Healthy emotional and physical boundaries are the basis of healthy relationships. Enmeshed relationships, however, are bereft of these boundaries, according to Ross Rosenberg, M.Ed., LCPC, CADC, a national seminar trainer and psychotherapist who specializes in relationships.
Whether it’s a relationship between family members, partners or spouses, limits simply don’t exist in enmeshed relationships, and boundaries are permeable.
“People in enmeshed relationships are defined more by the relationship than by their individuality,” said Rosenberg, also author of the book The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us.
They depend on each other to fulfill their emotional needs, “to make them feel good, whole or healthy, but they do it in a way that sacrifices psychological health.” In other words, “their self-concept is defined by the other person,” and they “lose their individuality to get their needs met.”
For instance, an enmeshed relationship between a parent and child may look like this, according to Rosenberg: Mom is a narcissist, while the son is codependent, “the person who lives to give.” Mom knows that her son is the only one who will listen to her and help her. The son is afraid of standing up to his mom, and she exploits his caregiving.
While it might seem impossible, you can learn to set and sustain personal boundaries in your relationship. Boundary-setting is a skill. Below, Rosenberg shares his tips, along with several signs that you’re in an enmeshed relationship.
Signs of Enmeshed Relationships
Typically people in enmeshed relationships have a hard time recognizing that they’re actually in an unhealthy relationship, Rosenberg said. Doing so means acknowledging their own emotional issues, which can trigger anxiety, shame and guilt, he said.
However, making this realization is liberating. It’s the first step in making positive changes and focusing your attention on building healthy relationships, including the one with yourself.
In his therapy work, Rosenberg does a “cost-benefit analysis” with clients. He helps them understand that they have much more to lose by staying in an enmeshed relationship as is than by making changes and finding healthy relationships.
Rosenberg shared these signs, which are indicative of enmeshed relationships.
- You neglect other relationships because of a preoccupation or compulsion to be in the relationship.
- Your happiness or contentment relies on your relationship.
- Your self-esteem is contingent upon this relationship.
- When there’s a conflict or disagreement in your relationship, you feel extreme anxiety or fear or a compulsion to fix the problem.
- When you’re not around this person or can’t talk to them, “a feeling of loneliness pervades [your] psyche. Without that connection, the loneliness will increase to the point of creating irrational desires to reconnect.”
- There’s a “symbiotic emotional connection.” If they’re angry, anxious or depressed, you’re also angry, anxious or depressed. “You absorb those feelings and are drawn to remediate them.”
Tips for Setting Boundaries
1. Seek professional help.
A trained mental health professional can help you better understand your relationship and take you through setting and practicing healthy boundaries, Rosenberg said. To find a therapist, start here.
2. Set small boundaries.
Start practicing boundary-setting by creating small boundaries in your enmeshed relationship. When stating your boundary, avoid doing it in a shaming, accusatory or judgmental way, Rosenberg said.
Instead, emphasize your love without judging the person for being wrong, and “offer something in return.” Then make sure you follow through. This way you’re still responding to their need and respecting your own limits.
Here’s an example: Your family wants you to come over for Thanksgiving. But this is the third time in a row you and your spouse have been visiting your parents’ home, thereby neglecting her family. To express your boundary, you might tell your dad, “We can’t come for dinner this Thanksgiving because we’ll be spending time with Sarah’s family. But we’d love to stop by for dessert” or “Next year, we’ll do Thanksgiving with you.”
Here’s another example: A daughter goes off to college. Her mom expects to speak and text with her several times a day. Instead of telling her mom, “Mom, you’re suffocating me, and you need to back off,” she’d say: “I know it means a lot for you to talk to me, and you’re doing this out of love, but I really need to focus on my studies and spend more time with my friends at school. Since I enjoy talking to you, let’s talk twice a week. Then I can catch you up on all the great things happening here.”
Setting boundaries this way avoids the negative cycle of enmeshment: Saying that you feel trapped by your parent’s expectations only triggers their anger or passive aggressive reaction (which Rosenberg calls a “narcissistic injury.”) They exclaim that “No one loves me,” which then triggers your shame and guilt, and you let them bulldoze your boundary.
3. Create connections with yourself and others.
“[P]ractice being alone and spending time by yourself,” Rosenberg said. “Work on the parts of your life that make you feel unhealthy, needy or insecure. And come to an understanding that your complete happiness can’t be met with one person.”
He also suggested reaching out to others and developing meaningful relationships; calling friends; making lunch dates and going to the movies.
“Find something that brings you passion, and you’ve kind of lost because of your over-involvement in the relationship.” For instance, volunteer, join a club, take a class or become active in a religious institution, he said.
“Life is too short to be insecure and fearful and tied down to [an unhealthy] relationship.” Learn the skills to create emotional and physical boundaries, and consider seeking professional help. Foster fulfilling relationships, but don’t let them define who you are.