Enmeshed relationships: what are they and why can they be so toxic?

Enmeshed relationships: what are they and why can they be so toxic?

Enmeshment can prevent true independence and developing a sense of self. So how can you spot it in your relationships?

Having a close family or a close relationship with your partner is a great thing.  For starters, studies have found that family cohesion can make people experience less external stress and better overall health. What’s more, closeness fosters connection, support and trust that all positively impact our wellbeing.

That being said, there needs to be clear boundaries on both sides for communication to be effective. So if you’re in a relationship where you always put the other person’s needs first and ignore your own limits, you might be in an “enmeshed” relationship.

First introduced by family therapist Salvador Minuchin over 50 years ago, enmeshment is a description of a relationship between two or more people in which personal boundaries are permeable and unclear. While it’s been widely theorised within families, it can also exist within romantic relationships and friendships.

“Enmeshment describes a relationship system where members are expected to think, feel and believe in certain ways based upon spoken or unspoken rules for interaction,” Marie Fraser, a clinical hypnotherapist, tells Stylist.

“Enmeshment ultimately prevents true independence and can prevent people from developing a sense of self, engaging in outside relationships and learning to self-regulate emotions. With enmeshment, you are brought up to see yourself as an entity, of ‘us’, instead of, being permitted to be your unique and wonderful self.” 

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“Creating a strong identity and sense of self is fundamental to our mental, emotional and spiritual development,” Fraser continues. “Not having a strong identity makes it impossible to function in a healthy way in our relationships. We may face issues such as neediness, social anxiety, toxic relationships, depression, low self-worth and co-dependency to name but a few.”

She goes on to identify six signs that your relationship may be enmeshed and require boundaries to be reinforced.

Enmeshed relationships: what are they and why can they be so toxic?

You suppress your own feelings or thoughts to avoid disagreement

The beauty of most relationships is individuality. However, in enmeshed relationships, it can be difficult to express your own opinion. This can look like avoiding healthy debates for fear of offending the other person or always saying yes even when you don’t want to. 

You feel anxious if there’s conflict

Nobody enjoys conflict, but most will agree that there are times when it can be necessary in order to work through things. However, if you find yourself scared to upset, disappoint or displease the other person, it could indicate a one-sided relationship that borders on enmeshment. 

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You experience the other person’s emotions as if they were your own

It may feel like a mark of relationship strength, but there’s a careful line to be toed when taking on another’s emotional burdens. It can also look like taking responsibility for the other person’s feelings, habits and choices or having no emotional space, time or privacy, which is a key sign of enmeshment.

You feel incapable of making a decision without their approval

It’s natural to want to try to do what’s best for your relationship unit and the expectations of our friends, partners and families can feel like a weight on our shoulders at the best of times.

However, finding great comfort in the fact that the other person thinks and acts like you and/or shares the same interests and views as you is a key sign that the relationship is enmeshed.

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Part of enmeshment, according to Fraser, is not having a strong identity. We begin to model everything in our lives around the other person: their likes and dislikes, as well as their individual needs.

“Ultimately, enmeshment is a form of control that can dissolve a person’s own emotional identity and individuality,” Fraser says.

Instead, start to look at what you think you need, both from yourself and the other person to feel more confident.   

You prioritise the other person’s needs above your own

According to Fraser, in this instance, one or both of you do not acknowledge the other’s boundaries and personal limits are regularly violated, ignored or ridiculed.

At the end of the day, no matter how much you care for someone, you have to come first. Your health, wellbeing and happiness is the ultimate priority, and anyone that doesn’t allow space for that is likely not a positive influence in your life. 

How to handle an enmeshed relationship

If you find yourself in such a relationship and want to change the dynamic, it is possible to do so, but Fraser emphasises that it will take time.

“Healthy relationships are founded on equality, mutual respect, open communication, honesty, trust and compromise. Parties in the relationship respect each other’s independence and can make their own decisions without fear of reprisal,” she says.

While the first step is to recognise what’s unhealthy, dependent and unfulfilling about the relationship, Fraser advises looking at setting foundational boundaries such as being treated with respect, sharing your feelings, stating what you need and spending time apart.

“Stating what behaviour is or is not acceptable to you and what your needs are can leave the other person in no doubt – and the situation is improved when both parties share their boundaries.

“Boundaries are specific and personal to you. No two people’s boundaries will be the same. Each and every relationship will demand a slightly different tweak and you cannot control how the other person will react to your new approach and boundaries.”

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