I have only scanned it briefly, but I so relate to and agree with what you are saying about family boundaries (or lack of) affecting our romantic relationships. I had to learn this on my own, but I did wonder at times if I was a bit cold or harsh, this helps me to see I am not. Once again it is nice to be validated by you and I am coming to realise that reading your blog may actually be conducive nay, necessary to a better life! I believe "Clever" Elsie is a very apt moniker. Something happened in my life very recently which means that my reading of this particular post is most fortuitous. You are doing a great job! C xxx

Anonymous said...

just for follow ups

Miss Independent said...

I loved this post it definitely was helpful to me! :). I just have a problem with some closed-minded people whom choose to leave sexist comments. This blog was clearly very well researched, great job! :).

susan said...

yes i agree it's all about boundaries. how can we be so blind as to miss these things. 20/20 hindsight aye!

devin said...

Great post: I never knew that enmeshed was the correct term for these types of relationships and the "signs to watch for" list is great: those are some serious points that everyone should be asking themselves when their relationship starts to get serious. Again, great info, tweeted and delicious'd.

Anonymous said...

Everything but the different opinions is me. I feel as though I'm not sure what's real love and what isn't anymore after reading this. I feel like I love my boyfriend so much, but so much it makes me a little crazy. I need help.