A Snapshot of Enmeshment


It's sometimes hard to know the difference between caring about your partner's experience and taking too much responsibility for your partner's experience and slipping into enmeshment.  Enmeshment refers to confusion about who is responsible for what.  This lack of clear boundaries results in attempts to manage the other person's experience as a substitute for managing your own.

When you think you are trying to contribute to your partner's well-being, but you are actually acting from enmeshment, there is tension and contraction.  This might be as subtle as a small forced smile or as obvious as telling your partner to be happy so that you can be happy.

With enmeshment, you notice your partner from a place of vigilance rather than attunement.  With vigilance you watch for any sign of threat or disequilibrium.  With attunement you look for opportunities to offer caring.  For example, if your relationship tends toward enmeshment, there's a good chance that you know (or think you know), unconsciously or consciously, the meaning of your partner's every micro-expression.  For every micro-expression that might indicate upset you think, "I have to fix that."  You might then immediately take some action in an attempt to shift your partner's mood or feeling.  You might imagine that you would get a break from managing your partner's experience when they are happy, but from the perspective of enmeshment, if your partner is happy, it's up to you to make sure you don't mess that up.  When your actions fail to manage your partner's experience in the way you want, reactivity in the form of anger, shame, blame, or shut down is usually the result.

Enmeshment is not typically one-sided.  That means that you are both likely working hard to manage each other.  This could be a recipe for losing connection with yourself and building resentment toward your partner. This is the cost of enmeshment over time.

When you truly want to contribute to your partner's well-being from the autonomous generosity of your heart, there is attunement, and a light expansive feeling.   If your attempts to contribute fail, you might feel some sadness or disappointment, but you don't become reactive.  You can remain present and connected to yourself and your partner and notice what's happening with care.

From a differentiated sense of caring, you can notice possible upset in your partner and remain centered in yourself.  You have a choice about how you will respond.  You connect with what's really true for you - an authentic desire to offer caring or a wish to tend to another of your needs in the moment.  You trust and know that your partner is responsible for their own feelings and needs.  You trust yourself to set a boundary if they attempt to blame you or make you responsible.  You trust your partner to take actions to care for themself in multiple ways, most of which don't include you.

In summary, to detect enmeshment notice the impulse to immediately respond to any upset in your partner accompanied by a sense of tension or contraction.  Also, notice any signs of reactivity when your partner is not having the experience (mood, feeling) you would like them to have.

Practice

If some of these signs of enmeshment are present in one of your relationships, set the intention to watch for this the next time you are with that person.  If you notice a sign of enmeshment, call a pause so that you can connect with your experience rather than immediately react.