Relational enmeshment is a term mental health care providers use to describe a person who loses themselves in another person, who allows that individual to define them. Although it may seem that the enmeshed person is being controlled, this dysfunction can also be a coping mechanism, a way of controlling the more dominant person, a way of feeling powerful by rescuing and pleasing that person. We sometimes relate in this way because we think it’s “love,” but it is not. It will never give us the joy and satisfaction we seek. And in fact, it will bring us heartache.
Here are some steps we must take to break free of relational enmeshment and discover the freedom of true love
Realize the patterns in your family of origin, especially if one or more of your parents was alcoholic or addicted in some way. Often, an addict’s family enables them to continue destructive behavior, protecting them from the consequences of it by rescuing them, covering for them, and so on.
Ask a trustworthy friend for feedback about your relational patterns. When we're stuck in enmeshment, we sometimes refuse to listen to people outside the situation, who notice our unhealthy patterns. To break free, we must be willing to listen to feedback about how our rescuing and enabling actually hurts the person we’re trying to help. We must be open to the truth about ourselves.
Acknowledge the truth that pleasing and helping others, even when it keeps them from taking responsibility, makes us feel good. But ultimately, it’s detrimental to us, to the other person, and to our relationship. Facing the truth (that your helping is actually hurting) is an essential step toward healing.
Decide to trade the false love of enmeshment for real love. “True love is not wrapped up in a drive to rescue, overprotect, control, or manipulate. It genuinely wants the best for the other person,” Clinton writes in his book Break Through. “It is grounded in our heart’s desire to cherish, honor, and treasure another person simply because of who they are. ...True love offers a safe place to be you; it’s not driven by a desire to rescue or a need to perform. True love values the other person for who they are and celebrates healthy separateness.
Communicate clear boundaries to the other person. For example, if you’re in the habit of writing checks to your adult child when they get into financial trouble, this enabling behavior is keeping them from growing up. But warn them ahead of time that you won’t be doing that anymore. Tell them they will need to be responsible for their own financial life. Expect some resistance—after all, you’ve taught them an unhealthy dependence on you. Changing the pattern begins with clear communication.
Enforce those boundaries. An enmeshed person’s goal, whether they realize it or not, is to protect the other person at all costs—even if they’re protected from the consequences of their own bad behavior. A person with healthy boundaries allows others to experience the consequences of their own choices. But it may not be easy to stick to your guns. Be strong. Get help from a trusted friend or counselor to help you enforce the new boundaries you are setting.
•While stepping in to rescue or fix someone who's floundering may be tempting, we can sometimes short-circuit their personal growth. That means we're hurting them by trying to help.
•If we’ve never known real love, we may mistake enmeshment for caring. But it’s not the same. Here’s how to tell the difference. Relational enmeshment looks like this:
◦smothering a weak, needy person with too much attention and direction
◦giving in (meekly or defiantly) to the demands of a dominating person
◦taking responsibility for another’s choices instead of letting him experience the consequences of his decisions
◦losing your identity in someone else, being dominated by them, and taking on that person’s emotions, values, thoughts, and behaviors
◦switching roles with your children and expecting them to meet your emotional needs
◦building your relationship on power instead of mutual respect
•If you are in an abusive relationship or feel you're in danger, get out--get to a safe place and get some help.
•Expect resistance. If you've been enmeshed with someone and taking care of them, protecting them from the consequences of their bad choices, they may not like the idea of you changing your behavior. Stay strong, find support with healthy people
Break Through: When to Give In, How to Push Back. by Tim Clinton and Pat Springle. Nashville: Worthy Publishing, 2012.