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What's So Bad About Feeling So Good?- The Problem With Enmeshment
Written By: Andrew Holzman


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Why doesn't she love me anymore? Why is it so hard for him to commit to me? I've never cared like this about anyone else and my heart is breaking. I only want her to love me. I let him have everything he wants and it's still not enough.

Do you find yourself asking any of the above questions of yourself or your partner and fearing the answers may be the "wrong" ones? Is your love relationship so powerful that you find it difficult to focus on other aspects of your life, such as your job, your kids, and your own needs? Are blame and competition the defining characteristics of your relationship? If your answer is yes to any of the preceding questions, then you may be in an enmeshed relationship with your partner.

Enmeshment can be defined as the totality of losing oneself in another. Enmeshment is a Co-Dependent relationship which focuses on the other person so completely that one's emotional state becomes totally affected by their partner's actions, words, or lack thereof. In this scenario, the enmeshed partner's personal needs are unmet and ultimately forgotten. Many famous songs and stories are written about enmeshment, which can also be referred to by its other name, Romantic Love. Ah, Love! The state of being we all strive for in our new relationships and remember fondly in our mature partnership.

Romantic love is that time early in the relationship when we may feel as if we live and die for our partner; it's when the workaholic takes time out to play, the shopaholic curbs their spending impulses, and both share experiences to treasure for a lifetime. This can be a time when the person who never watches televised games becomes a fanatical fan, when the homebody becomes an ardent traveler, when the self-involved brings flowers and remembers anniversaries. This is the time when two people become close; they share experiences, intimacy, and feelings. This is an incredible time for the individuals involved and serves to cement their connection.

My intention is not to dispel the notion that love is wonderful. I only wish to say that authentic love should take years, if not decades, to develop. An enmeshed relationship does not allow the bonds of true love to fully develop. Love requires time, maturity, and the experience of settling conflicts and setting good boundaries in a committed relationship. Enmeshment can feel wonderful but it is a "drug" with a downside.

Every couple that has entered my office points to the enmeshment time of their relationship with both pleasure and regret. Pleasure from the love and connection they shared, and regret for the profound loss they now feel because that time has passed and they are left feeling alone and disconnected. If the belief that the loss of an enmeshed relationship is the loss of love, then it's no wonder so many couples lose hope.

Even though it seems like true love, enmeshment is a different experience. Early enmeshment is important for a relationship, but with time, hurt and disappointment set in and the process becomes toxic. Those who try to stay totally enmeshed run the risk of alienating themselves and their partner. Manipulation can seem like caring, while control can seem like strength and safety. Enmeshment is not true love, but rather the unhealthy focus on another and a concurrent loss of one's own ability to have real impact. Enmeshment is a loss of freedom, of voice, and of self-worth. It masquerades as caring, loving concern and a neediness that shames the partner who cannot fill the others' childhood abandonment and emptiness.

An enmeshing personality looks to another to fix things, to make them happy, to rescue them from their pain. Dysfunctional enmeshment places a heavy burden on one partner to totally satisfy the needs of the other partner. Totally satisfy needs that are frequently either unspoken or expressed as an attack. Unspoken needs and feelings are difficult, if not impossible, to understand and satisfy. The husband who wants privacy after a long day of work and the wife working at home with the children often assume their partner knows what they need. Unspoken needs build up and then enter the relationship as an attack. Often the attack is indirect and passive-aggressive, masquerading as a cry for love. At other times the pain and cut-off has been brewing for so long that it explodes with rage and hurt feelings.

In a healthy relationship, the individuals are able to focus on one another without losing or compromising their sense of self. It is a dance in which the partners become close and then separate and become close again. Neither is threatened by their unrelated interests and neither change who they are, what they think or what they believe to please the other. In a healthy relationship, anything can be said because the connection is strong. Partners in a healthy relationship are connected to each other not out of the fear of falling apart and needing to hold on but out of knowing oneself well enough to want to be connected. They can be apart without falling apart and together without enmeshing and losing their individuality. A dysfunctional enmeshed relationship is based on fear; fear of loss, fear of abandonment. A healthier relationship is based on strength of will and strength of purpose. The partners are faithful and committed to each other, not out of fear of abandonment, but out of a strong sense of self and a commitment to their own personal ideals. In other words, love is about freedom; the freedom to be yourself and to still be cared about and loved for whom you are and what you believe, even if it's different from your partner.

Therapeutic recovery helps a person face their own needs and start to express them in a healthy way, rather than projecting feelings and needs onto the shoulders of another. Enmeshment can feel very good, but in the long term, it is not healthy for the relationship. Therapy is about finding your voice and trusting in the power of your self, even when the need to enmesh is powerful in the relationship.




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This article was authored by Family Tree Counseling Associates, a marriage, individual and family counseling center serving the Indianapolis, Carmel, Fishers, Westfield and Noblesville communities in Indiana. If you would like to contact us, please fill out a contact us form or call us at 317-844-2442.
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