Jenny and Julie were identical twins. As children they developed their own special language which nobody else could understand. They each seemed to know what the other was thinking and feeling to an intense degree, even when they were a great distance apart. When Jenny went into labour with her first child, Julie woke up at her home experiencing pain. Sounds a little eerie, yet we accept that when two children have shared a womb for nine months and are born with identical DNA, there will sometimes be this kind of uncanny bond between them.
But sometimes people share a bond when there is no biological connection between them, which surpasses what is healthy. Of course we all have people in our lives with whom we feel close – our partner, or parents, siblings, children or special friends. It’s in the nature of human beings to seek out a sense of belonging. So can there be too much of a good thing?
Occasionally, when two people are close, one or both of them start to lose their individual emotional identity. They may find that their own feelings and actions are increasingly determined by what is happening in the other person. Think of the overly-anxious parent who struggles to stop trying to solve every issue which their child ever faces. Or the older sibling who, from an early age has been expected to take significant responsibility for a younger child and then finds it hard to let go of the pseudo parenting role. In a romantic context, be wary of statements such as “You’re my other half”. “I couldn’t go on without you”. “You’re the centre of my world”. What sounds so loving can easily become about manipulation and control.
The result is that neither person finds the freedom to grow and develop either emotionally and socially. When the boundaries which separate one person from another become fuzzy this is what we call enmeshment.
So how can we break free from entangled relationships?
- Take a good look at the family you grew up in. (Your family of origin). Did people make excuses or cover up other family members’ weaknesses, addictions or failures? Was there a pattern of “rescuing” people and protecting them from the consequences of their choices and actions? Did family members lie to outsiders in order to preserve the image of the family which they wanted others to see? Was there an unspoken understanding that you had to walk on eggshells around certain family members and that they had to be kept happy at any cost? If the answer to any of these is yes, then there is a good chance that you have carried these same behaviours over into your own relationships. Being willing to acknowledge this and finding the courage to try a different choice, is the first step towards freedom.
- We also need to seek an outside perspective, from a trusted friend or a professional counsellor, who can help alert us to these patterns. We are often too close to be able to assess our behaviours objectively.
- Be honest about the fact that the choices you’ve made in the past have been linked to the payoff you receive from them. Does it make you feel wanted and needed to have someone dependent on you? Are you flattered by the feeling that you are “indispensable” to someone else’s wellbeing?
- Decide that you want to pursue love which is based on free choice, rather than on protection, control, manipulation or rescuing. It will be scary at first, but decide that you deserve what is authentic. True love sets free, it doesn’t bind up. It is safe not uncertain and scary. It is acceptance of who you are not merely valuing what you do.
- Be realistic about what your current relational patterns are costing you and the other person. If you are constantly rescuing or protecting the other person, you are robbing them of the opportunity to grow and to achieve their potential. What pressures are you placing on yourself by choosing to always be the people pleaser who has to do the “right” thing?
- Begin to set clear boundaries with the other person but make sure that you are willing and able to back them up. For example, tell your child who constantly forgets to take things to school, knowing that you will drop everything to take it to them, that you are no longer available to do that. Then take your hands off and let them experience the consequences. You can be sure they won’t thank you at first. After all you are refusing to carry them and are expecting them to take responsibility for their own life. But it is the start of setting you both free.
So if you recognise yourself in this article, do yourself a favour and recruit the services of a professional counsellor to help you on your journey out of enmeshment and into freedom.
If you need help in dealing with enmeshment, contact Alli at Point Of Change Counselling and make an appointment.