If you’re in a relationship where you always put the other person’s needs first, you might be in an enmeshed relationship. But it’s possible to break old habits and set healthy boundaries.
Having a close family or a close relationship with your partner can be a great thing.
In a highly cohesive family, members behave warmly and supportively toward one another while also encouraging individual independence and decision making, according to
“Healthy relationships are built on healthy emotional and physical boundaries,” explains Debra Roberts, a licensed clinical social worker and communication expert.
“People in healthy relationships are emotionally bonded, but they can function independently of each other. For example, they enjoy time alone and independent time with close friends.”
Not all close relationships are like this. In other words, it’s possible to be too close. This is called an enmeshed relationship.
“Someone in an enmeshed relationship is overly connected and needs to meet the other person’s needs so badly that they lose touch with their own needs, goals, desires, and feelings,” explains Roberts. “Often, just the thought of being without the person can be anxiety-producing.”
Enmeshed relationships can occur between:
- parents and children
- romantic partners
- family members
According to Kimberly Perlin, a licensed clinical social worker, enmeshed romantic partners might be so connected that they make all decisions together. They don’t do anything the other one would disapprove of, and they feel responsible for managing each other’s problems and feelings.
“It is all we, and no me,” she explains. “They often do not have independent friendships outside the relationship. Either the friend is ‘our friend,’ or they are not a friend.”
Sometimes, in romantic relationships, one person will put their partner on a pedestal and think their needs and feelings are more important than their own.
“Each partner becomes emotionally overwhelmed when their partner is upset,” Perlin continues. “They respond as if the emotion or situation is happening directly to them. They cannot relax until their partner is ‘OK.'”
Enmeshed families are most likely tightly knit families where everyone lives nearby, says psychiatrist Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios.
Enmeshment can occur between parents and children, siblings, or several family members together. These relationships always involve a blurring of boundaries, a displacement of other normal relationships, and feeling like they “feel” each other’s emotions.
Sometimes it results in a feeling among family members that they can’t express their own needs or opinions if those needs or opinions don’t align with those of the rest of the family.
“Family members who are enmeshed often do not respect boundaries and expect to have a vote on family members’ decisions,” explains Perlin. “They can expect to dictate their adult children’s career, parenting decisions, romantic relationships, or social media posts.”
For example, enmeshed family members might see a child moving to another city as a betrayal of the family.
Meanwhile, Perlin says, “Adult children [in enmeshed relationships] can think they have a vote on their parents’ marriages, financial decisions, or choice of friends.”
In enmeshed families, “parentification” can sometimes occur, where parents rely on their children to take care of them or the rest of the family.
“[This] can be rooted in divorce where the parent felt vulnerable and sought comfort, love, and connection from their child,” explains Roberts. “Or the parent is excessively worried about their child, and their extreme over-protectiveness results in unhealthy dependency.”
Adolescents from enmeshed families may be more likely to experience emotional dysregulation, such as negative moods and lower tolerance to distress, according to
“Those who grew up in an enmeshed family are more apt to recreate unhealthy, codependent relationships as they get older,” explains Roberts. “Enmeshment is often rooted in a dysfunctional family dynamic that is recreated generation after generation. We tend to recreate what we already know.”
You might be in an enmeshed relationship with a partner or family member if:
- you don’t feel in touch with your feelings because you’re concentrating on another person’s needs
- you believe it’s your responsibility to save, protect, or serve another person — or someone is treating you that way
- you’re giving up hobbies or interests to adapt to the lifestyle or expectations of another
- your relationship determines your happiness, self-esteem, or sense of self
- you experience another person’s emotions as if they were your own
- you’re replacing other relationships with your partner’s or family’s
- you suppress your own feelings to avoid disagreement or conflict
- you feel anxious or scared if there’s conflict and do whatever you can to resolve it
- you can’t make a decision without your partner or family’s approval, or when you make an independent decision, you face backlash, guilt, or shame
- you feel uncomfortable spending time away from your partner or family
- there’s a lack of privacy between you and your parents, family, or partner
If you know you’re in an enmeshed relationship and you want to change the dynamic, know that it’s possible.
Establishing healthy boundaries can improve your relationship. Just remember that it will take time.
“It will not happen quickly because enmeshed habitual patterns are tough to break,” says Roberts. “But it is possible as long as [both parties] are consistent in their efforts.”
Here are some tips that might help you make changes and develop a healthier relationship.
Recognize the problem
Before you can make any change, you’ll first need to recognize what’s unhealthy, dependent, and unfulfilling about your relationship.
“It’s helpful to engage in self-reflection to understand the impact the enmeshment has had on [your] overall well-being,” says Roberts.
Pay attention to your feelings, and honestly assess the patterns you have fallen into as part of this relationship. That will help you decide what to do next.
Decide your boundaries
In other words, decide what you think you need for yourself and what you need from the other person in order to feel better about yourself and improve your self-esteem outside of the relationship.
“Some important foundational boundaries should be addressed first, such as being treated with respect or being allowed to share feelings,” says Roberts. Then, “the boundaries should allow for time apart and time to express what [you] both need.”
Communicate your boundaries fairly
“Make it clear to your partner or loved one why their reactions or expectations are not working for you,” says Perlin.
It may work best to be kind and respectful but direct about what you want to change.
It can be helpful to start by explaining what you will change in your own behavior rather than starting off by telling the other person how you need them to change. This will help the other person perceive the boundary-setting exercise as less accusatory.
Be prepared for pushback
You can’t control how your loved one will respond to your new boundaries, but it can be helpful to practice your responses to their potential objections.
Remember, enmeshed habits are hard to break, and it may be challenging for both of you to adapt to the change. However, remember that your personal success doesn’t depend on their response.
Over time, you might want to try and “develop a tolerance to disappointing or frustrating your loved one,” explains Perlin. “Recognize it is not your responsibility to cure every feeling your loved one has.”
Try starting small
Consider starting by scheduling a short period of time apart. Then, as that becomes more comfortable, you can gradually increase the duration. You might want to also encourage your loved one to do the same so that both of you are working on your own needs at the same time.
In addition, “You may need to learn to say ‘little no’s,'” says Perlin. For example, you might start by saying, “No, I don’t want Chinese take-out, I’d rather do Italian or Mexican,” as a way to ease into saying no more to your loved one and expressing your wants more.
Consider asking for help
If you’re having trouble standing up for yourself or breaking old habits, it can be helpful to reach out to a therapist. They can help you reflect on your relationship and unhelpful patterns and work with you to establish boundaries and make a plan to change your relationship dynamics.
You can also consider relationship therapy or marriage counseling if your partner is willing to attend therapy with you. This could help you both work together toward change with the help of an intermediary.
Read more about online therapy options here.
Sometimes ending the relationship is the best option
“When both [people] recognize damage and deeply desire [to change], there is a lot of room to grow,” says Perlin. However, “when folks lack motivation, insight, or flexibility, the prognosis isn’t quite as good.”
In that case, you might want to consider separating from your partner or loved one in order to set healthy boundaries and prevent the relationship from growing toxic or excessively controlling.
“If the other person is uncooperative or does not recognize the need for change, or is incapable of change, a separation would be recommended to lead a healthier life,” says Roberts.
Being in an enmeshed relationship can take a toll on your self-esteem, sense of independence, other relationships, and overall mental health.
However, you can break out of unhelpful patterns. It starts by recognizing what’s harmful about your relationship and having the will to change and establish healthy boundaries.
Change doesn’t come overnight. However, if you’re committed, you can develop healthier relationship dynamics — and if you’re struggling, therapy or marriage counseling can help.