Do you know what it means to be in an “enmeshed relationship”? A term coined by psychotherapist Salvador Minuchin (1975), enmeshment is defined as a dysfunctional relationship dynamic that lacks boundaries and limits personal autonomy, similar to codependency. As a result, one partner often sacrifices more than the other because they demand excessive attention and psychological support.
Enmeshed relationships are emotionally draining because they erode our sense of identity and rob us of our independence. Not only that, it also impairs our decision-making abilities and lowers our self-esteem. Our emotional state becomes so dependent on our partner and our relationship with them that we forget how to feel whole without them.
Worried you might be in an enmeshed relationship? Here are 8 warning signs to look out for:
1. You’re rarely ever apart from your partner.
Do you spend all your time with your partner and do everything together? Do people often joke about how you two are “practically attached at the hip”? While we may enjoy being with our significant other and spending a lot of time with them, it’s not healthy for us to be with them every second of every day and rely too much on one another for company, care, and attention (Herrick, 1992).
2. You constantly have to defend yourself.
Any time you try to assert your independence and do things on your own, your partner gets upset with you and starts a fight about it. They think that just because you want some privacy, space, or time to yourself it means you’re rejecting them or don’t want to be around them. They’re so threatened by your autonomy that you constantly have to defend yourself every time you spend time with someone else or want to do something for yourself. They often complain about how you put your career or your education ahead of your relationship and lash out at you for it.
3. You give your partner everything.
While it’s certainly normal to feel bad whenever you can’t help your partner out of a tough situation, it’s another thing entirely if you define your entire sense of self-worth by how useful you are to them. In every enmeshed relationship, there’s always a giver and a taker. The taker makes unrealistic demands and wants their partner to be at their every beck and call; while the giver bends over backwards to give the other everything they want. But no matter what they do or how much they give, it will never be enough.
4. You’re always compromising for them.
Think back on the last time you and your significant other reached a compromise. Was it really a compromise, or was it just you giving in to what they want to keep the peace? Do you often sacrifice your goals or violate your own principles for them? In a mature and healthy relationship, there’s a mutual respect for what the other wants, feels, and believes. But in an enmeshed relationship, it’s just one person making all the compromises to keep the other happy (Rosenberg, 2018).
5. You fix all their problems for them.
Every time your partner finds themselves in trouble, they immediately turn to you. No matter how small or easy to fix their dilemma is, they constantly lean on you, not for support or encouragement, but for your help. And you, on the other hand, take all their problems on as if they were your own. You’re always cleaning up the mess they make and never holding them accountable for it. They rope you into all of their needless drama and demand that you drop everything to come save them from the problems they create.
6. You never put yourself first.
Do you usually feel guilty for turning your partner down? Or ashamed for wanting to prioritize your own needs for a change? Well, you really shouldn’t! Never putting yourself first is a one-way ticket to co-dependency and it sends a message to both your partner and yourself that they should always come first (McGrath & Oakley, 2012). You do this every time you adjust your schedule to suit theirs; spend all your time with their friends instead of yours; and let them take charge of the relationship time and time again.
7. You take the blame for them.
If you feel responsible for the things your partner says or does, then you may be in an enmeshed relationship. Because people who are in an enmeshed relationship often start to take the blame for the mistakes their partner makes and feel guilty for the things they do. They make excuses for their significant other’s bad behavior and are too quick to forgive them for the wrong they’ve done. Too often are they blinded by the love and affection they feel for the other person that they would be willing to take the fall for what they’ve done while their partner walks away blameless.
8. You rescue them from their own emotions.
Your partner doesn’t know how to handle their own emotions without you around. They need you to hold their hand through everything and talk them down every single time they start to feel even the slightest bit anxious or upset. To them, you are an emotional crutch, a place to empty all their troubles and worries. And that would be okay, if only they weren’t so dependent and inconsiderate of you. Time and time again, they ask you to be there for them and attend to their emotional needs but never once stop to think about yours (Chen, Wu, & Lin, 2004).
So, do you relate to any of the signs we’ve mentioned here? Have you ever been in an enmeshed relationship with someone? If you’d like to learn more about this topic, you can read “7 Signs You’re in A Codependent Relationship” and “7 Red Flags in Dating To Look Out For.”
- Minuchin, S., Baker, L., Rosman, B. L., Liebman, R., Milman, L., & Todd, T. C. (1975). A conceptual model of psychosomatic illness in children: Family organization and family therapy. Archives of general psychiatry, 32(8), 1031-1038.
- Herrick, C. A. (1992, July). Codependency: Characteristics, risks, progression, and strategies for healing. In Nursing forum (Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 12-19). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
- Rosenberg, R., & LCPC, C. (2018). The human magnet syndrome: The codependent narcissist trap. Morgan James Publishing.
- McGrath, M., & Oakley, B. (2012). Codependency and pathological altruism. Pathological altruism, 49-74.
- Chen, S. C., Wu, L., & Lin, S. H. (2004). Study on relationships among codependency, intimacy competence and intimacy. Bulletin of Educational Psychology, 36(2), 145-164.